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Workin’ on the Future of Work

Remember when “work” meant “going to work” for most people? Work was a physical place built on direct personal interaction. Work happened at work. Personal life happened at home.  

COVID-19, of course, changed everything for millions of people when offices closed and work set up shop at home. What happens next, and how do employees stay healthy and engaged? Let’s look back and then ahead.

Clues From The Past

Gartner reports that pre-COVID, about one-third of the U.S. workforce worked at home some of the time. When the pandemic began the number more than doubled. Employment figures for 2019 indicate that 155.76 million people were employed in the U.S. Does that mean more than 450,000 people worked in a home office or on the kitchen table? Not really. Earlier forms of remote work did exist, one of which is the coworking space.

Coworking is usually structured as a membership arrangement that lets members come to an office space and share equipment, utilities, meeting rooms, shipping and receiving services, sometimes a receptionist and more. Many members are self-employed, and most work for different employers. 

“It wasn’t that long ago you’d hear employers say, oh, I’d never let my people work remotely,” observes Peggy Stefan, co-founder of The Commons, which has coworking offices in Excelsior and Hopkins, Minnesota. “But you know what? People go to coworking spaces specifically to work. They’re the hardest working people I’ve ever been around.”

She adds, “What we figured out how to do was work remotely before it was a necessity. The Commons is designed for flexibility, and some companies even before COVID sent teams here to brainstorm or collaborate, which makes total sense. We see more of it ahead. Because why sign a 10-year lease on more office space than you need if you can rent one of our offices for remote employees to enjoy a couple of days a month?”

Ideas For The Future of Work

In February 2021, Forbes published findings from a Steelcase study that 87 percent of business leaders expect to offer more flexibility and 72 percent expect to offer a hybrid model of working, meaning that some workdays will be in the office and some at home. 

Microsoft defines the challenges this way:

Looking ahead, we know that hybrid work requires a new operating model and strategy that encompasses flexible work policy, inclusive space design and innovative technology solutions. The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations, connect a more distributed workforce, and provide tools to create, innovate and work together to solve business problems.

In the same way that the earliest coworking offices learned by doing, listening and adapting, work models of the near and distant future will also grow and meet the needs of employees and customers through an iterative design process — plan, test, evaluate, refine. Harvard Business School faculty members offer a variety of perspectives in COVID Killed the Traditional Workplace. What Should Companies Do Now?, from leading with empathy to being fair with employees who decide to work remotely.

The New Buzzword: Employee Engagement

Ultimately, whatever model for in-person and remote work carries an organization forward, positive momentum depends on engaged employees, regardless of where they’re actually working. In business circles, “employee engagement” in 2021 could replace the 2020 buzzword, “unprecedented.” It’s that important.

Unifying employees around a company’s mission is critical. It connects employees and illuminates a common path for moving forward together. The future of work in exact details will vary from organization to organization. But a dominant takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic is identifying, communicating and rallying around a shared sense of purpose that transcends space and time as borders blur between home and work.

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Published on: April 7, 2021