NEW NORMAL - Is finding a 'new normal' in the workplace impossible?
It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from work in 2022, especially with recent developments. Experts predict what we may be up against.
We’re entering the third year of a global pandemic that’s brought unprecedented changes to work.
Despite many employers’ hopes, a full-time return to office-based work is looking highly unrealistic as the omicron variant pushes back return-to-office plans once again for millions of workers. And, given the way the current labour market shifted power to employees, pre-pandemic work structures are likely to become a relic.
Amid constantly shifting circumstances, it’s hard to pin down where we might find ourselves in 12 months’ time. But experts who study employment and the workplace have identified a few trends that are already giving shape to the way we’ll be working in the coming year, and may just be a window onto the future of office life.
Shorter workweeks may happen – but they could create division
A call for shorter workweeks and condensed hours has been gaining traction around the globe, with companies and entire governments alike already exploring this alternative.
It’s necessary to shake up the structure of when we work, says Abigail Marks, professor of the future of work at Newcastle University Business School, UK. The 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek that emerged during the Industrial Revolution – the last time work changed so dramatically – is no longer sustainable, she says, due to the “increasing pace of work necessitated by video conferencing software and continued online presence”.
Marks adds: “Business and policy makers are keen to explore measures that may ‘mitigate’ the over-burdening of employees, whilst hoping to retain this increase in productivity. The solution that is constantly mentioned is the four-day working week.” And condensed hours may mean better mental health and work-life balance for many workers.
Though it looks like there is hope for the four-day workweek to gain steam in 2022, says Marks, measures like these aren’t a silver bullet for all employees.
Bespoke perks could become the main attraction
This means employers may need to take a different tack for hiring workers – and keeping them in seat – than they did in the past.
Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, US, who coined the term ‘Great Resignation’, says job personalisation could be the key to worker satisfaction – and retention – this year. “In 2022, we will see employers catering more to employees’ needs and desires in order to engage their current workers and attract top performers from other firms,” says Klotz.
It’s not only good business sense – flexibility and accommodation is becoming a perk workers expect from their employers. “This imbalance in worker demand and supply means employees and job seekers have elevated power to ask for more,” says Glassdoor’s Sullivan.
As a result, companies will roll out more “personalised tactics for managing employees”, says Klotz. “Instead of one-size-fits-all development programmes, companies have begun investing time and resources into co-crafting bespoke career paths with individual workers.” Sullivan also cites increased wages, student loan assistance and expanded parental leave as potential benefits employers may add to attract top talent in 2022.
Workers won’t be heading back to the same offices
When some workers finally do return to the office – whether in 2022 or down the road – many will find the layout and function to be completely different. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, US, says companies will reconfigure spaces this year to meet the needs of a newly hybrid workforce, and accounting for how people actually want to work when they’re together in person: collaboratively.
In other words, the pre-pandemic office doesn’t work the way employees in 2022 need it to.
Since some companies that have rolled out hybrid models bring in certain teams into the office on the same day each week, Bloom says co-ordination is going to be the name of the game this year, and more offices will make permanent layout changes to facilitate this.
Even as rent stays sky-high in practically deserted city centres, companies still want workers utilising those buildings, especially as hybrid work will likely dominate 2022. It’s “impossible to shrink the office footprint,” says Bloom, even after all the ways our working lives have been destabilised the past two years.
A continued walk into the unknown
Despite all our best predictions, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Many analysts were predicting a return-to-office movement by summer 2021, as vaccines became more widely available – but that target continued to move. Variants like delta protracted public health concerns and remote work didn’t end. Zoom meetings remained the daily standard for millions of workers around the globe.
That’s why experts say it’s best to keep expectations low in 2022 – even as we continue to march towards whatever we think ‘normal’ will be. “We must do this despite the lack of consistency and predictability,” says Blanchard. “We know that we will start, pause and have to restart."
What we do know, she says, will be that public health interests will continue to dominate agendas in 2022. And there’s one other given: “We know life will be messy and crazy.”
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