Much has been written about the huge changes in our working lives during the past two years – driven of course by necessity and concerns for safety. In 2022, the pandemic is very much still a fact of life for many of us. However, it’s fair to say that we’ve learned to adapt to new behavioral patterns and expectations as we do our jobs. If we are among the millions of “knowledge workers” who find ourselves with more freedom to choose when and where we work, then hopefully, we are making the most of the opportunity to strike a better balance between home and working life.
Of course, however much there is to write about the widespread shift away from offices and centralized workplaces, there are many occupations and professions where this simply isn't an option. To frontline workers in healthcare, retail, teaching, transport, and security – among many other industries – buzzwords like “hybrid workplace” probably have very little impact on their day-to-day lives. But they are unlikely to remain untouched by other trends on this list, as technology opens up opportunities for new ways of working and continues to redefine the relationship between us and our workplaces.
When it comes to where we work, there will continue to be three main models – centralized workplaces, decentralized remote organizations, and the hybrid “best of both worlds” approach. What’s likely to change in 2022 is that it’s more likely that we, as workers, will have the choice rather than being forced to align with whatever model your organization has chosen out of necessity.
Organizations are clearly undergoing a change in their relationship with the idea of a centralized workplace. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, 69% of large companies expected an overall decrease in the amount of office space they would be using, according to research by KPMG.
Hybrid structures will range from companies maintaining permanent centralized offices with hot-desking to accommodate the fact that staff will more frequently work remotely, to doing away with offices entirely and relying on co-working spaces and serviced meeting rooms to support the needs of a primarily remote workforce.
A report recently commissioned by video messaging platform Loom found that 90% of employees surveyed – including workers and managers – are happier with the increased freedom they now have to work from home, suggesting that this is likely to be a trend that is here to stay as we move into 2022.
The World Economic Forum predicts that AI and automation will lead to the creation of 97 million new jobs by 2025. However, people working in many existing jobs will also find their roles changing, as they are increasingly expected to augment their own abilities with AI technology. Initially, this AI will primarily be used to automate repetitive elements of their day-to-day roles and allow workers to focus on areas that require a more human touch – creativity, imagination, high-level strategy, or emotional intelligence, for example. Some examples include lawyers who will use technology that cuts down the amount of time spent reviewing case histories in order to find precedents, and doctors who will have computer vision capabilities to help them analyze medical records and scans to help them diagnose illness in patients. In retail, augmented analytics helps store managers with inventory planning and logistics and helps sales assistants predict what individual shoppers will be looking for when they walk through the door. Marketers have an ever-growing range of tools at their disposal to help them target campaigns and segment audiences. And in engineering and manufacturing roles, workers will increasingly have access to technology that helps them understand how machinery works and predict where breakdowns are likely to happen.
Staffing for resilience
Pre-pandemic, the priority was generally to have been to hire staff that would create efficient organizations. Mid and post-pandemic, the emphasis has shifted firmly in the direction of resilience. Whereas built-in redundancy or overlaps in skills might previously have been seen as inefficient, today, it's seen as a sensible precaution.
This certainly encompasses another sub-trend, which is that employers are coming to understand the critical importance of building employee healthcare and wellbeing (including mental health) strategies into their game plan. Many are now trying to take more responsibility for helping their workforce maintain physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. A challenge here that companies will come up against in 2022 is finding ways to do this that hit objectives without being overly intrusive or invasive of employees’ privacy and personal lives.
Ensuring a workforce is healthy enough to keep a business running is clearly a critical element of resilience, but it also covers the implementation of processes that are more flexible, with built-in redundancies to provide cover when disaster strikes, resulting in operational efficiency becoming compromised. These processes are sure to play an increasingly big part in the day-to-day lives of workers as we move through 2022.
Less focus on roles, more focus on skills
Gartner says, "To build the workforce you'll need post-pandemic, focus less on roles – which group unrelated skills – than on the skills needed to drive the organization's competitive advantage and the workflows that fuel this advantage."
Skills are critical because they address core business challenges, with the competencies needed in a workforce to overcome those challenges. Roles, on the other hand, describe the way individual members of a workforce relate to an overall organizational structure or hierarchy. We've certainly seen this trend gestating for some time, with the move towards more "flat" organizational structures as opposed to strictly hierarchical teams with a direct reporting, chain-of-command approach to communication and problem-solving. By focussing on skills, businesses address the fact that solving problems and answering their core business questions is the key to driving innovation and success within information-age enterprises.
From the worker’s point of view, focusing on developing their skills, rather than further developing their abilities to carry out their role, leaves them better positioned to capitalize on new career opportunities. This shift in focus from roles to skills is likely to be a key trend for both organizations and workers during 2022.
Employee monitoring and analytics
Controversial though it may be, research shows that employers are increasingly investing in technology designed to monitor and track the behavior of their employees in order to drive efficiency. Platforms such as Aware that allow businesses to monitor behavior across email and tools such as Slack in order to measure productivity, are being seen as particularly useful by managers overseeing remote workforces. It builds on functionality created by earlier products such as Hitachi’s Business Microscope that tracked movements of staff around physical office blocks and could be used to monitor, among other things, how often bathroom breaks were taken, and which workers spend the most amount of time talking to others as opposed to sitting at their workstation.
Of course, it seems that it would be easy for companies to use these tools in a way that would be seen as overbearing or intrusive by their workers, and in my opinion, that would clearly be a recipe for disaster. However, ostensibly at least, the idea is to use them to gain broad oversights into workforce behavior rather than focus on individuals' activity and use them as tools for enforcing discipline. Companies that invest in this technology have a fine line to tread, and it remains to be seen whether the net effect will be a boost to productivity or a “chilling effect” on individual freedoms. If it’s the latter, it’s unlikely to end well for the companies involved. However, for better or worse, it seems likely that this kind of technology will play an increasingly large role in the workplace during 2022.