For many office workers, the century-old model of the working day – commute Monday to Friday to a large building to sit at a desk surrounded by other employees working for the same organisation – has gone for the past year. It won’t be returning soon, if ever.
In some respects, that’s a good thing. Eliminating the commute is good for both the environment and your pocket, and saves valuable time. Home-based workers are generally happier and might even be more productive. Companies can save money by cutting back on office space and coffee machines.
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It’s not all good news, though: we might be more efficient at home, but we may also be less inspired, and many of us feel obliged to work longer hours. Then there are the businesses that feed and fuel all those commuters, which are suffering badly – to the point that it has been suggested home workers should pay more tax to support them. Either way, home working and remote working is likely to be a standard part of the working week from now on for many.
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The tech industry has done a reasonable job of filling the gap between the old world of work and the new one, replacing meetings with Zoom calls and random office chat with Slack messages.
It’s not the same, of course: it’s dispiriting to see yourself on video calls, not quite making eye contact with your colleagues, or being unable to hear them (a friend now has a small ‘You are on mute’ sign that he holds up in meetings because he can’t bear to say the phrase yet again).
Tech companies, from startups to big businesses, are rushing in to try and fix these new problems. Sharing data isn’t the real problem – after all, you can do that with a spreadsheet.
What we really miss is the trivial contacts, serendipities and simple sense of community that comes from being part of a team. Replacing all of those things is what tech companies should really focus on, and some are. A few might even get close to succeeding.
Augmented and virtual reality might help with some of that, but other technologies that bosses are bringing in might not have the same impact.
As we reported recently, more firms are investing in monitoring software that will keep tabs on what staff do on their PCs during the working day. In some limited cases – where staff are dealing with highly sensitive information and where leaks or misuse could lead to serious problems, for example – tighter security is understandable. But it’s hard to see how bosses have much to gain from the ability to monitor employees’ every keystroke or website visit.
The move to remote work has in many cases only succeeded because of pre-existing relationships; teams that worked effectively in the office have continued to work well and support each other even when physically separated. And teams that didn’t work well are unlikely to be brought together by remote working, especially if every keystroke is being monitored.
Tech alone won’t reshape the working week, but tech companies might be among the best-placed to understand what a new model looks like – a hybrid of remote work, office work, digital interactions and new models. Certainly they have been among those most willing to embrace the change that has been forced upon us in the past 12 months, and have the money to experiment with it, too.
Not every company can be like Spotify and let staff work from anywhere or from a co-working space; not every company can be Salesforce, which has said that the 9-to-5 workday is dead. Maybe tech won’t fix every problem for us, but perhaps by embracing the chance to do something different and better, the tech industry can show us that a different approach to work is possible.
ZDNET’S MONDAY MORNING OPENER
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.
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