2021: A year for new work habits?
Despite the incredible advances in technology over the past decade, economists have been puzzled that this innovation has not led to the step-change advances in productivity and GDP that many predicted. It is true, of course, that there are many tech breakthroughs that have undoubtably changed the way we live and work for the better; as a European leader of a global mobile computing business, I have seen many examples of how laptops, tablets and PDAs can remove repetitive tasks, cut costs, improve productivity and customer service.
However, the tech improvements we see around us are yet to reach the dizzying heights of growth and change resulting from the industrial revolution. We are certainly not living in the utopian future touted in my youth, where chores would become obsolete and we would spend our time wondering how to fill our expansive leisure time.
As we emerge from what has been the most troubling and tragic year in my memory, I wonder if one small positive from the business challenges we have been forced to deal with might be the way we use technology to live and work moving forward?
The forced and rapid change to working from home for a large proportion of the UK workforce was a stressful shock to the system, disrupting many family and work lives. As things have settled, there are some changes that have had an interesting impact on work life balance.
As a manager, I have had to learn to stay in touch and communicate with my team in a different way – as we grapple with having key workers remaining onsite and others working from home - but we have all adapted. We have also had to learn to trust each other more. The working day for many had to change, for example, as we adapt to working with children at home. We have all found new ways of working to suit our personal circumstances. Some start earlier and take time out during the day for their family lives or for personal well-being like exercise. Some like to work later, when the distraction of home life has settled for the day. The key, I have observed, is to ensure people have a clear brief and let them deliver in the way that best suits them.
Meetings – although initially a virtual flurry as we reorganised – have become less frequent, shorter and more effective.
International travel, a regular occurrence for internal and customer meetings, has virtually been eliminated. Why did we spend two days travelling for a two hour meeting that could have been held on a video call?
Industry events have moved online. We recently held our first virtual Panasonic TOUGHBOOOK Innovation Forum. I was concerned about how the change from the physical to the virtual would impact attendance but it was a revelation. More people, attending more sessions, feeling free to seamlessly jump in and out of sessions as they wished. The feedback has been incredibly encouraging and the event cost in time and financial investment significantly less.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people will never again want to work in an office, travel to an industry event or meet customers face-to-face, of course not. If nothing else, it would be a refreshing change right now, but I think we may have broken the habit.
These forced behaviour changes, and no doubt others that we are yet to recognise, have made us question why we continue to do things in the same old way. The technology existed for virtual meetings well before the pandemic, yet we seldom used it. Now we realise that it works, it’s relatively easy to deploy and quick to learn. It’s not a replacement but it is a very adequate substitute in the vast majority of cases.
The result is time saved through a better use of the technology and environmental benefits from less plane, train and car journeys. I suspect that the economic productivity gains we seemed to be missing from our recent technological advances were not issues with the technology but the unwillingness of business and its management to change the traditional way they work.
Perhaps now, we will be more open to taking advantage of all the benefits new technology advances offer. Perhaps it can improve our work and home life balance, and boost productivity in the way that we imagined, as well as enable a more sustainable future. I’m reminded of the phrase: “The future is made, not discovered, and yet we are constantly confounded by the future as it becomes the present.” As we enter 2021, I’m hopeful we will start to use technology more to shape our own futures in a positive way through the way we live and work.