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Variations on New Normal for Workplaces

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Over the last year office work has shifted to almost completely remote, and as vaccination programs roll out around the world it is shifting again. There is a lot of speculation around what the new normal will look like, with the only consensus seeming to be that it won’t be the same as how work was done in the pre-pandemic times. Employee well-being, flexibility in working arrangements, availability creep, virtual and augmented reality are all factors impacting what work could look like going forward.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) says that the priority for workplaces going forward must be well-being. Employee mental health has been severely impacted through the pandemic. A McKinsey survey points to diverse groups—including women, LGBTQ+ employees, people of color, but also working parents—having the hardest time, and these impacts won’t simply go away because people are able to get together in person again. According to the WEF:

  • Businesses should treat well-being as a tangible skill, a critical business input and a measurable outcome
  • Forward-thinking companies will embrace well-being as an index of learnable actions and daily behaviour
  • By talking about well-being and backing it with action, leaders can eliminate a work culture that implies work should come before personal needs

A Forbes article emphasises the importance of flexibility around working arrangements. They point out that flexibility can reduce some of the imbalances in the workplace.

This lasting change is important because the flexibility from telecommuting can increase gender equality. It’s well-known that when fathers and mothers must choose between work or family obligations, mothers are more likely to interrupt their career to care for their family. Having this greater working flexibility can make it easier for women to balance their family and professional obligations.

A dangerous trend is availability creep - with more remote work and flexibility it’s easy to slip into bad habits around disconnecting and the lines between work and personal time become blurred. An article in The Conversation talks about the importance of ensuring the right to disconnect. The author points to the value of flexibility and the benefits of remote work, and admonishes:

However, this change has a dark side. Digital work and work-from-home have shown themselves to drive long hours of work, and to pollute rest and family time. Poor sleep, stress, burnout, degraded relationships and distracted carers are part of the collateral damage.

The article cites examples of countries and companies where the Right to Disconnect is being entrenched in employee law or built into employment contracts, and suggests that this trend will continue with more legislation and employees being deliberately and consciously unavailable outside of agreed working hours.

Another factor in what’s next is related to advances in communications technology. Too much video conferencing has already been shown to have negative impacts, and Zoom Fatigue is a real thing. A recent Strategy & Business article titled What if the hybrid office isn’t real? explores the use of VR and AR technologies as the logical advancement of meeting technology. The author, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, describes the experience of a VR meeting:

This was my first meeting in VR, but in truth, it was also the first in person meeting I’ve had in months. The most remarkable thing about it was that it felt like it was in person, much more than the video chats and phone calls that have been sustaining my professional and social life through the last year of intermittent lockdowns and distancing. It felt like I’d actually left my house to meet up with other people.

Wired published an article in which they explore the experience of meeting in VR and make the point that VR Meetings Are Weird, But They Beat Our Current Reality. Likewise, a Vox article talks about how augmented reality meetings feel much more like real life in person events.

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