2022: Looking back and looking forwards
It’s now possible to think of 2022 as the year that we began to settle into the new (post-pandemic) normal. So, what did the world of work in 2022 look like and what are we likely to see in 2023?
According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), in February 2022, 84% of workers who had to work from home because of the pandemic planned to continue hybrid working (working at home and in their place of work). The most common pattern that hybrid workers were planning involved more time working from home and less time at their usual place of work (roughly 3 days at home and two at work), with 42% reporting this pattern, compared with only 30% in 2021. Although the trend towards remote working is fairly widespread the opportunity and take-up varies across countries and cultures. CEPR estimates that around 30% of North American and Western European workers are in occupations that allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. Latin American and Eastern European workers fall somewhere in between at 23% and 18%, respectively. Even in countries where opportunity is high there are variations. For example, according to a Credit Summit report over 50% of Americans are working remotely at least part-time. The same report also notes that remote working is not spread evenly across the workforce in terms of income, education or employment sector. In the USA, approximately 67% of higher-income employees work from home. In contrast, only 56% of middle-income and 53% of lower-income employees can work remotely.
Working from home (either hybrid or full-time) can bring productivity improvements but it is not without risks for employees and raises challenges for managers. A large-scale Microsoft survey reveals that 85% of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. The report notes that many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking around. Hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work (49% vs. 36% for in-person managers) and report that they have less visibility into the work their employees do (54% vs. 38%).
For employees, working from home blurs the boundaries between personal and professional lives. People respond to this blurring of boundaries in different ways but given the long-term prevalence of remote working, in 2023 organisations will need to ensure that the impact of softer boundaries is positive rather than negative. In the same way that managers are concerned about productivity for remote workers, the workers themselves may feel the need to demonstrate that they are busy.
Some research has demonstrated that remote working may have a detrimental effect on collaboration and communication (Yang et al., 2022). Data on the emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and workweek hours of 61,182 US employees over the first six months of 2020 showed that remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Unless issues like this are dealt with the concerns of managers about productivity may be valid.
Interest in mental health was already growing but the pandemic provided a huge stimulus and concerns about mental health reached a new level – and interest is still growing.
According to indeed’s Work Wellbeing 2023 Insights Report 46% of people say their expectation around happiness at work has increased in just the last year. The same report indicates that 90% of people believe that how we feel at work matters, yet only 49% of people report their company is measuring happiness and wellbeing.
In 2023 organisations that deal effectively with wellbeing and mental health issues are likely to develop a competitive edge. Dealing with the issues effectively is, in many ways, simple: get accurate and actionable feedback on the current levels of mental health and wellbeing and develop solutions that address the findings. Unfortunately, too many organisations are failing in these fundamental steps. According to the results from the Microsoft survey even when organisations do collect feedback, 75% of employees (and 80% of managers) think it’s not collected frequently enough, and 75% of business decision makers say it’s not actionable anyway.
Once good feedback is collected actions that address the findings of the feedback are crucial. To develop a competitive edge in 2023 organisations need to utilise solutions that are targeted and effective in tackling problems at source. Simply adding generic “wellbeing support” will not work. Generic wellbeing support, such as counselling services, or online digital support have a place, but they fail to tackle the drivers of wellbeing in the workplace – they deal with the outcomes but not the cause. Organisations that do no more than introduce generic solutions will not gain competitive advantage. To deal with wellbeing and mental health effectively there needs to be a mindset shift in the support that organisations provide. For example, it is well-established that job autonomy and a sense of purpose are important for employees’ wellbeing and mental health but according to a report by Wellable Labs just 3% of organisations report improving job autonomy as a frequently utilized solution and only 6% of companies intend to take steps to cultivate a shared purpose. By contrast, according to the same Wellable Labs report, 87% of employers – including 90% of small companies – plan to invest more in telehealth this year. Support such as telehealth, counselling services and wellbeing apps may enable organisations to tick the wellbeing box – but alone they will not deal with the issues, and they will not provide competitive advantage!
As noted above, there is a clear and permanent move towards remote working. Some people will undoubtedly prefer full-time remote working, but the general trend is towards a hybrid model. During 2022 the proportion of hybrid workers has been rising but the proportion of those working from home exclusively has fallen (ONS data). In fact, increased demand for flexible working goes alongside increased interest from workers in the full range of flexibility, equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Glassdoor and indeed’s 2023 Hiring and Workplace Trends report reveals that workers would consider turning down a job or leaving an organisation if they felt that their manager would not support diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives. In particular, younger people were more concerned about these issues. Over 70% of workers aged 18- 34 said they would consider turning down a job offer or leaving for these reasons, compared to 63% of respondents aged 35-44, 60% of respondents aged 45-54, 52% of respondents aged 55-64, and 45% of workers aged 65 plus.
It seems likely that, as they enter the workforce the norms and expectations of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2010) will make significant demands of employers. Already this generation accounts for a fifth of the UK workforce. Through 2023 and beyond, progressive organisations will find ways of responding to the changing requirements of the workforce. Simply ticking the wellbeing box with an app and a counselling service or merely paying lip service to diversity and inclusion issues is unlikely to meet the expectations of this generation and those that follow them.
The labour market and technology trends
The increase in popularity of working from home is reflected in changes in the labour market. Postings on indeed advertising remote jobs have increased in 2022, compared with 2019 (UK 3%-10.1%; USA 2.9%-8.6%; Germany 3.7%-12.4%). Even France, where the shift towards remote work has been slower showed an increase from 1.6%-6.1%. Along with the move towards hybrid working there is a growth in independent, contractor working – a variation on the so-called gig economy. It seems likely that 2023 and beyond will see further growth in contractor working and the gig economy, providing flexibility and agility to organisations and workers alike. Like hybrid working this trend will also bring benefits but will need to be managed well by employers and the individual contractors themselves. The broad range of wellbeing factors, not just mental health, will need to be managed properly to ensure good mental, physical, social and financial wellbeing.
Since the early days of the industrial revolution and before, new technology has created disruption in the workplace and the labour market. The evolution and growth of artificial intelligence (AI) involving the use of robots and algorithms either to take over or support the work of people in some roles will inevitably continue. There is still significant suspicion about the role of AI and its benefits for consumers and workers alike, but there is the potential for AI to have a positive impact. Through 2023 and beyond enlightened employers will focus not only on the cost-savings and productivity improvements that AI might bring but also on the positive impact that AI might have by taking on more mundane and repetitive tasks and enabling humans to spend their time on more interesting and rewarding aspects of work. If handled well there is the potential for AI to provide workers with more autonomy and a greater sense of purpose – both important and underdeveloped aspects of wellbeing at work.
Yang, L., Holtz, D., Jaffe, S., Suri, S., Sinha, S., Weston, J., Joyce, C., Shah, N., Sherman, K., Hecht, B., & Teevan, J. (2022). The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01196-4
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