Maverick Life

SIGN OF THE TIMES

What the corporate world of 2022 might look like and how it’ll affect your working life

Image: Pixabay
By Téa Bell
04 Jan 2022 0

The rise (and possible fall) of the hybrid model, augmentation of AI and digital technologies with human capabilities and ‘The Great Resignation’. We look at the pandemic and post-pandemic workplace trends that are likely to stick in 2022, and break down how they will affect you as an employee.

A looming return to the office?

Although it seems that the transition into remote and hybrid models of work was initially more of a knee-jerk reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic as opposed to a well-planned strategy, the potential for these novel working models to bolster organisational productivity, cut down on overhead costs and contribute positively to employee engagement has increasingly been realised by both employees and companies. 

In fact, a number of global management consulting firms have confidently affirmed that hybrid models of work are likely to persist even after the effects of the pandemic have tapered off.

Yet, while some organisations have readily embraced the hybrid model, others have overtly opposed it, mainly citing employee management difficulties and a compromised sense of organisational unity as reasons for preferring to have their employees on-site. 

Apple, Microsoft and Twitter are among a long list of companies that have opted to transition to a long-term hybrid model of work, while companies like Goldman Sachs and media giant Netflix have already started rounding up their employees and encouraging them to return to the office.

Despite management consulting and trend forecasting agencies’ acclamation of the hybrid model, there seems to be a dissonance between employees’ and employers’ expectations for the future prosperity of remote modes of work, with the latter generally pushing for a return to in-person modes of work in the coming year.

“Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent,” reads a report by McKinsey & Company, The Future of Remote Work.

And indeed, with vaccine roll-outs well under way, returning to the workplace is becoming an increasingly tangible prospect. A survey by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics revealed that the share of people working from home in the US dropped from 35% in March 2020 to 11.6% in October 2021.

Given employees’ preference for remote modes of work, the increasing number of workers returning to the office is likely to be due to employers’ aversion to the “work-from-home” model; but companies are sometimes pressuring their employees to return to the office, in subtle and covert ways; for example, research reveals that in companies where employees were given the option to work either remotely or on-site during the early stages of the pandemic, those who opted to work off-site were less likely to be given a promotion than those who regularly came into the office. Some researchers attribute employers’ favouritism towards in-office workers to “proximity bias” – employees who work in close physical proximity to their supervisors are seen as better, more dedicated workers. 

A report by organisational consulting agency Korn Ferry speculates that 2022 will bring with it greater clarity in terms of what exactly employers expect from their employees with regards to returning to the office. In the early phases of the pandemic numerous organisations were mandated by the government to facilitate remote modes of work. For some organisations hybrid and remote work models proved highly effective, but for others they did not.

“Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He noted that collaborative work and the production of original programme content – one of the company’s major selling points – was made particularly difficult with their dispersed workforce during the pandemic.

Thus, over the coming year companies are likely to either do away with remote forms of work entirely or embed and formalise hybrid modes of work in their organisational systems: putting into place policies that clearly delineate how many days you’re expected to spend in the office, whether or not you’re expected to be in the office on particular days of the week, which events or meetings require in-person attendance and which ones can be attended virtually.

Whether or not you’ll be expected to return to the office full-time is likely to depend on the industry you’re in, the tasks that you’re expected to perform, and your company’s preference for or aversion to remote work. Either way, you can expect greater clarity on this front as the gains and losses of remote work for your individual organisation are realised.

Working with robots

The transition to remote and hybrid forms of work necessitated by the pandemic undoubtedly ramped up corporate use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies to facilitate effective communication, as well as – it appears – monitor employees’ working habits.

We saw the ascension of virtual conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet, the mainstreaming of business messaging platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, and the increased use of business and employee management software programs like Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 Business Central.

The use of artificial intelligence technology in corporate activities witnessed exponential growth during the pandemic. In 2020, $50-million was raised and invested in Otter.ai, an AI-powered speech-to-text transcription application. It has been integrated into Google Meet and Zoom to provide live and collaborative note-taking opportunities during virtual conferencing. “Smart chatbots” are increasingly being used by businesses as sales and customer support devices. In 2020, telecommunications company TIM Brasil deployed a new smart chatbot called IBM Watson Assistant which verbally responds to customer queries with natural language in real-time.

Bernard Marr, futurist and strategic business and technology adviser to governments, anticipates that corporations will continue along the trajectory of closely monitoring their workforce through the gathering of “people data” and augmenting human capabilities with artificial intelligence in 2022.

This means your workplace is likely to continue collecting biometric data on your health, safety and (probably) your vaccination status. The practice of surveilling the digital activities that you perform during your working hours through things like tracking your keystrokes, monitoring the amount of time spent on certain websites or applications and – potentially – gathering data about the documents that you open and emails that you read, is also likely to outlive the work-from-home model and persist after the pandemic.

Brain Kopp, group vice-president and chief of HR research at technology research and consulting company Gartner, notes that when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out 16% of companies put new tracking software on their employees’ laptops.

While employee data tracking can be used in positive ways to better understand individual workers’ support needs, health status, skills level and engagement with the enterprise, Marr warns that companies that choose to invest in people-monitoring technology “have a fine line to tread” and must maintain transparency with their employees if they are to avoid invading their privacy.

While the World Economic Forum anticipates that AI and automation will ultimately create more jobs than they destroy, the augmentation of AI and human capabilities may exacerbate the global skills mismatch.

“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,” explains Marr. For example, if you work in human resources, AI technology will be increasingly incorporated into recruiting practices to streamline the process of filtering through and shortlisting candidates. 

Korn Ferry speculates that organisations will focus their learning and development efforts inwards in 2022, reskilling and upskilling their staff in an attempt to consolidate their existing human capital with the skills required to further augment AI and digital technology in the workplace.

As an employee, you might be expected to partake in new learning and development programmes aimed at improving your digital literacy and enhancing your understanding of AI technologies. These are most likely to be run through self-paced e-learning courses, an approach to corporate learning that is on the rise, with more than 75% of organisations offering some form of online study.

The Great Resignation” refers to the unprecedented number of workers who resigned during the Covid-19 pandemic – most of them without another job lined up. While the phenomenon is usually considered within the context of America and the UK, Georgina Barrick, networking contracting solutions expert at ADvTECH, anticipates that the trend is likely to spill over into South Africa in the near future (at least among highly skilled employees who can afford to be discerning about the jobs they take on).

While the reasons for the Great Resignation are multifaceted, an article published by the World Economic Forum suspects that it has something to do with employees’ disillusionment with rigid, traditional systems of work following the growth of opportunities for enhanced job flexibility during the pandemic.

“We already know from surveys before the pandemic started that an overwhelming majority of knowledge workers would like to work from home and would even be willing to quit a job to work remotely. This is one of the major reasons for The Great Resignation,” the article explains.

“Attraction and retention used to be a numbers game – 2022 calls for a much more human approach. Organisations should consider all the levers they have available to them for building and strengthening relationships with individual talent – from compensation, rewards and benefits to learning and development, succession and [diversity equity and inclusion],” reads Korn Ferry’s The Future of Work Trends report.

Moving into 2022, companies will have to up their game to attract and retain talent. Findings of an Ernst & Young survey reveal that, globally, more than half of employees would quit their jobs if not given post-pandemic workplace flexibility. Organisations will have to start looking beyond big bonuses and salary increases and start thinking along the lines of increased flexibility and enticing employee benefits. Employees can expect increases in company-offered benefits in 2022, including “on-site childcare”, “caregiver stipends”, “education reimbursements”, “paid time-off” and “top-tier dental and health insurance”.

Trying to accurately predict what 2022 will hold for our workplace futures is not easy. What we do know is that 2020 and 2021 were characterised by drastic, even revolutionary changes to the ways we think about our jobs, and some of these changes are bound to stick.

The Future of Work Trends report put it succinctly: “If 2020 and 2021 were years of unplanned reinvention, 2022 is where it gets intentional.” DM/ML

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