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Digital first. This has been the lead motif for numerous organizations the last decade. A huge shift in changed consumer behavior has revolutionized all sorts of business sectors. Media, healthcare, retail just to mention a few.
Online life has advanced both our private and professional lives making us more flexible in several ways. The time saved when many work tasks are possible to carry out from the living room or kitchen table can lead to both higher productivity as well as higher life quality, as well as fewer days of sick leave.
All of this is really nothing new, but it has been put at test and proven in a much larger scale during the last few months when the pandemic hit the world.
Yet, if truth should be told, several of these tasks which are now carried out by computer and smartphone were in fact able to be managed from distance with the use of a land line phone and fax-machine already in the 80’s – I am a firsthand witness as I remember my parents’ home offices from various living rooms in Europe.
Still, how come it took a pandemic in the 2020’s to fully acknowledge the benefits and possibilities of working remotely which had been known for decades?
Peer pressure, paired with social anxiety and human control behavior is my guess. Not even the most introvert genius feels comfortable venting the idea that he or she prefers (needs) the solitude (or alternative lively company) of a home office or coffee shop desk over the traditional work place. And it is understandable, who wants to give the impression that your colleagues and boss are not enjoyable enough to share office walls with when it’s your work and livelihood that is on stake.
As human beings are social creatures, we don’t just seek each other out for company but also keep a watching eye out for those who stray from the group. And as long as the physical office is the place where most of us gather, the ones who are not there obviously tend to miss out on things and can also be considered more suspicious by the larger group.
Of course, there are lots of reasons for many organizations, ranging from rational, economical to medical and emotional, to maintain physical workplaces even when technology offers alternatives and pandemic times have passed. Human beings tend to thrive in the presence of others, we need to make use of all our senses in order to flourish and for a large group it is in fact nothing less than sheer lifesaving to have a physical work office to go back and forth to as a daily routine.
However as there are also are numerous critical jobs which cannot be carried out from distance, the larger discussion on the potential of digitization in relation to the work place typically tends to be drowned by reasoning of another sort: “well it’s all fine if some privileged ones can work from home, but all of us will never be able to do so, we need to keep society running you know…”.
Rather than maintaining this finite outlook we need to ask questions such as: what are the limitations for a shopkeeper to work from another place than the counter? Or, how could a nurse‘s work life balance be improved if there were other options than strictly caring for patients from a hospital corridor?
Naturally, not every single challenge in society or organization will be improved solely by technological developments. But a lot of important gains have already been won – and we will not know for sure what other gains await until we dare to try, at least by thinking about things differently.
No one is declaring the death of all traditional work offices, yet undoubtably something has changed this year. When Facebook, Google and Twitter early on in the beginning of the corona pandemic announced that some of their staff would never need to work from office again, it was a strong signal.
In addition to factors such as productivity and well-being, academics also point to larger global challenges when envisioning more remote work in the future.
Leading global researcher on technology at work, professor Leslie Willcocks believes that “wise businesses will invest in remote flexible environments /…/ also because it offers a default way of operating in case of future, more or less unanticipatable, crises, disasters, and events, natural or otherwise”.
We are entering a new phase of work life, and many will have to adjust for both better and worse. So, let’s focus on the positive aspects and experiences learnt during these last few months and start elaborating more on how to continue improving work and life as we know it.