What will the future of work look like?

Gartner’s latest digital worker experience survey explores what workers really think about remote work, WFH productivity and virtual collaboration — and how IT and business leaders can adapt and prepare for the future of work in a post-pandemic world.

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future of work

There’s been a lot of talk about the future of work (including on expertIP). But really, the ‘future’ of work starts now. After all, we can’t go back to the way things were pre-pandemic.

So what could the future of work look like? The results of Gartner’s annual digital worker experience survey are out, which explores what workers are really feeling about their workplace — and how IT and business leaders can adapt and prepare. That means supporting workers’ post-pandemic needs for collaboration, as well as measuring productivity in new (and better) ways.

Adapting to a new digital work reality

Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen changing attitudes toward workspaces over the past year, according to insights drawn from the Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey, which gathered feedback from 10,000 respondents across the globe.

“What we discovered was that their relationship to work, and especially to digital work, has changed and is fundamentally different,” said Whit Andrews, distinguished VP analyst with Gartner, on a webinar that discussed the survey findings and the ‘real’ future of work.

“The year that we’ve all been through forced organizations into this digital work reality,” he said, “but it brought the workers along with them and they are eager to take advantage of this opportunity.”

While the nature of work has changed, so has the nature of workers’ relationship to digital technology. Gartner found that more workers are using personal devices for remote work — but they’re using those in tandem with work-sanctioned applications or web services (IT leaders can breathe a sigh of relief).

But how can organizations carry those experiences back into the office and satisfy workers’ new expectations?

Measuring productivity in new ways

The pandemic year that Andrews quite appropriately describes as an “overwhelming and sudden experiment” has had a lot of trade-offs. There have been all sorts of challenges, from the technical (bandwidth, connectivity and security) to the personal (anxiety, depression and burnout). But there have also been positives: like the fact that, in many cases, productivity did not decrease in a WFH environment.

Some workers actually increased their productivity during this time (depending on factors such as their role and access to technology). In the Gartner survey, 45 per cent of workers indicated their productivity stayed the same, while 29 per cent increased productivity.

Another 26 per cent indicated their productivity had decreased, “which isn’t a surprise,” said Emily Rose McRae, Gartner’s director of quantitative analytics and data science, during the webinar. For some workers, pressures related to the pandemic negatively impacted their productivity. On the other hand, “some people leaned into the pandemic by working really hard.”

But part of the issue could be the way we measure productivity in the first place — and that needs to change. “You have to think about how you’re measuring productivity because it’s not hours. It’s not activity. It’s outcomes,” said McRae.

The rise of ‘radical’ flexibility

future of work

A key finding of the survey is that workers intend to “enforce the flexibility in time and workplace that 2020 gave them,” according to the Gartner survey results.

Employees aren’t just looking for location flexibility, but they want “radical flexibility” in when and how much they work, said McRae. “Some people have needed that flexibility during the pandemic because they have additional responsibilities at home that they don’t normally have,” she said, such as home schooling or caregiving responsibilities.

“And the truth is that not every organization has been open to that,” she added. “There definitely have been organizations that have chosen to monitor keystrokes and message people who appear to be taking breaks when they are not authorized to take breaks.” That gets back to her previous point: Are you measuring outcomes, or are you measuring activity? After all, “activity is not productivity.”

That means leadership — including the IT department — needs to reconsider the purpose of the office. According to McRae, organizations should ask themselves: “Are there specific activities and tasks that you need your employees to be doing collaboratively? Are there ways that you can actually redesign roles so that they can spend more time focused on individual work that they can do remotely at home and then use the office specifically for collaboration?”

That might mean turning their headquarters into learning and development onboarding hubs, or turning parts of their office space into collaborative ‘brainstorming’ centres for specific on-site collaboration that builds on what can be done remotely.

Virtual meetings are here to stay

One of the key takeaways from the survey is that virtual meetings proved their mettle — and despite the complaints of video call fatigue, more workers have an increased preference for virtual meetings.

Back in Gartner’s 2019 version of this survey, workers wanted more virtual meetings. “Well, everybody in 2020 got what they wanted, but not in the way they wanted,” said Adam Preset, senior director analyst with Gartner, during the webinar.

“They lost autonomy and choice over how to meet, but on the bright side, they were able to have more virtual meetings,” he said. But, as the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for — because the latest data  shows that workers now want more in-person time.

Despite the onset of video call fatigue, it’s worth noting that the amount of time people spend in meetings hasn’t really increased relative to 2019 — in aggregate, they’re spending about 20 minutes more per week in meetings than they were in 2019.

“It makes sense that people use ad hoc or scheduled meetings now to compensate for some of the missing social experiences that they had when they were in the office together — the hallway conversation, the cafeteria, the water cooler, any of these opportunistic collisions,” said Preset. “But the perception … is that meeting overload is at an all-time high.”

Read more:

The next normal: Preparing for the hybrid workplace
How hybrid work will change the post-pandemic office
Allstream launches Direct Routing for Microsoft Teams

Finding the right balance

Finding the right balance means considering when it’s necessary (or not) for workers to convene in person. “There could be some very tactical things you can continue to do when you are having a virtual meeting, but there might be ideation sessions or workshops or general collaboration [that benefit from being in person],” said Preset.

The needs of workers going forward will be more varied than before, so it’s now incumbent on organizations to start thinking through a variety of different approaches, according to Gartner.

While the workplace of the future might look a little different — and the way we measure productivity might look different, too — this could help to avoid burnout, improve retention and, ultimately, continue the momentum of increased productivity.

Images: Ja_inter/iStock; elenabs/iStock

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