Redesigning work: how the employee-employer relationship is changing

Predicting the future of work is a tricky business but, after tracking two years of constant organisational change during the pandemic, London Business School professor Lynda Gratton believes she has the blueprint
Redesigning work Lynda Gratton

The pandemic forced the hand of many businesses – during the first lockdowns, the options were to adapt or go bust. But as Covid restrictions have been lifted, companies have been left wondering what comes next.

For some firms, the answer has been to slip back into old habits. Orders to return to the office were issued by banks and insurers, including Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Standard Chartered, shortly after the government scrapped its work-from-home guidance. 

However, London Business School professor of management practice Lynda Gratton believes that returning to our old ways would be to miss out on a unique opportunity to redesign the way we work. “Our ideas of how work should be performed were formed during the Industrial Revolution and we haven’t really moved on since then, so this is a fantastic chance to revise that,” she says.

Gratton, whose new book Redesigning Work provides a framework for businesses looking to adapt to the new world of work, claims that businesses have become more experimental in response to the fundamental shifts we experienced during the pandemic. Over this period, the workforce has developed new skills, assumptions about work have changed and our habits have changed too – such as spending more time with friends and family and ditching the daily commute.

“This combination of habits, skills, aspirations and changing networks means that we won’t return to pre-pandemic ways of working,” she says. “We’re going to see greater variety in the deals that employers offer their employees.”

The great resignation is a manifestation of this. People expect more from their employers, so businesses must improve their offering to fill increasing vacancies. These improved employer-employee deals can be seen in the growing number of benefits offered to staff, flexible working practices and adoption of the four-day week at some organisations.

It’s something that Gratton describes as work’s T-Ford moment – where there was once only one model of car, when the market exploded additional models were developed and customers had a choice of three vehicles. In the same way, the pandemic has spurred market forces into increasing the level of competition between businesses, providing people with greater options when it comes to where and how they’re expected to work.

So, while certain banks are asking people to work from the office full time, other companies are allowing people to work from wherever they want for three months a year or offering sabbaticals. “People now have a choice about where they work, which is absolutely brilliant,” Gratton says. 

Flexibility equals autonomy

Businesses are rewriting their deals with employees and Gratton encourages employers to be as imaginative as possible about what they can offer. She gives the example of Unilever’s newly devised U-Work policy, which allows employees to adjust their working hours to fit in with their lives.

Under the personalised work model, staff earn a monthly retainer and can improve their earnings by taking on assignments. Crucially, whether or not they are working on an assignment, staff continue to have access to all their usual benefits such as pension provision, healthcare insurance and training.

Our ideas of how work should be performed were formed during the Industrial Revolution and we haven’t really moved on since then

Flexible working models are proving increasingly attractive for employees. “An organisation offers flexibility and what the individual gets in return is autonomy,” Gratton explains. “It provides people with the capacity to make their own choices about how, when and where they work and it is a major driver of employee motivation and engagement.”

Traditionally, employers might have looked to improve pay to attract talent but Gratton thinks organisations over rely on this. She says: “It’s interesting that investment banking and legal firms – two sectors that have asked people to come back to the office full time – have had to increase their salaries as a result. 

“Although money will always be important, if flexible deals are available then money won’t be the main point of differentiation.”

This demand for flexibility can also be seen in the push for a four-day week. Although Gratton thinks more businesses need to think more creatively about how they structure their working hours, the introduction of a three-day weekend may be too proscriptive

“In a way, the most unimaginative way to introduce flexibility to your working hours is to bring in a four-day week,” she says. “It can be a great starting point, because there’s a big advantage to having agreed days off. But there are ways for employers to provide more autonomy.”

For workers where there is not an option to work from home, offering flexibility in terms of time will be even more appealing. Gratton suggests this could involve offering compressed hours or a shorter week. “We’ve got to be more creative about time for people who don’t have autonomy over their place of work,” she says.

The end of the office?

While we’ve gone through changes to when and where we work, what has suffered consequently is corporate culture. Many CEOs have lamented that the switch to working from home has caused the loss of the so-called water cooler moment and limited interactions between colleagues.

Although Gratton understands why organisations are worried about culture, she believes that after two years of being away from the office we’ve developed an unrealistic view of the work that used to be done there. 

Gratton points to research prior to the pandemic, which tracked the movements of people’s eyes while working in an open-plan office. “They found that people walked to their desk, switched on the computer, plugged in their headphones and worked through their emails. The idea that people were having spontaneous discussions wasn’t the reality,” she says. 

This means that the office is yet another aspect of our working lives that needs to be reimagined. “If you do a lot of focused work, much of it can be done from home,” Gratton adds. “So the office should become a place for collaboration and important discussion. Companies need to think carefully about what they want people to do in the office, and then to intentionally design for those experiences.”

She also predicts that a string of new time-management tools will be created to help facilitate better coordination between multiple people with conflicting schedules. “New apps will allow you to say who’s going to be in the office and when,” Gratton continues. “Just as we had to learn how to work from home, now we need to relearn how to work in the office and that will require new skills, new habits, and new technologies.”

Above all, Gratton hopes that organisations will embrace these changes and capitalise on the unique opportunity they now have to reimagine the way we work.