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This Month in Business History: The Shifting Future of the Workplace

April 25, 2022 • Sam Grabel

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams pushed for the city’s many workers to return to offices, chiding, “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day.” Meanwhile, business leaders opined that there is no need to return to work the way we once knew it. “If they want to work in Antarctica, that’s fine,” said Unqork CEO Gary Hoberman in a recent New York Times article.

This dichotomy illustrates some of the many pressures that are shaping America’s—and the world’s—return to physical workspaces. Among other major concerns facing business leaders today, according to Forbes and in no particular order, are employee retention, high inflation, accelerated digital transformation, supply chain disruptions and changing consumer behavior. Each of these will influence how companies choose to reshape their business models, including but not limited to elements such as reporting and organizational structure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work, where they work, and how they interact with their colleagues and organizations. These are complex and rapidly changing factors that are unique to every business. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and that’s okay. This month in business history, we’re going to look at some of the biggest issues facing the workforce and workplace today.

Major Shifts in the History of the Workplace

At History Factory, our opinion is that the last few years represent the greatest shift in workplace culture of the past generation. Many of the changes that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic—a shift to remote work, the increased use of technology and a greater emphasis on employee wellbeing—were already in motion, but COVID-19 accelerated their adoption. So to establish some context, let’s look at other major shifts in the workplace throughout the past century.

With new technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that allowed businesses to operate in a more decentralized way—for example, many office and factory workers no longer worked in close proximity—came the advent of the modern workplace. In the early 1900s, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright popularized the use of open floor plans modeled after industrial factories. This led to rigid, assembly line-like layouts and, combined with an increase in skyscraper construction, often meant that more workers were crammed into smaller spaces.

Another major shift came in the 1950s with the wide adoption of Bürolandschaft from Germany. Translated as “office landscape,” this movement took a more human-focused approach and eschewed the rigid structure of previous decades for a more natural layout that included space-defining elements such as plants and other dividers.

But as ever, there was (and remains) no one-size-fits-all approach to office life. The ’60s brought about the “action office,” a modular design that aimed to improve productivity and increase privacy. Partitioned off on three sides, it was the precursor to the cubicle. Then in 1961, IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter, which was capable of storing information. According to the BBC, “it was the start of computer-based work and early fears of a jobless society due to automation.”

As computers, faxes and other technology that needed to be hardwired to a specific spot became more prevalent in the 1980s, so too did the aforementioned cubicle. Not the most inspiring work environment, it eventually gave way to an increased emphasis on corporate culture and work-life balance.

This trend continued throughout the ’90s, as many employees started putting their personal needs first and were no longer looking for a long-term career at a company. In response, many employers introduced wellness programs and initiatives such as “casual Fridays.”

The turn of the millennium signaled the rise of the internet and, with it, the beginning of true connectivity between home and office. This led to an increase in telecommuting or, as we call it today, remote work. Many of those who did work in offices saw the return of the open floor plan. Throughout the 2010s, the cloud, AI and other automation and productivity tools began to take hold and streamline efficiency among office workers, who could now truly work anywhere.

Many of the trends that have taken off in the last 20 years—increases in technology use and remote work, greater emphasis on company culture and higher rates of employee turnover—have all been simmering in the background for decades. The pandemic simply accelerated these trends, leaving employers wondering what the next phase of office work will look like now that practical considerations, or at least attitudes toward them, have changed. So what can we expect in the coming years, and what can employers do to address some of the biggest looming issues?

Remote Work Isn’t Going Anywhere

Remote Work

After the past two-plus years of work from home as the norm for many, one of the largest questions facing employers today is, “What next?” Employers must choose the best way forward based on many internal factors, and the answer varies from workplace to workplace.

For some organizations, such as Unqork, the path forward is clear. Though Unqork has reduced its real estate footprint in Manhattan by nearly sixfold, the company continued to grow throughout the pandemic and now has 600 employees worldwide.

The same is also true for established companies, including telecommunications giant Verizon, whose leadership has indicated that the success of remote work will inform their plans moving forward. “It’s never really going to return to like it was,” Sam Hammock, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Verizon, told the New York Times. “We’re treating people like the adults that they have proven to be over the last 24 months.”

Many Companies Are Adopting Hybrid Schemes

Remote Work

While some companies are giving their employees the freedom to work where and how they want, others are moving to a “hybrid” model, a phrase which describes a number of different approaches. Some companies are requiring employees to spend a few days in the office per week, while others are splitting time spent in the office between teams. This seems to be the preferred approach of workers and employers alike, with more than half of employees preferring a hybrid model. Market research firm Forrester predicted in 2021 that 70% of companies in the U.S. and EU are likely to permanently adopt a hybrid work model.

Still, the hybrid model can cause all kinds of issues if not executed properly—something Forrester estimates one-third of companies will fail to address. Some potential issues employers may face include scheduling conflicts between teams who use a shared workspace; making sure that employees have everything they need in terms of tools, chargers, notepads, and other supplies; burnout from commuting; and overall decreased productivity due to in-office distractions. Settling on a hybrid model that works will likely involve some amount of trial and error.

The Debate Around Return to Office Will Continue

Depending on a company’s industry and type of work, leaders may feel that it’s necessary for employees to return to the office permanently. The Harvard Business Review expects many high-profile companies to begin pushing for a permanent return to office by the end of 2022. The publication highlights several reasons for this:

  • Executives blaming hybrid work for poor performance
  • Increased employee turnover
  • Perceived loss of organizational culture in a dispersed workforce

Ironically, a disorganized and non-strategic push for a permanent return to office may have the opposite of its intended effect and exacerbate some of these sticking points.

A Path Forward

What is clear is that employees should be brought into the return-to-workplace conversation, especially in the face of high talent turnover. According to Pew Research, 57% of employees who quit in 2021 listed feeling disrespected at work as the reason. One way to make employees feel valued is simply to listen to them—whether that’s to address grievances, absorb concerns or simply better understand their pandemic experiences.

In fact, leaving employees out of the conversation can be downright detrimental to morale and culture and ultimately lead to lower productivity and higher turnover—exactly what executives don’t want to happen. When discussing Google’s return to office guidelines, Parul Koul, executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union, said, “If Google will not even choose to keep workers informed or involved in decision making… how can we trust that the policies they are putting in place will effectively protect all workers?”

There are a number of ways to include employees in your organization’s plans to move forward. You can opt for remote or in-person “storylistening” initiatives that can be turned into video or story bank content, enterprise-wide events designed to boost morale and culture, or, if your organization is returning to the office, environmental branding and exhibits that showcase people, history and culture. Regardless of what you choose, a proactive approach can help set you up for future success.

The Bottom Line

Navigating the return to work—in any format—is a complex balancing act. And it’s a tightrope that employers will need to walk as they juggle strengthening corporate culture, maintaining operating costs and being productive. There’s no panacea or one-size-fits-all approach to returning to the office, implementing hybrid work to engage and retain your workforce, or maintaining a remote workplace. Your approach, like your business model, should be nuanced and flexible to accommodate last-minute changes as necessary.

At History Factory, we have been working with a number of Fortune 500 companies throughout the pandemic to design and implement solutions to recruit, retain and engage employees in remote, hybrid and in-person workforces. If your organization could benefit from a custom program designed to do exactly this, don’t hesitate to reach out and have a conversation.

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