Amit Kramer is a professor of work and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies the relationship between work, family, and health. Kramer spoke with Phil Ciciora, News Bureau Business and Law Editor about the future of office work.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, remote work is gradually shifting to hybrid working — three days in the office, two days away, or vice versa — with no return in sight for the pre-pandemic five days in the office week of work. Will hybrid working be the norm in the future?
Yes and no. Organizations are likely to pay close attention and see which workers are as productive – or even more productive – when working in a hybrid environment and which are not. Additionally, organizations also collect and analyze data on the best-performing occupations and tasks in a hybrid environment. For example, it is possible that some HR functions could be performed in a hybrid environment just as well as in the office, while other HR functions such as talent development are best performed in an office environment.
Another thing to consider is the very low unemployment rate at the moment. This won’t last forever, and it will be interesting to see if organizations become stricter about a full return to office work when unemployment rises and organizations aren’t as concerned about leaving workers.
At the end of the day, I expect employees with power – highly skilled, hard-to-replace professionals, the so-called “top-talents” – to be able to choose their work environment. Employees who are less qualified and easier to replace will not have this autonomy.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped traditional white-collar office work?
I think it caused organizations and white-collar workers to reconsider what they perceived to be the only way “work works”. Organizations are finding that some white-collar office workers are just as or even more productive when working from home. This allows organizations to shape hybrid working arrangements as an advantage to attract better employees. It also allows them to recruit from a wider pool, i.e. not only candidates who are, for example, a 40-minute drive from the workplace, but perhaps those who are 100 minutes away by car.
It also allows employers to more seriously consider the cost savings that hybrid working offers: reduced office, utility and benefits costs; a lower carbon footprint; and attracting better talent and better retention rates, to name a few.
For white-collar office workers, some of the benefits are similar: the ability to consider more job openings in remote locations than one would have previously considered; and the ability to control time more effectively, allowing investment in other areas such as children, recreation, elder care and community involvement.
Importantly, for those who are not completely dependent on their work for financial reasons, it has changed perceptions about how “work works” and how new ways to combine work and life outside can be found. work.
What are the potential downsides of hybrid working?
My biggest concern with hybrid work is that it will halt or even reverse the progress that has been made towards greater gender and racial equality.
I really fear that we see a two-tiered workforce in different dimensions. The first dimension is that of high-skilled, high-demand workers versus low-skilled, low-demand workers.
Highly skilled workers will enjoy another great advantage besides high income, meaningful work, and great benefits. They will be able to choose a hybrid working arrangement if they wish.
Low-skilled workers will be forced to accept working conditions dictated by the employer. Some will have to work from home even if they don’t want to, others will have inflexible hybrid work arrangements, and some will be forced to work full-time from the office.
The second dimension that concerns me is where disadvantaged groups and individuals are forced into a hybrid or work-from-home arrangement that represents dead-end employment. Most of these people, unfortunately, are women, single mothers and people of color.
With so-called knowledge workers’ lack of enthusiasm to return to the office full-time, is there a deeper signal here of their dissatisfaction with work standards and office life in the workplace? before the pandemic?
It’s a good question and I’m not sure I have a good answer. All in all, creative work, face-to-face brainstorming, and informal hallway meetings are proven to be critical to performance. Thus, companies like Apple or Goldman Sachs certainly have a good reason to bring back employees. These workers are highly paid and have great benefits, but perhaps the pandemic has made some of them realize that they are locked in a golden cage.
So yes, I would say there is dissatisfaction with having your whole life revolved 24/7 around work, even if you have big benefits and a high income.
How has the rapid shift from full-time office work to remote or hybrid work affected young workers? Do you anticipate them clamoring for a return to pre-pandemic work experience?
I do not know. I think many older workers will go back to the office and want to be in the office. Young workers, who are already much more “connected” and “online” than older workers, have a different generational perspective and a much stronger resistance to full-time office work. Many of them are also at a stage in their lives where they are willing to give up higher compensation to gain more control over their time.
I will be curious to see how this evolves and if we will see a big generational divide around this issue.