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Reinventing the Workplace

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June 19, 2023
Labor | Management
Michael Schubach

This year I am celebrating five decades in the American labor force. Perhaps “celebrating” is the wrong word, but it’s been fifty years no matter how I try to spin that announcement. I’m left with one undisputable fact: I’m elderly. In and of itself, being elderly is not the problem, but as I look back across the decades that led us out of the wilderness of the previous century, I can’t help but wonder if my perceptions of the workplace are hopelessly dated and wildly out of step, or ... or maybe just correct. Indulge me while I opine on the state of things, and you can be the judge.

I first went to work in an era where work took place at work. That dividing line alone enforced a reasonable work-life balance. My communication technologies – email and the telephone – were firmly anchored to my desk, and they both magically stopped ringing when I left the office for the day. This century, there have been mobility advancements that are changing the levels of participation, productivity, loyalty, and retention. Although the circumstances that brought those forces into play were completely understandable and very predictable, the results aren’t necessarily for the better. Perhaps this is the time to course- correct for some of our previous notions and actions.

The first factor to consider is the unintended consequences of the pandemic – not as an agent of innovation, but rather as an accelerator of existing technologies. The twenty-first century version of the Bubonic Plague was not so much a case of history repeating itself, but more of a modern-day reminder that pride goeth before a shutdown. What we experienced was a sudden and massive spinning up of our infrastructure to enable as many coworkers as possible to work from at least six feet away. For hospitality’s frontline workers, this hastened the implementation of touchless technologies, which were not new but had not been that compelling (or necessarily that cost effective) in the pre-pandemic world. For the behind- the-scenes hospitality workers, particularly IT professionals, shuttering down traditional office environments meant across- the-board telecommuting, also known as “working remote,” also not new. Both changes have lingered, but touchless technologies seem to be the easier fix for the post-pandemic world, and the most likely to survive as the enduring silver lining of the Covid cloud. It is the issue of remote work that still has the jury out.

In previous articles I have argued this case both directions – working remote helps reduce the brick-and-mortar requirements of the modern workplace and it helps the environment by reducing traffic, energy consumption and wasted time commuting to and from a fixed location for work. For the IT team, it reinforced what we already knew – the job can be done from anywhere. Moreover, worker independence is a sign of both the trust and the accommodation of flexibility that can be evoked to restore a better work-life balance.

Not surprisingly, once the working population tasted the forbidden fruit of workdays that don’t have to be spent at the workplace, it’s tough wrangling them back into the office. Although the remote- work genie may have gotten out of the bottle, it appears that s/he is in the process of being stuffed back in. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Work-From-Home Era Ends for Millions of Americans” (Gwynn Gilford, March 25, 2023), the 2022 data shows a seventeen percent drop in the remote workforce over the 2021 data. That translates to approximately twenty-one million workers who returned to full-time office occupancy.

I would suggest that the primary driver of that change comes from employers who seek to restore normalcy to the workplace. Coincidentally, it also happens to allow them to rid themselves of feared losses in productivity that they attribute to associates having handy access to a couch and a television during business hours.

Is that fear completely realistic? Not according to recent studies from multiple sources, including the Harvard Business Review. It appears that remote work productivity can yield as much as the equivalent of one more day worked per week, and remote workers can be as much as forty-seven percent more productive than their office-bound counterparts. Other studies indicate that remote workers take less time off and are less likely to resign. Imagine the cost savings employers realize when they can increase associate retention by even fractions of percentage points. As an additional bonus to the planet as well as to the participant, associates who work remotely can save up to $4,500 annually in commuting costs. These are very attractive, low-cost options for a world facing increasing salary demands and inflationary costs.

If all this is true, why is there such a rush to return workers to the workplace? I’ve run across a variety of reasons. First, the practice of letting IT work be done remotely can seem intrinsically unfair when there are so many jobs that can only be done at the workplace, particularly in hospitality and tourism. It doesn’t seem likely that technology will provide an effective pathway for service industry workers to go remote anytime soon, which means someone occupies the on-premise barrel for the foreseeable future. If someone having to work at the workplace is unfair, then the unfairness will continue, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that a more self-sufficient segment of the industry jumps into Future Forward. Let’s also pretend that in the next decade enough technological changes will come to the market to enable all business travel to accommodate fully automated processing. Even if that were to happen, I can’t imagine other travel segments being ready, willing or able to do the same. Those who travel for life experiences seem highly unlikely to embrace a human free, self-service journey. It would be easier to just stay at home and organize a conference call to watch a travel video.

Second, remote work really isn’t for every IT professional.

The benefits of being remote won’t compensate for many of the losses, such as in-person collaboration and effective mentorship. Millennials, particularly those who are newly degreed and light in on-the-job experience, need time in an interoperable environment. Here the twentieth-century office model was much more efficient. The millennial workforce might crave the personal freedom of working remotely, but they and their employers are the least likely to benefit from it.

The true beneficiaries are those with marketable skills who struggle with work-restrictive issues such as eldercare, childcare, mobility, and access. These are the workers who become fully employed by staying fully at home. Here the twenty-first century remote model brings more talent to the market and provides more opportunity for the underemployed.

Don’t forget a tiny key phrase that I slipped in on you several paragraphs above: the job can be done from anywhere. If that is truly true, then no one should be surprised if more and more IT positions are subcontracted out to less expensive solutions than an American human resource with an IT degree.

Up above I also suggested a possibility that business travel could become a self-service industry. I think that’s more of a “coming soon” reality than most people suspect; after all, road-warriors are people who travel with the hope of avoiding experiences rather than having them. Making “get there, get it done, and get home” travel self-service – or, even better, an AI- assisted service – would improve a road-warrior’s life and justify the loyalty club memberships that offer it. Bigger still are the variations that such possibilities – or, better yet, let’s call them ‘pending realities’ – will bring to the workplace. Even the twenty-first century models that are working best right now aren’t necessarily guaranteed that much of a future.

The most insightful advice I ever heard for embracing a future rife with pending realities was “never bet against technology.” Change is coming, and the pace of delivery is accelerating, ergo the workplace will continue to evolve. Combine the rapid delivery of smarter technologies with my observations that remote work isn’t for every class of IT worker, and that self-service travel isn’t for every class of traveler, and I think you arrive at the more accommodating paradigms of the future. Our focus needs to be on tailoring work environments not so much by job description, but rather by – and for – the unique individuals within each class. Today, we do something similar in mass marketing, and we should be able to apply similar concepts to Information Technology as it reinvents itself, and Human Resources, while we still foresee a need to use them.

It’s time to leap boldly into the future!



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