The enduring humanity of work


(Part 3)

Hybrid work is sure to be part of the New Reality in the way knowledge workers will organize their workday. As Emma Jacobs wrote in “How the frontiers of hybrid work are taking shape” in the Financial Times (April 21, 2021), after more than a year of remote work, hybrid (a mix of office and home-based working) is here to stay. Thanks to enabling digital technology, white-collar workers have worked as productively (and some say even more productively) at home as in the office. Although I may not be a representative knowledge worker, I personally have gotten more of my eight or more hours of working time daily in giving lectures, writing newspaper columns, attending board meetings, and presenting economic briefings to corporate executives and industry associations because of the many hours of travel time I have been able to save during those lockdowns our government excelled in implementing. All over the world, the hope is that hybrid work will allow employees to do focused work at home, reduce commutes, and enable them to better balance professional and personal lives. Offices will continue to serve very important purposes: innovation, collaboration, networking, coaching, and socializing.

Emma Jacobs conducted a survey among leading business organizations around the world and discovered several approaches to hybrid work. Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) announced that it is scrapping executive offices to make space for hot-desking (a trend in which workers take whatever desk is available, instead of having one assigned space) and communal spaces. Its CEO told the Financial Times: “I won’t be in the office five days a week… It’s the new reality of life.” Feedback from online retailers revealed that employees want to retain elements of remote working when the pandemic is put under reasonable control. Recent research by Microsoft among 30,000 employees across the world found that “70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue (and) 66% of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work.” This will obviously have repercussions on the office real estate sector. As Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase CEO said: “As a result, for every 200 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average. This will significantly reduce our need for real estate.” Major banks are estimating that their office space requirements will shrink by 20 to 40%. In fact, in my own University of Asia and the Pacific, we are planning to build a new Business Education Center in which individual professors (both full time and part time) will not be assigned specific offices nor desks but will be hot-desking in a common area.

Not everything, however, will be smooth sailing for hybrid work. As Jacobs commented, the risks from hybrid working include teams and processes disintegrating as workers set their own timetables, or the creation of in-office cliques where people who work at home are left out of decision-making and informal conversations. There are going to be issues about how conducive is the home environment to productive work, especially for women who have to multi-task as company employees or executives and as mothers who are oftentimes called upon to help their young children cope with their own blended learning requirements in school. Even in the National Capital Region (what more in less developed urban areas), internet connections are often unreliable. Although the existing providers have done much to improve their facilities during the pandemic, the Philippines still lags very much behind our peers in the East Asian region, especially if we compare ourselves to countries like South Korea and Singapore. If these difficulties can be overcome, the great advantage of online meetings is that as everyone joins meetings from their own laptop, “it is much better experience for everyone in the meeting since they can see everyone’s face clearly, ensures everyone is on a level playing field… and prevents the side conversations and cross talk that make remote employees feel excluded when half the team is joining from an office video conferencing room” (quote form Adam D’Angelo, Quora’s CEO). From my own experience giving economic briefings to large audiences, the feedback I get from the chat box helps me focus my coverage on the actual information needs of the various audiences I am addressing in comparison to the face-to-face briefings I used to give during which the feedback comes only during the Open Forum.

Whatever new ways of organizing the workplace will result from the pandemic, the bottom-line is that workers must always feel that they are not just being treated as “factors of production,” that their inherent humanity is always taken into account by their employers and their colleagues at work. In the 2021 FutureWorks Conversation Series organized by Baker McKenzie, Dr. Margaret Heffernan, best-selling author and Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, commented that the greatest lesson learned from the pandemic is that “trust, in business, is an absolute driver of productivity, legitimacy and reputation — what we’ve found in the pandemic is that the more we give, the more we get back.” Whatever technical and technological difficulties have to be overcome to build a new workforce reality after the pandemic, the social nature of the workers is still at centerstage. Dr. Hefferman reminded the participants in the Conversation Series that “what many leaders around the world have found is that when they were forced to give trust to their workforce, they earned trust in return.” As businesses re-examine ways of working in the wake of the pandemic, they can reap the rewards from the increase in trust and collaboration that has resulted from it.

Dr. Hefferman highlighted the need to integrate different perspectives and approaches and to solve problems, and keep solving problems, of a kind that we’ve often not seen before. How can organizations create a culture of collaboration to deal with today’s complexities? emphasizing the need for relationships of trust within business. The crucial thing about collaboration is how far it depends on the social capital of the people working together. The heart and soul of collaboration is a trusted relationship. It is building the social relationships of trust, generosity, and reciprocity on which truly effective collaboration depends. This jibes very well with what Msgr. Fernando Ocariz wrote, as we reported at the beginning of this series of articles: The work of the future will necessarily involve “recreating the world of human relationships.” Work offers us the opportunity to strengthen a key dimension of the human person: the capacity to welcome and be open to others, another way of defining collaboration.

In the same FutureWorks Conversation Series of Baker McKenzie, another uniquely human characteristic of workers is given importance: resilience and flexibility. Not all the digital technology of the so-called Industrial Revolution 4.0 can substitute for this human quality. A resilient workforce is able to respond to business disruption with agility, focus, and commitment to purpose and wellbeing and a renewed motivation even when navigating changing priorities. Management must foster a company culture that highlights the strength and perseverance of workers to encourage continued tenacity and to show appreciation for workers’ determination. Leveraging the diversity of the workforce in both perspective and thought will cultivate creative problem solving. Workers themselves are increasingly sophisticated and constantly looking for new contingent and flexible work models that allow time for non-work-related personal fulfilment. They must, however, be helped by management to constantly upskill and reskill themselves.

In our predominantly Christian society, it is important that we always relate this challenge of redesigning the workplace to meet the so-called age of accelerations to what we may call the Theology of Work. Here I quote St. Josemaria Escriva, who, together with St. John Paul II, can be considered a leading theologian of work during the 20th Century. In a homily on St. Joseph the Worker (let us remember that we are still celebrating the Year of St. Joseph till Dec. 8, 2021), St. Josemaria said: “Work is part and parcel of man’s life on earth. It involves effort, weariness, exhaustion: signs of the suffering and struggle which accompany human existence and which point to the reality of sin and the need for redemption. But in itself work is not a penalty or a curse or a punishment: those who speak of it that way have not understood sacred Scripture properly… It is time for us Christians to shout from the rooftops that work is a gift from God and that it makes no sense to classify men differently, according to their occupation, as if some jobs were nobler than others. Work, all work, bears witness to the dignity of man, to his dominion over creation. It is an opportunity to develop one’s personality. It is a bond of union with others, the way to support one’s family, a means to aiding in the improvement of the society in which we live and in the progress of all humanity.”

If we keep these theological truths always in mind, we will know how to adapt to the requirements of the workplace in whatever age of accelerations we may be. 

Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a Visiting Professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a  member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.