2022: the year of rethinking the workplace — and work itself

After two years of enforced remote work, the office is changed for good. 2022 has to be the year that we start figuring out how.

Buckle up, folks. 2022 will be a year that sorts the corporate sheep from the business goats. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, changes to the way we work are now so embedded into our culture that any company that tries to ignore them will find itself on the wrong side of evolutionary pressure. Forcing a return to the old normal is not a viable adaptation to the new pressures of work. 

We all know the story by now: the case for remote work has been proven in many industries by the pandemic. The changes that follow that insight are rippling ever outwards. It changes property, retail, transport and more… 

This is the year when — hopefully — we get to grips with this, as vaccination loosens the virus’s grip on us. But it could also become a mass corporate extinction event. Those companies that can’t adapt to the change will die off, and be replaced by more agile and flexible businesses. And even amongst those fast adaptors, confronting the big four work trends will be critical to making the right changes. 

The irony, of course, is that all four major trends are very much an extension of a topic we’ve covered for over a decade: digital disruption. Digital tools and processes allow us to work from home, and the pandemic forced us into it almost full-time. It accelerated the changes that digital promised. And that brings us to the first of our major trends:

Trend 1: Work is decoupled from the workplace

After nearly two years of home working, the case for non-office-based work is now proven beyond reasonable doubt in knowledge work fields. The idea that companies can just maintain that a completely office-based workforce is necessary for the effective running of the business is dead. Sure, they could try to argue that, but any company doing so is priming itself for a good dose of the Great Resignation

However, as we’ve discussed before, remote working is not the same as home working. This means we’re in for years of experimentation with work styles, and multiple businesses that serve workers adapting to that. We can work at home, in the office, with clients, in coffee shops, in hotels during the day… We won’t figure out the answers overnight, but people will find workstyles that work for them. That answer might change with both the task in hand, and whatever else is going on in their lives. 

While they’re doing that, businesses will have to learn to manage staff on output and productivity, not attendance and presence. (Of course, they should have been doing that already).

That, in turn, means new opportunities and threats for retail, hospitality and entertainment businesses, as where people spend their time is going to change. The major shift we’ve focused on is in how digital-based knowledge workers can do their jobs. But that doesn’t mean that the impact of that won’t be felt in jobs that need a physical presence, too. 

Trend 2: Work has been recoupled to family life

Many of our speakers on the NEXT Show in 2021 explored the idea that the pandemic has led to a reconnection with family life. We have an incentive to return to multi-generational living (easing child and elder care issues). And we can no longer pretend that people’s family responsibilities end the second they start working. You can thank school closures and lockdowns for that revelation. (But “thank” isn’t really the right word, here, is it?)

Smart businesses will start thinking about their employees — their talent — as holistic beings, connected with family and friends. A job that creates a supportive environment for both you and your family is harder to leave than one that doesn’t. I stayed longer in my last full-time job than I should have done because it was so supportive of me during the time my parents were dying of cancer. 

As Eliza Filby put it, this is almost a return to the pre-industrial ways of working, with work in the home and family life happening around it. More than that, most of us know people who have lost someone to Covid-19, even if we haven’t lost someone ourselves. Times of crisis and loss tend to make us re-evaluate what’s most important to us. For many, that will be more time with family and friends. The work-all-hours, sleep-is-for-wimps culture of Silicon Valley may well now be declining. 

And that’s probably a good thing. Remember — working longer hours actually decreases productivity… The adaptive business will have to employ people with all their complexity, and not just buy a chunk of their day for work. 

Trend 3: The creator economy has professionalised side-hustles

One subject we haven’t discussed much here, despite it having been well-hyped for the last couple of years, is the creator economy. It’s worth thinking of as the ultimate fulfilment of the Web 2.0 promise of empowering individuals. The final step was finally bringing the ability to get paid easily into the online creator business. YouTube was clearly the trailblazer here. More recent entrants into the market like Substack or OnlyFans are enabling new ways of people making more money from their hobbies or outside interests. 

The side hustle is no longer just an app you’re working on, or a bit of consultancy on the side: it’s something that you can easily work at from anywhere. As the Fjord Trends 2022 report put it: 

Supplementing or replacing primary income is easier for people, thanks to tech platforms with channels and tools for turning their hobbies and talents into businesses. In the United States, people make an average of US$10,972 a year from side-hustles like teaching, writing blogs/newsletters, renting out their homes, freelance programming and more.

Climbing the career ladder is no longer the only way to boost your income. For many people, their job is their steady, reliable income. In contrast, their new side hustle is both aspirational and where they see room for growth. And, of course, remote working makes this easier. With less visual policing of what they’re doing at any particular point in the day, they get to pick when they work on their job, or their side-hustle.

This, of course, puts pressure on their commitment to their day job, too. And that puts pressure on employers. You can’t just order your staff back into the office. And so, you’re going to need to find new ways to enthuse them about the work. And you must offer realistic ways of growing rewards for their success. Otherwise, their creativity slowly bleeds out into their personal projects.

Never has the need for leaders rather than managers been greater.

Trend 4: Rebuilding the team

The first casualty of all of this is team cohesion, and that’s a problem. We need effective teams. In the past, we’ve had a degree of team cohesion for free. It emerged as a side effect of sharing the same working space for something like 40 hours a week. All that time together adds up to emotional bonding. For many of us, we can no longer reply on that tie coming back — which means building relationships between team members will have to become a more intentional activity. 

Last year, we spoke to some companies that have worked remotely for years — and they hold organised meet-ups for exactly that reason.

A deep rethink is essential. How do we use the office space that we have? The first temptation — and one many companies have already succumbed to — is to get rid of some office space. But could redeploying it to make the space more attractive work better?

Remaking the office

If you want to lure parents back into the office, how about an on-site crèche? Or space that can host organised holiday clubs during the school holidays? More clubhouse type space? A range of working and socialising environments within the offices? 

Many of these ideas are not new: more progressive companies have had crèches for years, and in the 1970s I used to attend an annual Christmas party for the children employees of the oil company my father worked for. (It was a British company that sold petroleum…). Bonding arises out of shared social experiences. So, you need to design office life around those, rather than just about work. 

If your HR team’s expertise is merely hiring, firing and appraisals, you have an issue. It’s time to take a look at how the pandemic has disrupted their work, too… 

And the answer is…

Here’s the bad news: there’s not one simple answer to this. Different professions attract different personality styles and lend themselves to different working methods. We’ve kicked the old “come to the office, work for eight hours and go home” habit. Now each company will have to learn what workstyle will work for it.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Keep running experiments — you won’t get it right first time. Keep the elements that work, but rapidly let go of things that don’t.
  • Steal from far away — don’t just look at what your competitors are doing, look at how companies in very different industries are making it work. Could you “borrow” and adapt their ideas for your own business?
  • Accept that a stable state may be a decade away — with anything that involves a changing use of property and transport, the impact will play out over a decade, not months. Your working patterns are likely to be in flux for that long.

All of this means that you need people with particular skills. They must be comfortable with change, willing to experiment, not reliant on best practices and able to look outside their own field for inspiration.

2022 and the decade that follows will be a time for leaders, not managers.

Photo by Liza Azorina on Unsplash