How will the corona pandemic change the future workplace?
The office as we know it, the way we work, and our day-to-day lives have been turned upside by the global corona pandemic. How will the workplace of the future be redefined, and how might that in turn affect gender norms? Katarina Graffman, PhD in cultural anthropology and Jacob Östberg, professor of advertising and public relations, elaborate and share their thoughts.
Jacob: It is surprisingly easy to work at home in comfy clothes than running around between rather meaningless meetings all day. It wouldn’t surprise me if working from home becomes more common in the future.
Katarina: Hey, hold on just a bit. Now, perhaps you think you are not affected by all the changes around COVID-19 and the need to work from home. And you are not alone. If you scroll through social media feeds, they are flooded with posts about how incredibly smooth and great it is to be able to continue ‘business as usual’ because everything is connected via great digital technology. And I agree, we have spoken about digitalization for ages, decades even, but it has never gone beyond a working method. Work remains heavily site related.
Jacob: Yes, that is not strange as our culture has, for so long, valued work outside of the home as the main avenue for contributing to society. In contrast, unpaid work within the home has been viewed as socially valuable, but not financially. A focus area in gender equality in Sweden has been enabling both women and men to get paid for work outside of the home.
Katarina: Yes, what did society and the workplace look like 30 years ago, and what can we expect it to look like it 30 years’ time? A recent article, The coronavirus is a disaster for feminism by Helen Lewis featured in The Atlantic, warned that the more we work from home, the higher the risk of losing gender equality. The essence of the message is that working from home has time-travelled many couples back to the 1950’s. This isn’t just restricted to the burden of the household chores and childcare, but also in terms of who will go to work. The economic downturn is showing those who are in lower paid jobs are more likely to lose their job, and still this is more often the female. Yes, digitalization has and continues to rapidly advance, allowing us to work more seamlessly, but cultural values around gender equality are showing signs of being less robust.
Jacob: I think what we are seeing now, and what will become more obvious when we think about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, is that the workplace is so much more than the productive work we are paid to carry out. To ‘be at work’ is an activity packed with complex rituals; small talk at the coffee machine, morning greetings, end of week wind-down. These are aspects we must master to be successful in the professional world, not just sit in isolation, work and be quiet.
Katarina: I am absolutely convinced that these cultural rituals will need to be considered when we look at the workplace of the future, especially now as we have a precedent that shows the physical workplace is not needed in the same way to get work done. I have been thinking about the study I did a few years ago on activity-based organizations that showed that companies that really succeeded in implementing a culture based around completing tasks, rather than being present from eight-to-five, actually led to more people coming to the office. In these situations, employees could sit with who they liked to spend time with, not necessarily people within the same team or department. One positive result of this approach was an increase in knowledge about the company as a whole; interacting with employees from across the company, not only gave individuals freedom and responsibility within a structured framework, it also seemed to generate a greater interest in the objectives of the company. The shift came from individuals focusing solely on their own work and their own place, to a sense of participation - both at the workplace and as a business.
Jacob: It will be exciting to see which companies and industries succeed in creating workspaces with this feeling. Today, the focus is often on trying to connect the whole organization through special activities, such as kick-off meetings and holiday parties, while in general, employees are expected to take care of themselves without much effort. This may be a big change in the future.