President of the Nashville office of Dalton Group, Jeff is a former journalist with 30+ years of experience as a PR professional.
Ask any business owner to list their top five problems, and I bet at least three of them will involve employees. The employer/employee relationship has been strained since it began. The fundamental disconnect is the difference in goals: 1) building an organization that generates income and wealth for everyone, but considerably more for the owner, or 2) getting the most money and best working conditions/terms possible for your labor from whoever is willing to buy it, while also enjoying what you are doing.
The tension in this naturally tense relationship is being stretched taut today by Covid-era cultural changes to the nature of work, leading to questions about whether employees should be required to come to the office or not, and if so, how often? Or should they even have to work a specific number of hours during specific periods of the day? These are questions that, if asked a few years ago, would have marked the questioner as mad or, at least, frivolous; they are painfully pertinent questions today. This is a paradigm shift in the nature of work. As a result, the boundaries of work are both expanding and contracting.
Expanding, because “work” today is basically thinking, which now can be done anywhere, anytime—as long as it is done on time and well. This makes the ground rules of work somewhat subjective and elastic because who is to say, other than the worker themself, as to the work arrangement that best suits their life? This is the world of flex time when work hours flex to fit an employee’s lifestyle versus the now-archaic expectation that employees would all show up at nine and work ’til five. It also means that work is expanding into all areas of employees’ lives—that the connection to “the office” is never really turned off, and not because the employer demands it but because when work is always present, the employee often allows it to permeate their life.
On the other hand, the boundaries of work are contracting because the new model limits the ways in which people can most effectively work together. For one, it severely limits mentoring, which occurs more during day-to-day interaction than through any kind of formal curriculum. This kind of interaction is possible virtually but simply cannot be as intuitive, connected and effective as a real, live office environment. A lot is lost in translation. A generation of young workers may lose valuable assistance in their careers that used to be possible, even expected.
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The boundaries are also contracting because the new paradigm deals a solid blow to collaboration and, by extension, creativity—since one is often the result of the other. The technology of pulling several people into a conference room to discuss an opportunity or challenge remains superior to a virtual conference in both effectiveness and efficiency. (Though admittedly, on the whole, virtual meetings are exponentially more efficient than physical meetings, considering the huge time savings, even for local meetings, from cutting travel to and from meetings outside the office.)
So, as the nature of work is shifting, how do we resolve the opposing goals of employer and employees? And what does it mean that there has been a massive shift in negotiating power from employer to employee—the result of a confluence of demographic patterns (a smaller generation replacing a larger one in the workforce), government policy and nature/fate/Hand of God (i.e., the curse of Covid)?
Covid overnight proved long-standing employee assertions that business could be transacted, information can be shared, effective communication can occur just as well via a computer screen as in a meeting room. If not just as well, then certainly close enough to serve the purpose with no significant loss of fidelity to the message, the delivery or the receipt. And the bounds of work fell away like autumn leaves and were swept away.
And at the exact same time, due to demographics and government policy, there are many more jobs than there are people capable of doing them. So, guess who is going to dictate the new rules of employment? Obviously, the owner of the scarce commodity: employees.
What is an employer to do? Honestly, get with it. The reality is that the new virtual way of doing business is much better than the old way because it is so much easier, faster, cheaper, versatile—more effective overall. If it is easier to meet someone virtually than physically, then why does physical proximity matter at all? Free your mind, and your wallet will follow. Allow employees to work when they want, how they want, where they want—as long as they get it done on time and well. Care more about seeing results than seeing them around the office.
But there’s no need to throw out the benefits of office culture. I believe that the most effective business culture of the future will be a hybrid of remote and office work. There are many benefits of a group of smart, dedicated and personable people working in close proximity and some of your people will want to spend most of the time at the office for those reasons, and many of your people will probably want to spend some time at the office for the same reasons. The office of the future will probably be more landing pad and conference center than a row of rooms with names on the door.
All of this will take a different mindset to make it work, and, no doubt, this new way of managing people and production is likely to be more work for management, but in the short term, it is better for your business because you will attract and keep superior talent. It is a winner in the long run because it is more efficient than the old way and holds the potential, with a bit of trial and error, to also be more effective and pleasant than the ways of the 20th century.
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Author: Jeff Bradford, Forbes Councils Member