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Written by Ritula Shah
on May 17, 2023

Ritula Shah has been one of the key voices of BBC Radio for a generation. She has served as the main presenter of The World Tonight (BBC Radio 4), she has presented Woman's Hour (BBC Radio 4) and was a launch presenter for The World Today (BBC World Service). Today among her various independent journalism assignments, she is also a presenter on Classic FM radio in the UK. Ritula recently provided some lucky UP Members her views on the rise of the TWAT workforce (more on that acronym later). Find out about what she had to say below.

We asked Ritula to provide her views on the ever changing world of work. She kindly joined us at Merton College, Oxford, at our recent UP THERE, EVERYWHERE Creative Writer's Retreat to give a speech on the subject. Her talk shed light on the current thinking, trends and challenges in the post covid workplace.

This blog sets out much of the topic.

Ritula blog speaks to UP

Images courtesy of Hannah Hutchins

Baking banana bread. Bringing home a puppy. Walking. Endless walking. What did you do during the pandemic? Apart from filling long days with new and sometimes short lived hobbies, those of us who had worked in offices, suddenly found ourselves, ‘working from home.’ And once we’d found a nook in which to station our laptop, quite a lot of us rather liked it. 

During the Industrial Revolution it was the workers who objected to change. In the early 19th century, the Luddites, British weavers and textile workers, fearing for their livelihoods, protested against the increased use of mechanised looms and knitting frames. Fast forward to 2020 and arguably, it was companies that were the drag on change. 

The corporate model had broadly adopted a one size fits all approach; five days a week, in an office from roughly 9 to 5. This was shattered by the pandemic. Companies which had long resisted the idea of employees toiling out of sight, were suddenly forced to embrace remote working. 

There is a caveat, this transformation applied mostly to the service sector, many other roles, such as hospitality and manufacturing, saw no change. But where this shift has happened, it’s interesting to consider how it might evolve - or indeed retreat.

It could be argued it’s surprising it’s taken so long for the redundancy of the office as we’ve known it, to surface.  In the old days, the office was a sort of factory of work. The tasks were in the filing cabinet, on your desk or on a physically connected phone line. Now, technology means for many of us dealing with knowledge and information, ‘the work’ can be wherever we can use a laptop. 

So as the fears of the pandemic receded, a ‘new normal’ of ‘wfh’ or a hybrid, combining home and office, had taken hold by default. Employees discovered they had cut their costs, gained commuting time and flexibility.

Here in the UK, this has translated into the rise of the TWATS – the people who only come into the office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. A term that’s rude and descriptive in a thoroughly British way. But not all companies have been inclined to embrace the TWAT world. Tech and finance companies have been among those to insist their staff come back to the office full time. Some employees voted with their feet and resigned. 

Other companies enabled wfh but expressed their lack of trust in employees by imposing surveillance software. Retaliation followed as workers found ways to jiggle their mouse automatically or to send time-shifted emails when they were doing something else entirely. It’s also worth flagging that not everyone loathes the office – for many, especially young people it is an important social space.

This is then, still an evolving project. Lynda Gratton from the London Business School and author of Redesigning Work has surveyed company executives about their embrace of hybrid working. In the March 2023 edition of the Harvard Business Review she wrote;

“In February 2022 I polled 266 executives from 68 companies across 36 countries and asked them; “Where do you think you are [with hybrid work] at the moment?” Only 2% chose the response; “We’ve implemented and rolled out a final design of work.” The remaining 98% located themselves somewhere earlier in the process by choosing one of these: “We have a design and are beginning to roll out in some places” (40%), “The final design is still under discussion” (35%), or, “We are looking at options” (23%).”

Most companies were in transition. When she repeated the survey in November 2022, there was evidence of progress – 42% of executives reporting a final hybrid work design had been rolled out.

This transformation in how we work has thrown up new problems for managers. 

Can creativity and innovation ever happen online?  If everyone is working from home for part of the week, how is corporate culture communicated? One multinational is said to have turned to virtual reality to help onboard new joiners who aren’t in the office.

There also doesn’t appear to be much agreement on the impact of remote or hybrid working on productivity. There is research to indicate it has a positive effect and research which casts doubt on this. Perhaps it is simply too early to say.

Julia Hobsbawm is the author of The Nowhere Office. She tackles many of the problems that are almost certainly troubling senior executives – including how to replicate what she elegantly calls ‘birdsong’ – the valuable interaction that happens by chance in the office but can’t occur digitally. Hobsbawm also raises the awkward issue of equality and WFH — not everyone has reliable broadband, or a spare room to use as a home office.

The wider economy has also experienced an impact. Apart from reduced sales in city centre coffee shops, train companies have seen passenger numbers plummet and there may be fewer jobs for support staff like cleaners and caterers as traditional office buildings are jettisoned. As these changes ripple through the economy they will need to be addressed by governments, corporations and society at large.

Our world of work faces another looming and potentially dramatic transformation. 

A recent report from Goldman Sachs claimed AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full time jobs. A breathtaking number. But the report also suggested that the change could result in new jobs and a productivity boom. Maybe the lesson from the folly of the Luddites is that technological upheaval does destroy some jobs but new ones, which we can’t imagine in the moment, emerge to take their place?

In conclusion, hybrid working is here to stay and for many of us the boundaries between home and work have become permanently blurred. Some companies may abandon their offices altogether, while others may let employees choose when and where they work. From now on though, work will involve equipping managers and staff to learn to collaborate even if they aren’t in the same space — and senior managers will also have to learn to trust staff to actually complete the assigned task. And with luck, there will be better coffee in the suburbs.


Learn more about e-ployment here.

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