Will the 'future of work' make employees more productive?

The benefits of the future workplace are getting touted on all sides… but what won’t work out as anticipated?

“The workplace has always been a fluid concept, from factories and workshops, to offices and coffee shops,” says Paul Clarke, Head of UK at unified communications provider, 3CX. “This trend of a workplace being anything anywhere, according to the needs of the times, is set to continue – with the virtual office simply the next logical step.”

Over the last few years it has been impossible to ignore the rising tide of vendors, pundits and academics, all weighing in on the future of work. This covers a continuation of all the changes we’ve seen in recent years – from flexible working to consumer grade technology – and the promise of ever more personalized spaces when we are in the office. But can the reality ever really live up to the hype?

Well, first of all there are a lot of studies out there – mostly commissioned by vendors – which don’t necessarily yield the same results. Take ‘flexibility’ for example. Most of the initial evidence suggests that employees want the freedom to work where they choose, and if they get it, they do more work for the company. In management speak this is ‘empowerment’.

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“Something that I think isn’t talked about nearly enough,” says Karen Field, CEO of Microsoft recruitment partner, Curo Talent “is the fact that the IT sector, which, by nature, should enable remote working, hasn’t moved away from the inflexible office environment.”

There are, of course, two key arguments here. The first is that workers forced into an office each day contain their work in a set location and try to keep productive in predetermined hours in order to get everything done. The converse side of this is that having flexibility means employees can more easily fit work around other aspects of their lives and therefore inclined to work harder for their company.

To support the latter theory, recent research from Robert Half suggests 44% of employees to get more work done and 42% feel “more trusted” if they are granted flexibility. Research from Timewise show that 87% of UK works would prefer a bit more freedom to choose where they work. While a study by FlexJobs  saw only 7% of employees describe their office as the best location for undertaking work-related projects.

Yet it is important to note these studies also tend to be one-off and short-term. A more academically rigorous piece by Dr Esther Canonico from LSE’s Department of Management [PDF] shows that while previous findings have suggested that home workers are more productive than their office-based colleagues, in the long term there is no difference.

The nub of this, she explains to IDG Connect is that “The potential benefits of homeworking based on social exchange theory may disappear overtime driven by perhaps an excessive sense of entitlement, by the idea that homeworking is not a discretionary benefit but a right.” In other words, people lapse into their usual unproductive ways once they start to see working from home as a right not a privilege.

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Stats on the office itself are never clear cut either. As Mark Braund, CEO, RedstoneConnect points out: “People have a tendency to book spaces and then not use them, blocking others from taking advantage of the facilities. This leads to the inaccurate perception that there is insufficient capacity. This is incorrect, there is more than enough space in the average office with recent studies having shown that office space utilization is predominantly at less than 50% at any one time.”

The second main component of the ongoing debate around the future of work suggests that while workers have high expectations of consumer grade technology at work, the reality simply isn’t up to scratch. According to a global study by Fuze, for example, almost half (48%) of current workers surveyed said their employer doesn’t provide adequate enough tech for them to work effectively.

Another by Ricoh added over a third (34%) of 3,600 workers surveyed still don’t feel equipped to properly use some of the more common software and hardware – such as Microsoft Office – available, let alone newer technologies. It went on to suggest that nearly 40% of workers believe a lack of skills stops the introduction of new technology being useful. As a result, 67% want employers to put more emphasis on training.

All this highlights the fact that while the future of work is touted as a glorious seamless future, like most walks of work, it probably won’t pan out exactly as anticipated. “IT leaders must look to solutions that can extend the life of existing technology systems, rather than completely overhauling applications in the hope of achieving a magic bullet approach to cutting costs [though],” warns Guy Tweedale, regional VP of Rocket Software.

The truth is, tomorrow’s workplace will be cobbled together via a mix of old and new technology run by workers of different ages and expectations. “In just two years’ time, the workplace will be made up by as many as five generations working side-by-side,” says Atif Mahmood, IT Director EMEA at Targus. “[These will consist of] The Boomer, The Millennial, The Traditionalist, The Gen Xer and The Gen 2020er.”

Inevitably some workers will benefit from the future of work while others will not be so lucky. Ashish Gupta, Corporate Vice President of HCL Technologies points to the numerous organizational challenges that stifle productivity already. Some of these “are caused inadvertently by some of the tools provided” and the way we have come to use them, he says, describing “email dependency” as one clear example of this.

Adrian Hobbs, Chairman at employee engagement specialist firm, Workvine, believes that “technology fatigue and attention fatigue will impact output and productivity. Automating tasks, removing more humans from the workplace, replaced by automation, could create sterile, cold, boring places that lack the stimuli humans enjoy.”

Then there are other more prosaic challenges ahead. As Paul Clarke of 3CX says: “If workers cannot have exactly the same experience whether they are at a fixed desk, moving around the office, or working from another location, then productivity and morale will be affected and grand dreams will never get off the ground.”

Paula Marshall, head of furniture category sales at Office Depot Europe, brings all this lofty debate on the future back to earth neatly. “It is important to remember that office-based roles will always exist, and certain positions, for example, call center workers or those requiring a high level of collaboration or supervision, may not be suitable for remote working,” he says.

“By giving careful thought to the different roles and responsibilities of workers, employers can decide on working arrangements on a case-by-case basis, helping to maximize the wellbeing and productivity of each individual within the organization.”