The new workplace will be distributed, digital — and full of purpose

Purposeful connection and digital processes will support the future world of work. Water coolers are optional.

On a stressed-out planet, employee wellbeing is becoming an important consideration in the workplace, and so it’s easy to sympathize with Apple employees rebelling (again) against the company’s inflexible take on flexible work.

Flexibility empowers employees and speaks of trust

Flexible work has not only already proved to be productive, but to deliver significant benefits in terms of better work/life balance. It accepts the reality that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that suits all the individuals, teams, and functions that drive corporate success.

The need for work/life balance became far more evident during the pandemic. There was resistance. Employees complained that not only did they feel that the work they were doing wasn’t being recognized, but employers thought they could call them any time, day or night.

Employees also reported a much better work/life balance (once they’d sorted management out), enabling them to avoid expensive commutes, spend quality time with family, and enjoy better focus. Not surprisingly, they want to keep working that way.

But for all the focus on flexible working practices, these are just part of a much larger focus on employee wellbeing and corporate social responsibility. The new world of work will almost certainly be characterized by an excess of digital processes to support new working models.

Can digital tools support remote employee wellbeing?

What matters? Some important insights are available in the Future Workplace 2021 HR sentiment survey, which identified that 68% of senior HR leaders understand the importance of supporting employee wellbeing.

What is that, exactly? It spans financial and employment security, of course, but also encompasses various layers of health protection, including mental and family health, and work/life balance.

The challenge to delivering such support to remote teams is driving some companies to invest in digital solutions to support their people. Some have invested in corporate access to meditation apps such as Calm; others subscribe to activity and exercise promoting services. Another interesting illustration of the trend comes from UK firm Oddbox, which has partnered with Mintago to provide staff with financial and pension management and advice services.

Managers have also been encouraged to take a more empathic approach to their teams — particularly around stress-related absences, given the highly stressful environment we’re in, buffeted by pandemic, inflation, environment challenges, and geopolitical uncertainty. Another approach to bolster mental health is to support employees who increasingly seek ways to act for social purpose, contributing time to local community causes.

Apple is among many big firms to offer employees paid time off to volunteer in that way. Doing so delivers triple benefits — employees get to do good, meet and engage with their community, and try something new. This boosts employee engagement and fosters feelings of wellbeing. It also supports staff retention.

The need for purpose

Ultimately, purpose is critical. Think about the early onset of BYOD, when initial employer resistance was simply overcome by the growing desire for employee choice. Today, such choice has become an HR imperative.

That move to mobility arguably helped protect at least some of the economy across the last couple of years. At the same time, the inherent autonomy of remote and flexible working practices meant we began to think different about work. It wasn’t simply about fulfilling contractual hours or meeting defined goals.

Employee choice meant we used the devices we wanted to do our jobs, adopted working patterns that enabled us to manage our own unique lives, and focused on reaching targets. This approach is full of purpose, autonomy, and trust.

An alternative direction

Apple says its purpose in getting people back into its offices three days a week is to foster its culture of collaboration, but this doesn’t ring true given that most of those employed at the company have little involvement in product design. That makes this a blanket mandate that inherently disempowers the company’s teams, which also seems to blunt Apple's core purpose. This is, after all, the company that delivers the tech to unleash the creative power of “The Crazy Ones."

Another approach the company could take, but for reasons known only to its upper level, union-busting HR has not, is to develop purposeful opportunities for connection. This might include all-hands meetings in hybrid space. It could include fostering different internal networks. It might extend to giving employees spaces in which they can discuss and identify real challenges — even those outside the company — in which they can make a difference. This, too, is collaboration.

Does it need to be boundaried in certain hours or in a defined space? (No.)

Brian Elliott at Future Forum on LinkedIn suggests a better approach to boosting collaboration is to “get people virtual ways to connect, but also reasons to connect across teams: schedule all-hands meetings with virtual and in real life options, [and] encourage participation in Employee Resource Groups and local voluntary activities.”

This approach ticks so many of the boxes around employee wellbeing. It’s a worldview that embraces truly flexible working practise.

It adapts to the inevitable future in which the fixed workplace becomes a resource and accepts the value of the mixed platform of relationships and collaboration most of us already experience daily.

We have friends we’ve only ever met online, after all. Do we not collaborate with them?

We know — because we already use them — that digital tools will underpin the new workplace. These tools will also help empower the future collaboration space. Water coolers are now optional, and won’t suit everybody.

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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