“This was one heck of an experiment for the workplace”

Essential, exhaustion, automation, meeting overkill, are all keywords peopling the post-pandemic landscape for Human Resources, according to an in-depth analysis carried out by HR specialist Jordi Serrano.

There is no doubt that the world of work has been shaken up more than we can begin to imagine, with repercussions echoing around the world on a vast and complex scale. An expert in emerging trends in Human Resources, the Catalan Jordi Serrano is an authority in the area who looks to the future. "This was one heck of an experiment," commented the expert in an online conversation with Tecpetrol Today. Serrano is one of the founding partners of the Future for Work Institute, which acts as an independent observatory, learning community and think-tank on trends and innovation in Human Resources. Here is the first part of our online conversation.

Among the changes that the world of work has experienced in recent times, which do you see as the most interesting? Which do you think will be the longest-lasting?

In fact, the workplace was already in the process of change when the pandemic hit, so this development merely accelerated what was happening. We turned the ‘future of work’, which we were already talking about, into the greatest experiment in history. Everyone was working from home during the lockdown, except for essential workers. This brought to the fore the fact that there are several jobs that are poorly paid or undervalued, but if nobody does them, society grinds to a halt. We’re not talking much about remote work anymore, as work is no longer a physical place but something you do, and you can do it from anywhere. The other thing is how much mental health issues have become mainstream. That famous cover of Time Magazine featuring the interview with Naomi Osaka, emblazoned with the words It's O.K. Not to Be O.K. was totally on point: they crushed us, they made us stay at home, and mental illnesses have skyrocketed.

And in relation to technology?

I find the topic of the limits of automation very interesting. There weren't many tasks that we were sure ‘had to be done by humans.’ We saw certain things continue functioning without human contact, and others that didn’t. This makes us ask the question of where we really need humans. We’ve also seen how people’s attention has been diverted to focus online, yet nothing has happened; the remote control of factories, things that seemed impossible and now aren’t.

But we need to keep an eye on one particular phenomenon, which is that many people have reconsidered their relationship with work. This trend has become known as The Great Resignation. Although not everyone is in a position to do so, they are nonetheless probably reconsidering their job and thinking, “I want to dedicate myself to something that I enjoy more.” This was one heck of an experiment, now we will have to see what changes emerge in the next few years.

One of the effects in this new stage we are going through is work overload. What do you attribute this to? 

There is an objective issue at play here. Many companies had to close and adjust their production capacity, perhaps they even had to lay people off, etc. When they reopened, they were more cautious, either out of fear or because they realized that they could produce with fewer people, and what happened was that production became their responsibility. Then there’s the overload intrinsic to remote work. So many companies tried to replicate the office scenario remotely, making people do the same type of work, for fear of losing control. There are far too many meetings, something which was already a problem but has gotten worse. Some have even gone into overdrive. And the third thing is pandemic fatigue. Even if we didn't have any more work to deal with, what we've all been through was really strong. That affects people’s mental health and reduces their tolerance levels.

And is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Part of the solution has to do with learning how to work remotely. Because the problem is that we tried to replicate the office but, in fact, remote work is quite different. It’s about working asynchronously, meaning that it’s not necessary for us all to be connected at the same time. Some companies were created this way, but those of us who joined late are still trying to replicate the office set-up. This means that we’re all required to be online at 9 am, and at 9:30 there is a meeting of whatever. Here in Spain, legislation has been passed about digital disconnection, while in France, workers don’t have the obligation to answer emails after a certain time.

But we also need to beware of hybrid models. Because many companies are telling us that hybrid is actually worse than having everyone remote. Everything becomes more complicated. It’s like the worst of both possible worlds combined. We have to learn how to do this properly.

Do you think we can adapt?

The issue is what comes next. Because in our last overview from July, we warned that this could lead to an economic storm, consolidated by the war in Ukraine. If you put together people’s post-pandemic fatigue with the increasing economic pressures on businesses, you have a perfect storm. It depends on each context and each sector, as your sector has even benefited in this case, but in general, at least in the medium term, the outlook is not encouraging. We have to find other solutions, other ways out of this situation.

Although you have warned about the dangers of hybrid work, it seems to have gained traction. What are its advantages and disadvantages?

In general, we used to have very little remote work but during the pandemic, this skyrocketed in all countries. In Spain, the numbers have shot up from 9 to 20%. Today it’s hard to explain to employees that they can’t work remotely when we’ve been doing it for so long. Some type of hybrid work for those jobs where it functions properly will definitely stay around. There are personal advantages that are obvious from a management point of view. For businesses, the advantages are that they can attract talent from all over the world, and reduce costs and physical spaces, as well as travel, etc. There are also several advantages for society: less traffic jams and accidents, lower CO2 emissions—and we’ve been able to put men in charge of housework as well! That's a good thing and it's here to stay. But obviously there are disadvantages too, as people have to be able to set boundaries and compartmentalize their personal and work lives. Also, teamwork involving creativity is far more difficult in a hybrid set-up.

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