Transcript: Episode 46
What does the future of work look like?
Vivienne Parry 0:04
Hello and welcome to Coronavirus: The Whole Story. My name is Vivienne Parry. I'm a writer broadcaster and UCL alumna and I'm back with another episode of this award winning podcast all about Coronavirus, as seen through the multifaceted lens of the UCL community. Now the UK is halfway through its roadmap out of lockdown. Yay! With many of us taking our first tentative steps back into pubs and shops. And with plummeting case rates, and those in their 40s now being called for vaccination, it feels like it could be might be, there's a strong possibility even that this is the very last mass lockdown. Although none of us are actually counting our chickens yet, obviously. But coming out of lockdown doesn't mean returning to life as we knew it, especially in the world of work. So this week, we've brought together two experts to talk us through the future of work, and how the pandemic has the potential to change things for the better. But before we get started with the episode, I just want to tell you about a new and super exciting new UCL Grand Challenges podcast Disruptive Voices, and how we do love being disruptive at UCL. It brings together experts from across our campuses to share their innovative solutions and ideas for addressing societal challenges. A new episode on AI and The Future of Work gets released today. So today, I'm joined by Dave Cook, a writer, remote work specialist and PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology here at UCL. Dave studies digital nomads, and how the work practices and routines of people working in Co-working spaces in Southeast Asia affect their ability to work remotely. Dave is also a member the e-WorkLife project in the Brain Sciences Faculty is researching how people have coped with a transition to working from home during the pandemic. My second guest is Professor Anna Cox. Anna is a Professor of Human Computer Interaction in the UCL Interaction Centre, and Vice Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences. And our research is work based digital technology used and focuses on how digital tech can help reduce work related stress and maintain a good work life balance. If that sounds like the kind of research you're interested in, then you should give her new podcast that listen, the podcast called e-WorkLife is brought to you by UCL Minds. The first episode comes out this week, like bassets, isn't it? They all come along at once. But let's start off with you. Anna, can you give us the tech perspective here? What kinds of new tech have we had to develop and adopt to make working at home feasible? And how easy has that been for all of us?
Anna Cox 2:55
Well, I think for when we're thinking about their situation, we need to be super clear about who we're talking about first, because of course many people haven't been working at home during the pandemic, we carried out a project starting back in the first lockdown, where we were looking specifically at office workers and looking at how they have had to adapt to this new situation. So for many of them, they already had access to certain tools. So lots of them, of course, had access to email. And we're very expert in using that. And they also were likely to have had access to things like video conferencing. So the tools like zoom and teams and so on. But those are maybe examples of pieces of software that they weren't using as much before the lockdown happened, and that they had to rapidly switch to becoming very proficient in using them for also in all sorts of different ways. So we've had to use them for meetings, but not just meetings between two people. But you know, large group meetings, perhaps also conferences, lectures, so people have had to try to find ways of using these tools in new ways. And that's been quite a challenge is added a whole layer of extra work on top of the day job.
Vivienne Parry 4:26
And the two most annoying things that people say to you are when we get back to work, when we've all been frantically busy. And the other thing is people who make you do rehearsals in case in case you don't know how to work to zoom. Is there anyone on the planet who have to work zoom but one of the things that strikes me Anna is, it goes to your other role is that some of the things that have always been told particularly to people with disabilities, for instance, like it's not possible for you to work from home. have now been proved triumphantly not to be true - people can work from home.
Anna Cox 5:04
Indeed. And you know you, you've made a really important point there in terms of people who perhaps find it difficult to get into work. So people who might have mobility disabilities, for example, but there are all sorts of people who had actually, perhaps previously wanted to have a more flexible working arrangement and to be able to work from home. So people with carrying responsibilities as another example, who would find it much easier to work from home, and fit that in, in around picking up the children from school or looking after older relatives. And they have all had this experience of previously feeling that this wasn't something that was available to them. And now, demonstrating that not only is it possible, but there actually many reports suggests the productivity has, has at least stayed stable, if not gone up with people working at home. So this really is a moment, I think, for us to reflect on what we thought our work culture was like, and why we operate it in a particular way. And to think about what we can learn from this experiment we've been in for the last year and see how we can use that going forward to build a much more inclusive working environment.
Vivienne Parry 6:28
Let me come to you now, Dave, because you know, they were the anthropologist, and, you know, you've been an anthropologist, in your own experiment, how has life looked like? What do you take as an anthropologist from how people have adapted to this switch in work practice?
Dave Cook 6:46
one of the things that I do as an anthropologist and I was doing before the pandemic is going to offices and co working spaces and sitting down, just watching people work and having conversations about how they, they were working. And one of the things that comes up is how etiquette changes. I mean, we've kind of like seen over recent years, we've switched from direct telephone calls to a lot more asynchronous communication, like via text and email, and recently slack. And that's kind of like changed how people have communicated. But those changes have happened quite slowly. So what Anna has just been describing, you know, during the pandemic - people not being used to, to, you know, Zoom or Teams that happened so quickly. And And normally, as an anthropologist, you noticed changes that other people don't notice, because the changes are kind of quite slow and imperceptible. And this whole being very fast during the pandemic, it's been really hard to keep up.
Vivienne Parry 7:54
So it's all been fast. But there are some things that have developed which don't really bode well, I'm just thinking about the way that with zoom calls, we're expected to work virtually the whole day without any breaks. I mean, you need to reschedule a zoom call, so that they always end five to the hour and start five after the hour, because otherwise you'll never get a pee or a cup of coffee. And you're on zoom from eight in the morning till seven at night. So it seems to me that zoom in the home has created an always on culture.
Dave Cook 8:30
Yes, one of the great things for me as a researcher was I knew Anak from years ago, you click and we started working together on a work life. And we conducted interviews on a work life during the first lockdown. And one of the things that people were reporting that they were struggling to unplug at the end of the day, and this was leaving, leading to overwork. They were struggling to divide time between family and caring responsibilities, as Anna has said, and I think what we've been seeing more recently with people who have to do a lot of meetings, they're being sheduled in one hour blocks. And if you're doing a one hour blocks, you don't have time to go to the toilet, sometimes. I mean, I'm seeing this in my own household. You know, my partner works for a large media organisation, and the technology does allow people to communicate, but we haven't yet caught up with looking at how you know what happens if you do have three or four, one hour zoom interviews back to back, and that's no one's fault. It's one of the things that the technology allows us to do. But we have to think very mindfully and carefully about what three one hour meetings look like. I mean, if you were in an office and walking from a meeting room to another meeting room, you would have the flexibility and autonomy to be able to go to the toilet and You know, those kind of things are not so easy during all of this. So that's one of the growing concerns, but the flexibility is great. So I think the big question is, where does the flexibility come from?
Vivienne Parry 10:13
Anna, your thoughts on this.
Anna Cox 10:15
So I think one of the things that's been really interesting is that before COVID, if you can remember before COVID, I've been doing a lot of research looking at remote workers, and that include people that that was their primary job that they worked remotely. And also, some people who only sometimes worked at home, so had more of a kind of hybrid system that many people are talking about as being one of the possible futures of work. And what we saw there was was exactly this issue about difficulties of unplugging and the role that technology played in both facilitating the ability to work remotely. I mean, it was the enabler for that, but also creating this like digital tether to the workplace. So things just simple things like your mobile phone, when you first got a smartphone, and were able to instal email on it, if you installed your work email on there, and you had it set up so that you were alerted to receive notifications, you would end up being notified about every message that came in, regardless of what time it came in. So you might have travelled home from the office and sat on your sofa and your phone pings. And you see you've got an email from your boss. And you know, we've seen exactly the same thing happening just in the over the last year, but just two more people, this idea that their technology has connected them to work on this, like permanent basis. And one of the things that we saw in some of our previous research was the strategies that people adopted in order to cope with this. And I think there is some work to be done to communicate the these examples of what we can do to really take back control of our devices so that we're not at the beck and call of all the beeps and vibrations, and instead we feel empowered to disconnect from work at the times where it's really, you know, helpful and important for us to do that.
Vivienne Parry 12:21
And we do romanticise in some ways, this idea of digital nomads, it sounds deeply romantic it sounds to Haitian beach, sipping a cocktail with my laptop by my side, tapping away doing whatever I'm doing. And actually, that isn't really how things are being played out. Not least of all, we can't travel to Tahiti and beaches. But now we're coming out of lockdown, we, we have all these issues about flexibility to deal with. But actually this new way of working is having a profound effect, for instance, on our city centres. And the nine to five ethos ama, what do you think will happen as we go forward? Do you think, for instance, that people are a lot of big companies that won't have big offices anymore? They'll just have meeting places?
Anna Cox 13:14
I think certainly many companies are thinking very hard about this right now. Yeah, many companies have surveyed their staff to understand a bit more about what are the staff thinking. And typically, there's quite a big range of responses. So we have some people who, for whom working at home is very difficult. They don't have the space in which to set up a desk, for example. And so for people in that situation, returning to an office seems very attractive. Other people who perhaps do have more space at home, or have a longer commute to the office are looking at this situation and thinking well, in the long term, I could keep this up. There are things I might miss about the office. And perhaps I'd like to go in sometimes. And I think there's still a lot of variation in terms of what people think about sometimes might mean, it could be anything from sort of once a month to meet up with the whole team to going in, you know, two or three times a week. So I think companies are listening to their staff to hear what is going on. And of course, they're thinking about how do they make best use of their real estate to make these sorts of things possible, because there is some sort of financial attractiveness to the idea that we might not need to rent quite as many offices as we have done in the past. And so I think many companies are looking at this, like there might be some kind of financial saving.
Vivienne Parry 14:43
But then has a huge impact on in city centres, for example, on all the infrastructure and businesses that would normally support all those people in their workplace. So everything from dry cleaners to sandwich shops, transport. So a lot of the transport we have is predicated in the investment of it is predicated on the numbers of people who are going to use transport. So these changes are not inconsequential at all, they are really, really major. Absolutely. And what what are your thoughts, Dave, about this? Is this a change that was going to happen anyway? Or is this something that has accelerated, but is really going to have these profound effects,
Dave Cook 15:26
the uptake of remote working, according to the Office of National Statistics was less than 6% of people that were working at home full time remotely before the pandemic. And you know, as I said, in a recent history of remote work during the pandemic, it's it was a gradually rising trend. Digital nomads are a little bit more bullish about this, though, kind of like predicting that there might be 1 billion digital nomads, people travelling and working all around the globe by on their beaches. Yeah, 2030, or a lot of them are attracted to working in other cities, actually. But you know, this idea of everybody on the move in that way is quite is quite terrifying. And that can have impacts on cities. I mean, we were talking about overtourism, before the pandemic, obviously, now, a lot of countries and tourist destinations are experiencing under tourism. So we have all of these remote work visas that are being launched, a lot of Caribbean countries have launched remote work visas. And it was alluding to the fact that people that have more space and longer commutes might want to work from home with digital nomads, they're trying to expand that commute as much as possible. So that kind of playing with the whole idea of space and time, I suppose. I think it will have an impact on cities. I mean, one of the things that digital nomads have been using for quite some time now are co working spaces,
Vivienne Parry 16:53
evacuating spaces, you mean things like We Work in those kind of places? Yeah, they're
Dave Cook 16:58
one form of CO working spaces We Work really are essentially just another form of service office. But there are a lot of independently run co working spaces, you know, all around the world where people who are working from home, or are working remotely go to because they find it a little bit a little bit too much the same looking at the same four walls all the time, if they're working from home or working at out of an Airbnb, one of the things that digital nomads started to report, after working remotely for more more than a year was going to co working spaces and doing things like fake mini commutes, which are things that we've seen people doing during the pandemic. And I think people do need that separation between where they're working, and you know, where they're spending their non work time. So people do start to do these kinds of things. So the whole idea of the office isn't completely dead just yet.
Vivienne Parry 17:54
And certainly that idea of stimulation by others is incredibly important. I mean, I really, really miss corridor conversations, or you know, catching up with people that you didn't intend to catch up with. But actually, there they are, and what a pleasure it is to talk to people. And you do miss that. I want to concentrate now on the years to come. And really discussing what work based practices and tech based practices in your experience can have really positive effects for remote workers. So I want to look at it both from an employer's and an employee's angle. Anna, let's start with you. What's really good practice, what can remote worker do to help themselves?
Anna Cox 18:41
I think some of the things that people can do are to really reflect on where they experienced challenges. So that's the first step to really think about, okay, what are the things I'm struggling with? When do I feel that there's a bit of a conflict between my work and my non work parts of my life, and through that kind of reflective process, you can begin to identify what those problems are, and then seek solutions to them. So I was talking earlier about the problem that someone might have if their personal mobile phone actually gives them notifications about work based email. So there are some simple solutions to that. Find out how to turn your notifications off, or perhaps even remove the account from your, from your device. You know, we've seen people use strategies where they make what we call digital boundaries. So boundaries between work and home. They make those using their technology in different ways. So they might set up two different apps, for example, one for personal email, which can have one kind of setting on it. So perhaps it does give me notifications and one for work based email where I might not have the notifications enabled, or in fact, people use their devices to create these separations. So if you're fortunate enough to have a personal device and a work based device, you can keep all the work staff on your work device. And then when you close it or turn it off at the end of the day, you're really saying that that's the end of work for me today, sometimes we have to go a step further to actually get it out of our mind. And, you know, cover it, put the computer in a drawer, pull the curtain across, so that you can't see your workspace anymore. So those are just some examples, I think of the steps that people can take to kind of build these boundaries. And Dave mentioned the virtual or fake commute.
Vivienne Parry 20:37
I love that idea. A fake commute. Yeah,
Anna Cox 20:40
it's another idea that a number of people are looking at. So some people adopt this through actually going out of the house, it's a fake commute, I actually go out and walk before I start my workday, or perhaps, or go for a run or a cycle ride, just to give a bit an opportunity for physical exercise, something that many of us have, have missed out on during the pandemic, but also to take that time to kind of get into the right headspace for sitting down and doing work. And then to repeat that the end of the day to give us an opportunity to transition back into home mode. Some people are using technology for a virtual commute. And in that situation, they might not be going out of their house, but they're using something like an app to to help to support them to do some meditation, for example. And they use that as a way to to mark this transition. Or I've even had some people tell me about how they have the radio on in the background. And at half past five, it always plays the same song. And this is a marker for them that this is the end of the workday. And they use that as a trigger to saying right now I'm going to stop what I'm doing, I'm going to get up and dance around my living room. And they use that as the way to kind of signify this transition for them.
Vivienne Parry 22:02
That's great stuff, Anna. But Dave, if we can now move to employers, one of the big issues here is about power relationships. There's a lot that needs to be done on the employer's side in order to make these remote relationships and remote working easier for employees and employers.
Dave Cook 22:22
Yeah, I mean, all of the things that Anna was saying about managing these boundaries between work and home are really, really important. But I think it is important that we don't put all of the responsibility at the feet of individual workers. And I think that we really have to start with trying to encourage governments to create policies, so that people have the right to disconnect. So very famously, in 2016, the French passed some legislation for the right to disconnect. And at the beginning of this year, the EU created a mandate encouraging nation states within the EU to do the same. And Anna and I in the Work Life team have been submitting parliamentary evidence to try and encourage our government to bring this into legislation, because not every employer is going to behave well. Anna was kind of like saying that, you know, not everybody is able to work remotely. There are a lot of inequalities here. And I think that a lot of companies are going to create flexible working policies. But there was a statistic that I came across recently, which showed that as recently as last November 60% of US companies still haven't updated their flexible working policies during the pandemic, you know, that's quite shocking. And from speaking to people, they're really looking to their employers, even even the good ones still haven't all signalled what's going to happen after the pandemic, there's been a lot of noise from Silicon Valley companies that are quite used to distributed working, who have been very noisy about talking about letting their employees work from home. Spotify, for example, recently have launched a work from anywhere policy, and that's not going to be right for all employers. It's really, really important that we approach this not just from the personal responsibility of workers. But you know, this happens top down as well. I also want to make a point about how we use technology because we need to turn off our notifications. But Silicon Valley companies need to make it easy for us to turn off my notifications as well isn't always that simple. I was recently speaking to somebody who just bought an Apple Watch and they bought an Apple Watch because they wanted to use it for the health and I'm step tracking and fitness tracking capabilities and they put that Apple ID in and it suddenly started sending them text, someone Call them. So there, they were taking their call through the phone. And that was without them giving consent. They didn't expect to do this. And I think that, um, Silicon Valley has a role in helping people divide their time between their work and their leisure or their work in their caring responsible responsibilities, but they need to make it easier.
Vivienne Parry 25:22
And if anybody amongst you can discover how you can actually box up that annoying sprite, that is the Teams notification, then please let me know of that. We've come unfortunately to the end of our time, it's been such an interesting listen to both of you. Yes, you have been listening to Coronavirus The Whole Story. This episode was presented by myself Vivien Parry, produced by UCL with support from the UCL Health of the Public and UCL Grand Challenges and edited by the splendid Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Dave cook and Professor Anna Cox, and thank you to both of you. It was terrific. And if you'd like to hear more of these podcasts, of course you would from UCL Minds, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts, or visit ucl.ac.uk forward slash Coronavirus. Don't forget to check out Anna Cox's podcast e-WorkLife and Disruptive Voices from UCL Grand Challenges whilst you're there. This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content and activities open to everyone. Hope to be with you again soon. Bye for now.