Work 2.0: Has the UK pressed the reset button on its working culture?

Morten Petersen, CEO and Co-Founder of Worksome, looks at the fundamental transformations that the UK has recently seen in the world of work.

Work 2.0: Has the UK pressed the reset button on its working culture?

Morten Petersen, CEO and Co-Founder of Worksome, looks at the fundamental transformations that the UK has recently seen in the world of work. 

Never before has the future of work felt so rooted in the present. While the way we work has been changing for a number of years, the biggest and most rapid shift for decades has undoubtedly come as a result from COVID.

COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation in companies at a rapid pace.  Four years’ worth of change happened in four weeks at the beginning of lockdown, with businesses forced to adopt new technologies and practices to ensure that their workforce could keep working. 

Culture has also dramatically changed during the pandemic.  Where once remote working practices were not deemed acceptable for the majority of the workforce, now everyone has been forced to work from home and embrace the digital tools that enable this.

The 8+ hours, five day working week we’ve largely followed for the past century has also been shifting for a number of reasons and not just because of COVID.  While the pandemic has in many respects super charged these changes, this was a trend that was happening years before the pandemic hit, largely due to digital transformation.  

The agreement that most employers enter into with their employer is a legacy from the Industrial Age when we agreed to work for 8 hours a day under an exclusive contract with an employer for quite possibly the rest of our lives.

However, work has become much more flexible and people tend not to stay in the same job for as long. Even Chief Executives in the UK now spend less than five years in their jobs on average.   Work has become more project based, and digitisation has created a new reality in the workplace which means working remotely is easy with all the tools to support it, like Zoom, Slack or Teams.  Freelancers, contractors and self-employed workers now make up 15% of the British workforce, with large, progressive companies like Google employing a large proportion of their staff as contractors.

What effect have these significant and rapid changes had on UK workers and employers?

Feedback from workers on this structural and cultural shift is so far very positive.  In terms of remote working, one study conducted by McKinsey during COVID found that 41% of respondents said that they were more productive while working from home, and 28% said equally as productive.  

In terms of the shift away from permanent roles, the feedback we hear from our contractors is that many now view this as a more secure and stress-free source of income than a permanent role, avoiding workplace politics and commuting.  It appears as though working patterns in the UK are beginning to match up with the way people want to work.    

A study conducted by The Times found that three quarters of Britain’s largest employers are considering a permanent shift to flexible working. It’s also a global trend. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that he expects half of Facebook’s global workforce to work remotely over the next 5-10 years, whilst Twitter announced back in May that its employees were permitted to work from home indefinitely.

People are no longer limited to work where they live.  Working remotely means that someone living in the Outer Hebrides can now work for a company in London.  We are no longer constrained by the industries that happen to be near to us, or forced to up and move house because of a new job in a different city, or country.  What this means is that we can truly embrace a new work life balance – choosing where we want to live, work, and also avoid the long commute, if we want to.

Workplace wellness and caring for mental health have now become more important than ever before and businesses have had to step up and consider how they support their workforce through challenging times. Many companies have started appointing specific people to take charge of employee wellness, and various apps have emerged to help companies look after the mental health of their workforce.

During lockdown, many people faced unprecedented personal struggles with inequalities more visible than before.  Employers have had to become more understanding of differing personal circumstances making for a healthier employer and employee relationship. 

Interestingly, mental health has been a top priority of business leaders in Scandinavian countries for many years now. My home country Denmark has been praised for its progressive approach to work and its laid-back culture, with cities in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland all appearing within the top 10 happiest cities according to the 2020 World Happiness Report. The UK could certainly take some things from the Scandinavian way of working, such as the abundance of social events for the workplace and the high degree of independence afforded to workers.

However, it seems as though both the UK and various other countries around the world are getting closer to a truly flexible working pattern and a happier workforce than ever before. In the UK, increased rates of freelancing and remote working are providing people with more control over their own time management and work life balance. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Jacinta Ardern has even toyed with the idea of a 4-day working week.

So, whilst we maybe can’t expect to see Denmark’s minimum 5 weeks of paid holiday spreading to the UK just yet, what we can expect is to see the world of work continue changing. The past months have made one thing abundantly clear: if there is a time for transformation, it is now.

Morten Petersen
Morten Petersen

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