A worker at their computer at home.

The last year has seen some businesses stress that the pandemic has forced them into a positive change in working habits: they’re embracing flexible working, employees can ‘work from anywhere’, and everyone is enjoying a better work life balance. A number have made grandiose announcements about their ‘future of work’ strategies, detailing complex hybrid working strategies and expensive office refurbishments.  

But have things really changed? There’s evidence to suggest that too many organisations are still working in a 20th century way: employees can log on from anywhere, but must stick to rigid start and end times.

Elsewhere, prominent business leaders are pushing for employees to return to the office because they claim it improves innovation and collaboration. There remains an assumption that good work happens when we’re all co-located, working the same fixed hours. Even arguments for the four-day week at times imply that days and hours would be set, allowing little in terms of personalised flexibility.  

Arguably we’re seeing two things: a new form of digital presenteeism for those who are ‘allowed’ to work from home, who feel an added pressure to be ‘on’ all the time in exchange for that flexibility, and a growing bias in favour of those who show up to the office in those companies who opt for a hybrid approach.

It’s classic proximity bias: people who are most visible gain access to the best projects and promotions, while there’s a penalty for those who perform their tasks remotely, even if they’re logging on long after they would have done if they were in the building.

The pandemic promised a rebalancing of power, a chance for employees to press ‘pause’ to reflect on the fact they could have a life outside work. Instead, the status quo remained, with many workplaces simply replacing the stress and hustle of the physical workplace with a different type of pressure on remote workers. 

So how do we build a future of work based on mutual trust, that doesn’t discriminate based on where, when and how you work?

I’d argue that the conversation needs to focus on what work is for, and what is getting in the way of making it better. A number of organisations in the US have trialled the Results Only Working Environment - a concept developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson at BestBuy in the early 2000s and later in their 2008 book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. It encourages organisations to measure employees by results or output, rather than presence in the office or the hours they work.

As the virus becomes more endemic and workplaces learn to cope with constantly new disruptions to the ‘normal’, this type of high-autonomy, high trust environment could allow them to thrive.

Alongside a focus on results first, managers can start by asking employees what good work looks like to them - perhaps through an employee survey or frequent open dialogue. They should then be realistic about how they can meet those demands.

No organisation will be able to accommodate hundreds of interventions, but if the starting point is collectively agreed principles and targets, a sensible compromise can be reached. In this scenario, managers become the crafters of better, more inclusive working environments that enable agreed-upon results, rather than dictating how, where and when teams should operate. 

This includes open-ended conversations and challenging of existing assumptions about:

  • What is our work? How could it be different?
  • How much in-person collaboration have we done in the past? How much do we really need? 
  • What are our cultural norms in terms of how we meet goals? 
  • How do we reward those goals being met?
  • What behaviours support our underlying principles?

Critically, leaders’ reconsidering their own assumptions is key here. Rather than thinking ‘this is what has always worked for me’, look at the vast volume of robust management research on what does actually work. Leadership in these fluid times is not about being personally validated through adherence to comfort. It’s about embracing change, removing friction, and handing over autonomy. 

Trust is paramount. The old perceptions that employees are fundamentally different to managers do not stand up to scrutiny. Most employees have proven themselves over the past two years to be able to get things done without being monitored or threatened with sanctions.

The real revolution in how we work will not come from elaborate hybrid working policies that are as inflexible as the old ways of working, but from trust, inclusion and outcomes-driven action. Managers should agree outputs, clarify joined principles, facilitate support, then get out of the way.

Dr Maja Korica is a Reader in Management and Organisation. She specialises in corporate governance, accountability and responsibility, as well as executive management and leadership in practice.

She also teaches Leading and Management Change on the Executive MBAExecutive MBA (London), and Distance Learning MBA, as well as Organisational Behaviour on the Full Time MBA and DLMBA.