In 1771 a Lancastrian named Richard Arkwright opened the world’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire.
And not just that. To run his new-fangled factory he invented the pattern for the modern working week that has survived until today.
The working day at Cromford Mill began at 6am and the shift ended at 6pm. And give or take an hour or two and the occasional Factory Act, the dye was cast for the next two-and-a-half-centuries.
It still seemed to make sense in the 21st Century, even in jobs which didn’t require constant supervision of machinery.
But for those who have traditionally worked in an office environment, it seems that time might be up for Arkwright’s timetable, and for the centralised workplace.
No guesses why. It’s the pandemic of course, which has turned received wisdom for why we do all kinds of things upside-down.
During lockdowns millions were forced by law to work at home. The Office for National Statistics estimated that at the peak of the pandemic, more than 50% of UK employees worked from home 100% of the time.
In many cases, office workers freed from the time-and-money-sapping demands of commuting were better motivated and had more energy for their jobs. Their expectations changed – working from home became a normal part of working life.
And productivity didn’t fall off a cliff.
University of Southampton research found that remote staff worked more not less in lockdown, with 54% putting in more hours, 36% about the same and only 10% putting in fewer hours.
Most employers were content to grant their staff the extra flexibility which working from home demanded.
A survey by technology research consultancy Gartner found that most workers wanted to keep remote working even when the worst of the pandemic was over. Most employers were ready to agree.
Hybrid working, of course, is a luxury only available to those whose work allows it, and there are many millions for whom this is not the case. Examples include those employed in hospitals, in transport and logistics, construction or in schools – although for many of these, digital innovations forced by the pandemic have opened up opportunities for new and better ways of communication and working.
But for many previously office-based jobs, the Age of Hybrid Working is truly upon us.
But is it always a good idea?
The larger a firm the more likely it is to have roles that can be performed anywhere.
In knowledge-based areas, like accountancy, hybrid working offers scope for employing the best talent, wherever in the country (or the world) people want to work.
From an individual’s point of view, a world less constrained by the length of your commute offers up a wider range of job and career possibilities, with better progression and more satisfying roles. This new way of working can also improve inclusion, offering better prospects for participation in the workplace for those with responsibilities in the home.
Digitalised platforms and Cloud-based records might finally bring about that longed-after Utopia – the paperless office, with professionals accessing central databanks from decentralised locations anywhere with a laptop socket and a Broadband connection.
But there are dilemmas.
Working from home could make fraud easier, although the growth of AI-assisted crime-busting software marches in step with every other area of technology.
There are questions about regulation, especially for employers with global workforces. When data zips virtually over international borders 24 hours a day, whose rules apply? Where do workers and businesses pay tax?
There are personal issues of well-being to tackle too.
Although it’s clear that for many of us, the ability the work from home is a boon, caring employers know that this is not the case for everyone, and that there are risks to be managed.
Gartner’s report says 82% of executives plan to extend hybrid working amid staff fears that long-term home-working can be harmful. It says that 69% of home-workers report burnout, and 48% feel pressure to stay online all the time.
Plainly, there’s more work required on how we reinvent the working week to suit the demands of managers and the needs of employees, and the challenge differs from business to business.
Some may wish to see new recruits in person more often than experienced staff for extra supervision and coaching.
Employment practices must ensure fairness in promotions and rewards between those mostly on site and those who are usually remote.
There must be investment in digital tech so all people have an equal chance to share their ideas.
It’s not an exhaustive list, and we don’t yet have all the answers on what good or great looks like. It’s a new world. We’re inventing it as we go.
What we do know is that, for many, the future of work won’t be the same as pre-pandemic.