By Anuradha Kadam - 19th January, 2022
Some themes that occurred across the board at the WorkTech NY 2021 conference include: the necessity of flexible work, the humanization of work, and an emphasis on accommodating employee needs not only to increase productivity but to bring passion and joy into the workplace.
Now that health and wellness must be addressed in the workplace, now that working from home is possible and has been largely successful, people require the flexibility to choose where and when they work. This pandemic has given us a glimpse into employee’s homes and lives through a tiny black rectangle on our screens; we heard their dogs barking and babies crying, and now we see them as fellow humans.
As our awareness and empathy increases for our colleagues, as employees find that their needs and priorities have shifted, managers must accommodate these shifts—largely because people have proven that they are more than capable of successfully working from home. Some notable breakout sessions expanded upon these conclusions with further details, research, and personal experience.
In “Work Disrupted,” Jeff Schwartz, VP of Insights and Impact for the talent management firm Gloat, elaborated on the revelation that employees are more than who they are on their resume. They have broader skills, as evidenced by the industrial flexibility we witnessed early in the pandemic, with instances such as car manufacturers drastically shifting operations to produce ventilators and other crucial machines for saving lives.
People have shifted before; in the early days factories had everyone in the same large spaces, but eventually some workers moved from assembly lines to tasks such as inspections and quality assurance. People have transitioned from manually performing financial calculations, to using technology for calculations and becoming financial analyzers instead. And now, people are learning that they can use technology to work together, even while being geographically apart, making in-person collaboration more strategic and significant.
Schwartz also explained how managers are given the new role of being “coaches” or “designers” of team collaboration and interaction. The best managers are experts in behavior and psychology, even cultural anthropology, so they can better understand why and how business occurs among people. Managers have to think about what more they can do to retain talent, because now employees are asking themselves five questions about their careers: Who am I working for? How am I working? Where am I working? How flexible is the job? And what further job opportunities are available here?
During the “Expert Panel: Work Reimagined,” panelists discussed how workplaces are somewhat in limbo when it comes to returning to the office. There are no “success stories” yet, and no one knows how to succeed, because companies have not fully tried to implement this yet. A lot of workplaces are just waiting for a “roadmap of success” to follow, but someone has to take the first step. Many people have to take the first step together.
As a panelist expressed in the “Routes to Revival” panel, the only consistency for businesses will be inconsistency, as tactics must be tried and tested until a “new normal” is reached. Currently, the existing but untested roadmaps and frameworks heavily rely on gaining input from employees as a basis for decision-making, since there is no hard occupancy data until people actually return to work.
Managers have found that listening to what people want and making the changes increases productivity, regardless of what the changes are or how contradictory the requests may be. It is not just inconsistency in workplace success that we must expect, but also employees changing their minds, since they don’t yet understand what they want from a return to the office. But the key to better understanding this is for managers to express their humanity and show their vulnerability and uncertainty, as everyone returns. Managers must practice empathetic leadership and engage with humans, not with “employees.”
During the “Designing for Social Equity, Inclusion, and Wellbeing” session, Kay Sargent, director of WorkPlace, said that, “We now have a generation that has been raised understanding what their conditions or their needs are, and they’ve been trained [to advocate for themselves],” and this is more and more relevant as companies struggle to retain their talent – talent that now knows, because of the pandemic, that companies are very capable of accommodating for their needs.
Historically, workplace design has been catered to the “average employee,” most likely an old-aged cishet white male. But as Sargent pointed out, “One size, misfits all… Designing for the extreme, benefits all.”
Managers must listen to their employees, and designers must design for the extreme. We already account for disabled people though the ADA (though even this policy does not require the best design practices), and now we must account for neurodiverse people.
Those who are hypo-sensitive require more stimulation in the workplace, whereas those who are hyper-sensitive need less stimulation. The solution to accommodate for these extremes is having a diversity of space types, divided within zones of varying degrees, most likely by acoustics. People want changes in their work environment anyway, which is one reason they come into the office. We are shifting from using the headcount of people in-person as a means of attendance and productivity, to seeing it as an indication of meaningful use of the workplace environment, a core concept for “Activity Based Work” (ABW). And activity based work promotes flexibility, humanization, and accommodations for all.
While the WorkTech discussion is primarily focused on bringing workers back into the workplace and exploring what the “new normal” might look like, the closing keynote took a broader look at the future and advised us to continue business as UNusual.
Kevin Roose, the New York Times tech columnist, explained how automation and artificial intelligence are projected to impact the future of the workplace in “Futureproof: 9 Rules For Humans In The Age Of Automation.” He started studying this topic when he realized that his own job as a writer is at risk, threatened by AI like GPT3, which he demonstrated by having GPT3 generate a paragraph and then write it in a different style.
Forty-five million jobs are predicted to be displaced by 2030 due to the progression of technology, so we must focus on what humans can do that machines cannot. There are three ideas that distinguish human ability from machine ability: We are able to do “surprising” work, “social” work, and “scarce” work. We can do jobs where the workday is entirely unpredictable, such as being a kindergarten teacher; we can do jobs that require an emotional connection such as being a nurse; and we can do jobs that require rare skills or are just too important to be automated, such as a 911 operator. Therefore, it is important to change our approach to work by adding humanity, and these elements of “surprise, social, and scarce” into our everyday work lives.
Adding humanity to our jobs is a change that is already being pushed today, such as with the role of a manager as a coach, a cultural anthropologist, and someone who must connect with their employees and be willing to give power by being vulnerable, in order to keep their job from being automated. This, along with the importance of accommodation and flexibility, was one of the key takeaways from the conference—people need to prove that they are human in the workforce, in order to provide comfort, solidarity, culture, and more than a corporation can ever get from a robot or software.