Saturday Essay: Do Brits Want Something Else From Work Now?
After two lockdowns, what do Brits now want from work? Justin Small, CEO and Founder of Future Strategy Club looks at the transformation of the UK private sector – inspired by COVID-19, maintained by common sense and convenience.
With the COVID vaccine already arriving at UK hospitals ahead of a national rollout and workers in England clear of a second lockdown, albeit now in a tiered system, there is some hope of returning to normality in the medium term.
But what exactly does that new norm look like? It would seem that the changes inspired by Covid-19 are more long-term than once thought, triggered by a pandemic yet maintained by convenience. Since March, millions of Brits have experienced work like never before. Home offices, kitchen table workspaces, home-schooling and endless 'office' hours have been the new “9-5” leaving old routines of 7.30 trains and office culture a memory of a private sector past. And with the dawn of change, many working Brits have seen work in a new light.
And workplace attitudes have shifted as a result. According to a study commissioned by Slack, a majority of skilled office workers have no interest in returning to working fully at the office. Data from a survey of 9,032 knowledge workers in the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia found that only 12% want to go back to working entirely in an office. The majority of workers —72%—want to continue with a hybrid workstyle, a mixture of office work and remote work.
With more regions across the UK being plunged into tighter restrictions, millions of people are unlikely to be back in the office in January despite a year of disruption. This, for many, means a continuation of a new normal working environment of Zoom calls, working lunches and balancing work and home more delicately than ever before.
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This environment has come at a time when businesses in many sectors have been vulnerable to the economy with little control of their own destiny. For some, pivoting a business model was absolutely crucial to the survival of many entrepreneurs and their enterprises. As the hospitality sector struggled, some alcohol distilleries and breweries decided to start manufacturing alcohol-based sanitiser and other equipment, such as PPE.
To do this required not only great decisiveness for thousands of entrepreneurs, but also new and unknown territories for hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses across the UK. This has, inadvertently, given birth to a new economy of flexible experts and given business leaders a lifeline.
Now, despite many people suffering with job losses, furlough and a reduction of pay or contracted hours, there is a market of specialists and knowledge-led workers who can assess and assist with businesses and their immediate needs. Previous C-suite level directors, managers and specialists have been called upon by businesses, large and small, to help with very specific aims. Whether this is a new marketing strategy through COVID, setting up thousands of staff to work from home, or transform a business model almost overnight to change tack to ensure their future, these specialists have been utilised by firms across the country and the world.
For individuals who have been through a difficult time during COVID, this move and rapid shift in the economic climate has meant there has been a market run on high-level talent who can help with specific business goals. Of course, business transformation experts, IT and data and human resource specialists have been in high demand, but other specialists, such as executive coaches, leadership mentors and business planning executives have helped entrepreneurs survive this period. Unlike previous recessions, experts in very niche fields such as gamification or war planning, have come into demand. These experts have been able to spread their work across a number of clients rather than for just one employer, spreading the security of income across a number of firms rather than relying on one company during a potentially turbulent economy.
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For these people, it fundamentally changed how they work. No longer were they employees to a single company but were now contractors to a number of them. Almost overnight, thousands of people were introduced to a new norm of employment. The home office is now the most common working environment, kitchen tables are the new board rooms, and the commute has been cut from a train journey to a walk downstairs.
The new norm demands malleability at speed. It is not a set-in-stone 9-5 with an hour lunch, but more flexible, less constrained way of work that fits into the life of the employee. This includes choosing your own working days as your own boss, working more efficiently during the hours that suit and providing vital business assistance at the time when they need it. If people are dealing with teams from London, New York and Frankfurt, a nimble workforce can make their working hours fit around a global team, not just a local team.
This has increased efficiency, communications, output and transparency across organisations that may never have been realised if it wasn’t for the COVID crisis.
Likewise, the shift has raised new questions for what people really want from work now. Working from home, fitting schedules around children and trying to teach and work simultaneously has given rise to the new norm to thousands of workers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of workers (51.6%) report improved work-life balance from remote work, with only 17.8% showing a decline. What is more interesting from Slack's study is the proportion of workers reporting an increase in their overall workplace satisfaction, with 45.8% saying things have gotten better, versus only 20% who report a drop.
The world’s biggest experiment in work from home is showing that we are generally happier and more satisfied with it.
When it comes to output, many bosses believe working from home limits communication, creativity and productivity but in fact, Slack’s analysis shows 74.5% have felt no change or an improvement in workplace productivity. But looking beyond productivity gains, that 45.8% who feel increased workplace satisfaction represent a huge opportunity for companies. Therefore, the new norm is not just improving people’s working hours and work-life balance, but business output and efficiency, meaning many firms make adopt this new norm as just ‘the norm.’
In fact, this research also aligns with data that Future Strategy Club (FSC) has commissioned in the UK.
FSC commissioned nationally representative data across 2,076 Brits to find out what they now want from work.
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The research shows that over half of working Brits - 52% or 13.7 million - feel closer to their family and enjoy a better work-life balance after working at home for months and want to continue to do so in some capacity in the future. In addition, 40% of Brits - 11.4 million people - say the pandemic has made them realise what a poor work-life balance they had pre-lockdown and they will not return to it after COVID. This chimes with data from a number of sources and now, many people are reconsidering their opportunities.
FSC’s research show that 60% of Brits believe the workplace of the future will have to change drastically for the better to avoid losing its best talent to freelancing and consulting. Furthermore, 34% of Brits say the COVID pandemic has encouraged them to look towards consultancy and freelance work or start their own business. This, again, fits into the narrative of the new, nimble norm for thousands of highly skilled workers, representing a new, growing economy of consultants, experts and a talent pool available at every level of company in the country, not just the upper echelons of business.
Ten months of lockdown has permanently affected our filter on the world of work; and surprisingly quickly throughout the course of 2020. Working from home and flexible working was already growing in popularity but this year has put that growth on steroids. COVID showed all the worse parts of the traditional working structure so it is not surprising so many people have wanted to make changes to their environments permanently. Freelance and flexible working opportunities also help some sections of society more than others. Parents, for example, can benefit hugely from flexible and freelance working opportunities.
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In fact, FSC’s nationally representative data found that 23% of British parents say their employer was unsympathetic to them having to manage childcare around work during the COVID period. The stats support the fact that in a period of transition, it is important that talent doesn’t fall into the cracks made by change. Companies need to be careful to accommodate their employees' needs and concerns otherwise, skilled individuals will be drawn towards going it alone or seeking new opportunities, causing repercussions for businesses that may be on the edge of surviving at a time where resource is their primary source of survival.
We have seen this at Future Strategy Club over the past year and now, are working with a powerful network of high-level consultants finding their own way as self-employed revenue houses. With issues such as IR35 delayed from March 2020 to Q1 2021, many thought that the freelancer boom would begin to slow. However, with the COVID crisis, unemployment and businesses needing more flexible talent, this way of work has accelerated, not slowed.
If people are looking to go freelance, self-employed or become a full-time consultant, consultancy agencies are a great alternative to going it alone straight away. From the migration patterns we have observed through the private sector, 2021 is on course to become the year of a nomadic generation of independent enterprise, backed by a mass exodus from the 9-5 – fuelled not only by employers choosing to be leaner, but skilled employees wanting to work wiser.
Justin Small is the CEO of The Future Strategy Club; an agency born from drawing on the talent of freelancers to establish a new, "members club" for growing companies to cherry pick the best talent for them. The FSC has around 300 Members, containing some of the highest-calibre business minds in the UK, including the former Digital Director at The Times and the former Head of Intelligence at the Royal Marines.