Ellen: Hello everyone and welcome to the ‘Future of Work’ podcast series. My name is Ellen Wang from Leeds University Business and your host for the show.
Marc: Hello, it’s Marc here from the Careers Centre.
Ellen: The theme of his episode today is to continue the conversation about hybrid working and will focus on some of the academic debates around this issue and changes to work practices. As we all know, this is one of the topical subjects of post-pandemic and hybrid working not only impacts people who are not only in work but also for our graduates who seeking for jobs as well. So joining me and Marc today, we have invited Chris Forde again who is a professor of employment studies at Leeds University Business School and Deputy Director of ESRC Digital Futures at Work Research Centre. The Centre involving almost over 70 researchers at Leeds University and Sussex and others in examining the future of work and the role of technology in the workplace. Chris has research interest around the future of work with interest in gig work, hybrid working, as well as in areas of HRM. So welcome Chris. It’s a pleasure to have you back on the show once again.
Chris: Thanks very much. It’s nice to be here again.
Ellen: Great. So there’s a lot of interest in this topic due to pandemic as you have said befor and there have been significant change to the way many people work. So let me start by having a conversation and presenting some data conducted by CISCO based on my research. So it says that work will never be the same again. So 50%, in fact its 57%, expects to be in the office 10 days or less each month. 77% of employees will embrace flexible working style and then 97% want changes to be made for the office to be safer before they feel comfortable to return. So, my question to you Chris is are these data similar to your research findings as well and if so what do you make out of that?
Chris: Thanks Ellen. I think it’s really interesting, those survey findings and these sort of headlines make really interesting reading. This idea that work will never be the same again I think is worth picking up on. We can… the pandemic has obviously led to quite a profound shift in what a lot of organisations are doing but there’s always been debate about the future of work and changes in work so when we think about this we also need to think about the continuities that there are and the nature of the employment relationship to put it like that as well as aspects of change. So yes there has been changes over a much longer period about, you know, the length of time that people spend with a single employer, for example, the type of jobs that they’re doing, the sort of occupations that they’re working in. So if we take a much longer sweep and think about not just the pandemic, we can locate some of the more recent, interesting, debates around flexible working and hybrid working within a longer term perspective and that will give us a more nuanced view I think about profound these changes are, how significant they are and whether they’re here to stay. Now we do pick up on the pandemic, though. I mean obviously though this hasn’t led to really significant changes for a lot of organisations and employees. And also I think for perceptions of organisations and workers, current workers, and potential future workers about what is possible and what they expect from a job as well. So that data that you’ve presented really talks about, I think, clearly among some groups of workers and some potential workers there may be an appetite for change but then I think there’s also questions about what’s the responsibility of employers here? How prepared are employers for these sorts of changes, if indeed workers want changes and expect more capacity to be able to work remotely on top of flexible working. Are employers ready for this? Are they ready to step up and implement changes to allow employees to work in this way? And also, just recognizing some of the challenges of that, as well, that perhaps there’s some groups that don’t want that change. Perhaps some workers are concerned about those changes, fearful about what it means for them and may need some support and training to allow them to do that if that’s what they want to do. So there’s a lot to unpack here. I think there’s some really… the pandemic has really brought this into some really sharp focus and we can accelerate the change in a lot of these areas but it does raise a lot important issues about the future of work.
Ellen: Absolutely, yeah. Thank you for that, Chris. I think it’s a really interesting topic, isn’t it? You know, we said here we’re going to talk about a lot of the academic debate in this episode but, yeah, to make that link to our graduates- you know, what impact does that make for our graduates especially that are looking for jobs. So I’m just going to add another question I guess. Then I am going to pass it onto Marc to take it over, so to speak. So there’s a lot of reasoning for us to obviously, the hybrid working, working from home, the virtual teams, all of this terminology because of pandemic but all of these ideas all have a long history in organisations and there’s a lot of research in these areas already. So what can we learn from these early researchers on this topic, please, before I pass it over to Marc?
Chris: Thanks. So you’re right. Virtual teams is a really good example. There’s literature going about 30, 40 years on this. Looking at socio-technical systems, how teams work together, particularly where teams are working on a global basis or internationally. So my colleague, Digit Patros Comikiotis (spelling?) points out in a recent blog we can learn a lot from these debates. Before the pandemic we thought about virtual teams. They all had many of the features we see with teams that have occurred during the pandemic. You’ve got mediation of a technology to allow people to work and collaborate together and you’ve got some geographical dispersion. Now, often when we’ve talked about virtual teams historically that was global dispersion. You’d have these teams working far apart, often in different time zones. So organisations really faced there with challenge of trying to create a social context or manufacture some kind of social context to get people to work together effectively in an environment where workers aren’t physical co-present whilst trying to maintain some kind of work-life balance for people who are working on these technologies in different time zones. All those I think have been important during the pandemic as well but you’ve got these new challenge, I think, with pandemic related hybrid working as well. Because most of the teams that were formed during the pandemic, the virtual teams, they had some experience of working together. They were in offices and factories before the pandemic and lockdown so they already had that sort of social context, the shared identity which sometimes might make working together virtually when they’re forced to do that easier. But many groups were sort of forced together virtual by default I think during the pandemic and that I think did create a lot of challenge. I mean, personal experience of that myself. So I think having to really skill up and acquire some new capacity and skills very quickly, acquire the equipment you need to undertake virtual work. Alongside some of the other pressures that came with working in the pandemic an intensification of work in many cases and having to juggle a range of other things. Concern about the pandemic, and often domestic responsibilities and childcare as well. So I think we can learn a lot from the old literature around the virtual teams for example about what makes these teams work effectively. How can we manufacture this environment and culture of working remotely. I think the pandemic did raise some new issues which just weren’t seen before.
Ellen. Absolutely, yeah. Now, thank you for sharing that. I think it’s interesting isn’t it? As you say, the pandemic and all the hybrid working and the virtual teams, they’re already presenting enough challenges for people that’re already at work. So I am interested to hear from you, what does that mean for our graduates because they’ve, a lot of them, they’ve had limited experience within the work place or some of them might even, you know, very fresh, on ground zero to start. So, I guess I’m going to pass over to you in terms of what do you make out of this academic debate based on what we already talked about already and what do you think that’s going to make any link to the students and how they can prepare it for the future.
Marc: Ok thank Ellen. Ok Chris, so I think we talked before that the podcast-Obviously I do a lot of one to one with students on workshops as you do obviously as well-and there’s a lot of anxiety around the sort of, the way that work sort of reacted to the lockdown and I was just wondering from the research you mentioned about groups of workers having an appetite for change but it was noticeable very early on, especially in lockdown, how sort of the students and the graduates didn’t really want this. There was no chance to learn sort of through social outings. They felt quite isolated because of meetings and people having to put lots of meetings in and I just wondered if through your own research if you noted that and if there is a sort of disparity between the generations in terms of this.have the chance if joining in:
Marc: Do you think there’s scope there-you talk about induction and mentoring-do you think there’s scope there for almost, like, reverse mentoring? Because in order to be able to do that you’d have to listen to the graduates coming in anyway. So rather than thinking, you know traditionally you’ve got an induction and can you meet this person, can you talk about that person. Maybe its best to say, ‘Well actually how’ve you felt the last two years, what are you expecting from us and how can we, sort of, tailor that? Because obviously no one has lived through a pandemic and that includes the employers. And that’s not a criticism, we’re all still learning. We’re all still learning. Is there scope for that as well, do you think? Have you noticed employers being open to that? Or…
Chris: Um, not directly but I think it’s a really interesting idea and I think, I think there’d be a lot of scope for that and a lot of benefit for that. As you as, there’s something from the employer’s side and the potential worker’s side that is… unprecedented, to use that term. But it is something, I think, that organisations, recruiters, and those designing training systems and managing graduates could learn from by adopting that reverse mentoring. I think also that it may, it may lead to some kind of shift in the psychological contract of work as well. So thinking longer term, some of these things there were formal contractual responsibilities that an employer has towards an employee and perhaps this is signalling some kind of long or herald some kind of longer shift in the psychological contract whereby the views of those joining organisations need to be taken more carefully into account. What do they expect from an employer in terms whether they want to work away from the office, in the office? What technologies and capacities are there within an organisation to allow them to do that? And what are the limits on organisations in doing that? I think organisations and workers, if they could be honest about that and open about that, about what they really want, perhaps that could forger a new psychological contract. Now, of course that’s easy to say but much more difficult to implement in practice. Organisations have their recruiting requirements and their skills and competencies that they’re looking for. Workers have their needs and preferences for what they want to do but brining those together and having an open conversation about it may be more of a challenge. But I think, perhaps, perhaps there is potential here given that organisations are in many cases quite profoundly considering how they’re going to work going forward and there is this opportunity to have more of a two-way dialogue over it and found what it is new starters really want from the workplace. And may vary from one sector, from one type of organisation to another and groups of graduates and workers as well.
Marc: I know you’ve done some work on the gig economy. Obviously technology and the increase in technology, I suppose, that has effected the work that’s gone on over covid and would have done anyway, and it’s just accelerated what’s happened. Do you think that will affect the gig economy? Do you think that a job for life will come back? Everyone says there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore because of technology. But do you think because of technology people will stay in the same jobs, that they just have to upskill and reskill? But they would be in the same sort of job rather than maybe, sort of, the freelance or work?
Chris: I think it maybe makes you do both and that’s not to try and dodge the question but I think there is a couple of dynamics going on there. So I think… I think all the evidence suggests that people will move jobs more now than they would’ve done 20, maybe, 30 years ago. So I think the average number of job moves during a career is up to now 8 or 9 over someone’s career. And in many cases that involves moving to a different organisation as well, not just simply moving within an organisation. Yes, there are sort of people who do have a job for life. There are some sectors where I think that progression and opportunity to progress within an organisation is still there. But I think job movement is more common than it has been. The type of jobs people do may remain fairly similar and so it may be that people are constructing more of a portfolio of a career essentially based within the same sector and some of the structures within the gig economy that are emerging may facilitate that so happen. So, you know, you have got platforms, apps, and technologies which are increasingly, sort of, mediating or stepping in between an employer and a worker and creating that, sort of, new space almost. And in some cases those platforms are acting as employers and they are taking on some of the responsibilities associated with what you may see as a traditional employment relationship. In other cases, they’re not. They’re really just a broker almost, they’re just bringing employers and workers or clients and workers together and taking sort of a cut of the spoils to do that. But that’s infrastructure does create opportunities, I think, from the workers’ side as well to construct a career within a particular sector in some cases and to use those, sort of, apps and technologies to allow them to do that. As I say, there’s some evidence in some sectors that some of these apps and platforms are acting as employers. I did some recent cases recently and some court judgements where I think it’s been, they’ve been, designated as an employer. That’s an area to watch definitely. I think there may be more movement in that area over time.
Marc: A bit of a low-brow question, I apologise for this. How helpful was Alan Sugar’s comment that these people working from home are lazy gits?
Chris: Yeah that was not very helpful at all I think! I think it’s not the only example of that, though as well. It’s been… Another high profile case has been Jacob Rees-Mogg’s going around offices and placing notes on people’s desks almost passively-aggressively suggesting that he was sorry to miss them this time but hopefully he’ll see them in the office in the very near future. Beneath that there’s this assumption, I think, that people who are working from home are somehow not as productive as people who’re in the office or that they’re more likely to take time off from work. Even Boris Johnson, there was a quote from him the other day saying he was too distracted when he worked from home, he’d go to the fridge and cut off a lump of cheese and spending some time making a coffee. And I think those examples, they’re, you can dismiss them as one-off examples but they’re from high-profile business people, policy makers, and they do have a… they do effect the way people think about it. The evidence on this is, you know again, looking at the long run of evidence around working from home, it’s quite a nuanced picture. It’s not straightforward to say that people are more productive or less productive at home. There are a lot of things that go into that. And there’s a lot of rationales and reasons why people want to work from home or need to work from home. For example, to manage all the responsibilities that they’ve got and they can’t physically get into an office as well as, sort of, an unconstrained choice of working from home. But for many people who do commute to an office or factory location, there’s that time of travel which when they’re not directly working there’s the time back again. There’s the expense of doing that. There’s all these things that need to be factored in, I think, into this equation. I think, you know, the… I think the comments by Alan Sugar can be dismissed quite easily. I don’t think that there’s more evidence out there that people are lazy when they’re working from home. I think most qualitative evidence when people are interviewed and do their time diaries as well of what they do at home suggests actually that they tend to work more intensely when they’re at home. They tend to start earlier in the day and they tend to have more time when they’d classify themselves they are being productive. And actually many employers benefit considerably, I think, from the time that people do spend when they’re physically at home compared to when they’re in the office. Again, you’ve got to think about the other benefits that come from being in an office or a physical location. From meeting colleagues to interacting in more informal conversations that you have. And it’s difficult to replicate some of those on a Zoom call or a Teams environment. You don’t have those informal conversations. It’s not as easy to set up a meeting with somebody and just have a discussion about things for a few minutes. The final part I’d say on that as well is this… Alan Sugar’s comments, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments, they’re quite simplistic I think in the way that they categorize jobs as well. Not all jobs can be done working at home or in the office, so for many people who’ve been working in a physical location during the pandemic, think of frontline retailer workers, people in hospitals, people in factories making essential goods and services. They have no choice over that, really. I think they’d find it really, quite, offensive to have a note from someone saying, you know, it would be nice to see you in the office or not. I think its… many people have not had that choice at all over where they work during the pandemic. So as always, I think it’s a more complex picture. I think there are debates to be had about the benefits and costs of remote working versus working face-to-face. What I think, also, it’s getting beyond those viewpoints that one is necessarily better than the other. There may be a grander view to be had which is that it varies according to different groups, different sectors, and that may also change over time as well. Yes at the moment there may be considerable scope for hybrid working and perhaps that will change again in a few years’ time and organisations and individuals need to think about what’s best for them in those circumstances.
Marc: Great, thank you. I can see Ellen looking at her watch so I’ll ask one last one. So in terms of the students, in terms of students who’ve asked you to graduate. How do you feel they could best prepare themselves for this new sort of world of work?. But for myself, until March:
Marc: Yes, absolutely. Brilliant, yeah thank you very much. That echoes what I say to students, you know, in terms of rather than look at the negative side of the study, which I get that and it’s not a crass comment, but to look at the positive side because as we’ve said you know the companies have been… they weren’t used to this and they’ve had to learn along with the companies and that should be input into an interview or an application so they have learnt quite a bit.
Chris: I think you’re right and some of the are still… employer, many employers, are still finding their way with it so I think they are and some employers are more open and honest about it than others. It’s not a fade to complete and they’re very much a work in progress. A lot of the things they are doing around remote work and hybrid working and returning to the office, so I think an employer that is open and able to discuss that with potential workers, I think that’d be a really valuable conversation to have as you say to focus on the positive aspects of it and what opportunities and constraints there might be going forward.
Marc: Brilliant. Ellen, you’re like how Alex Ferguson used to be on the touchline looking at your watch- it’s Fergie time.
Ellen: I looked at it once and you’ve picked up on that. I’m a little bit conscious now. Well thank you so much for that. I think that a really interesting… I’m just going to ask one last question to you both, I suppose. What are the key takeaways before we finalise today’s episode? From your perspective Chris, you know, on the academic debate, what are the key takeaways to take from this episode and also, Marc, from your perspective as well?
Chris: From my perspective I think, just thinking about the positive and the negative aspects of this for organisations and workers and getting beyond these sort of headlines that there are around this to really think about what the challenges are around hybrid working and from a graduate’s or applicant’s perspective what is this organisation likely to be doing in the future that I’m thinking of joining? As I said many organisations are still feeling their way with this and will be struggling to be keeping up with the pace of change or are not sure how to respond and I think that is one of the key takeaways to think about it. There’s surveys, academic research provides us with some of the headline figures around this but as always the devil is in the detail. I think we can learn a lot from early research but the pandemic’s also undoubtedly accelerated change for many firms and workers so this is a familiar message from me from the previous podcast. This is about trying to emphasize that we want and need a nuanced understanding of some of the implications of these changes and the change while it’s occurring that seem very rapid at the moment so if we place it in more longer term perspective we can learn something from the previous research that’s gone on while recognising the imperatives of the pandemic has caused as well.
Ellen: Sure, great. Thank you. And Marc?
Marc: I think for me it’s about reflection, it always is. Careers work is very much about reflection and as Chris said articulating to employers what you’ve learnt. And I think looking back over those two years that we’ve had of remote working, of remote learning you know was… it hasn’t been easy! You know and it’s been very difficult and it’s not been great I terms of mental health, you know, when you reflect on it. All the students, all the graduates, have been very agile. You know, they’ve adjusted really well, you know we do evolve. We’ve always evolved. Jobs evolved, society evolved, how we… you know I’ve always used the analogy of music in my workshops. Students, you know… I’ve come from, I am… I am old. You know, tapes and vinyl, to the shuffle to the CD to the laserdisc, back to vinyl. So you know you have to adjust, if you want to listen to music that’s how you do it. That’s what work is going to be like as well. So I think you reflect on all the good things you’ve learnt and how agile you’ve been. Make sure you articulate that to employers. And also, you’re curious. You got to keep your eye on the ball. Things are changing constantly and curiosity is one of the things in higher education that’s really important. You want to be curious, you want to ask questions, you want to be engaged because these are your future leaders as well. They’re gonna change the future landscape and that’s really important as well.
Ellen: Absolutely. Well it’s a process of learning, reflecting, and curiosity. There you have it everyone! So that’s all we have time for in this episode. As for the next one, we’ll start a brand new topic on the future of skills, which we’ll be looking at some of the changing trends on the skills required by employers and how our graduates can prepare for these changes. So stay tuned for the next episode. As always, please subscribe to our episode series if you’re interest in finding out more about this topic. You’re also welcome to get in touch with us by either sending us an email or book online appointments via the Careers Centre. Our contact details are available in the episode below. Lastly, I shall leave you with a quote, “Success in hybrid working environments requires employers to move viewing beyond remote or hybrid working environments as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as a real opportunity.” Until next time, take care.