The Future of the Workplace

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global labour markets has been well documented. But as short-term adjustments like staff furloughs and work-from-home directives give way to the longer-term consequences of this generation-defining event, we ask: what is the future of the workplace – and what’s our place in it?
Diane Nowell
Dec 13, 2021

The world’s frontline workers – in medical settings, stores, banks and hospitality roles – have continued to show up throughout the crisis, albeit amid the rapid influx of adaptations like the introduction of routine mask-wearing, safety screens and physical distancing.

Even in these public-facing environments, however, the interim behavioural changes prompted by concerns over virus transmission, including a significant shift to ecommerce and other digital transactions, may well persist well into the future. And, where remote working opportunities were more fully embraced during lockdown – especially among office-based populations – a large-scale transition to a hybrid model is likely.

A hybrid future?

A recent study by McKinsey on the future of remote work estimated that up to a quarter of the workforces in advanced economies could work from home (in either a part- or full-time capacity) without loss of productivity, representing a four- or five-fold increase on pre-pandemic figures.

Several major companies, including Twitter, have announced permanent work-from-home policies, while others are targeting a more fluid hybrid approach. In a CNBC survey of top US companies, only a third were contemplating a return to an ‘in-person-first’ policy.

It’s a move that could carry benefits for employer and employee alike, as staff enjoy greater flexibility and a reduced commute, while businesses save on fixed overheads. Another McKinsey report from last year showed that companies were already planning reduce office space by 30 percent after experimenting with more flexible workspaces during the pandemic.

The hybrid model isn’t without its challenges, though, especially for leaders who may need to radically rethink their current approach. At Headspring’s recent Learning Xchange event, Susanna Mander, Global Director of Brand Marketing for Melia Hotels International commented:

‘Business leaders need to understand how to manage teams – and the people within their teams – in this new hybrid model. Micromanagement isn’t possible; instead, they need to build trustful leadership and understand how the right motivation can result in greater productivity.’

The new office culture

While most people have welcomed a less rigid approach to their work tasks, many still miss those elements of office life that helped them to be more productive.

According to an extensive global workplace study by Steelcase, some respondents felt a physical presence in the office allowed them to focus better on the tasks at hand and more effectively collaborate with others, as well as providing easier access to tools and resources.

The office can provide a sense of community that correlates with greater productivity, engagement and innovation. While many tasks can be completed remotely, some are better managed in person – including business negotiations, brainstorming/ feedback sessions or onboarding activities. If colleagues feel a shared sense of purpose, they are also more likely to see common accountabilities and experience a sense of collective resilience.

But employers may have to be more sensitive to their teams’ needs, prioritising accessible and safe facilities in commutable locations close to other amenities – especially if they want the best chance of holding on to talent in the long term.

Mirjam Baijens is the Global Head of Talent and Development at Schindler. At the Headspring Learning Xchange panel, she spoke of the need to take an equitable approach towards the office/ remote challenge:

‘Finding the right balance for the future will mean developing more flexible options to attract different talent. Remote working has been successful, but the situation will continue to evolve as the office increasingly becomes a space to connect and socialise rather than for day-to-day business.’

A different kind of leadership

Effectively managing a distributed workforce – one that could include both internal and external resources – with fluctuating team dynamics will require leaders to adopt a more holistic approach, promoting practices that temper fairness and flexibility with individual and team accountability, providing employees with the inspiration and support they need to optimise their contribution.

Mohammad Al-Sharhan is Global HR Director of EQUATE Petrochemical Company. At the Headspring Learning Xchange event, he emphasised the importance of supporting employee wellness as businesses rebuild and recover.

‘Leaders must change how they measure performance: the practice of managing by seeing how people are working is doomed. We must foster wellness by providing employees with the opportunity to work in different ways.

‘People are now more comfortable connecting virtually but we know that checking in – asking “How are you doing?” – comes up more easily in a social setting. In a hybrid reality, we may have to be more deliberate in our interactions.’

In fact, deploying a more trusting, inclusive and compassionate leadership style is likely to be at the heart of organisational gains in the coming years, as leaders find themselves having to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Feeling – and expressing – empathy for the human cost of economic and social upheaval, providing emotional, as well as practical, support to all the people in your ecosystem, and communicating openly and transparently, could be the keystones to sustained recovery.

Making a fresh start

People who emerge from a crisis want to feel a part of something meaningful. When the pandemic recedes, the most successful organisations will be those that have prioritised purpose, creativity and resilience – even over investments in technology.

The future of the workplace has the potential to be more than the endless realignment of people and property. We can seize this moment to transform our approach to work, leadership and culture – wherever workers are based. Building a strong community that transcends physical and geographical barriers is the real prize as it will support the higher levels of engagement, productivity and innovation that will empower companies – and their people – to thrive now and in the future.


Panel: The Future of the Workplace

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant