Work in the time of COVID: From ‘Employee’ to ‘Sub-Contractor’
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
The news is currently full of stories about how the workplace (and modern life) will change following Covid-19 isolation. Experts are speculating that working from home will increase, even when restrictions are lifted, and more of us will develop “Home Office Broadcasting Outlets” (“HOBO spaces” - although that name may need reconsidering!). We have had the technological capacity to work remotely for a long time, and Covid has shown us that we also have the capability to work remotely… so how could this become a successful permanent change?
I began writing a blog in February, before imposed isolation, about the consequences of connectivity on the modern workplace. Here’s a snippet: “The modern workplace bears little resemblance to its predecessor in terms of connectivity…[we] remain constantly available and contactable - even when we are not in the office.” The slow blurring of boundaries between home and work has made it almost normal to do work outside of the office (and work hours). Employees may feel powerless to make choices that stop the intrusion of work into home life because it feels like the norm, even though it is incredibly overwhelming.
The difference between employees and sub-contractors
Despite feeling frustrated at the ‘need’ to be constantly available, one reason we struggle to resist the pull of interruptions is because we define ourselves as “employees”. An employee has little say in the choice of how to spend their time; the label comes with the mindset of ”an ‘ideal worker’: one who is wholly devoted to their job and is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, every year of their career” (Thomason & Williams, HBR, 2020). By definition, they are given things to do, and must be available to do them. In workplaces gone by, greater availability (in the office) may have been beneficial to productivity, but the blurring of office boundaries nowadays raises the question of whether ‘productivity’ is about production of volume, or production of quality? I will return to this idea soon.
So, if we are not employees, what are we? At Think Gray, we consider the modern workforce akin to “subcontractors”. Workers must manage their own time, availability, and the expectations of competing stakeholders - which often requires them to provide what clients (or bosses) need, rather than simply adhering to what they want (or think they want!). The mindset of a subcontractor is closely aligned with autonomy and choice, as they negotiate workloads while building reliable personal brands based on solid relationships. Successful subcontractors become talented at filtering their worlds by (1) making choices and prioritising them, and (2) enforcing boundaries that manage expectations.
However, modern workers are asked to behave as subcontractors with an employee mindset. They must manage their own time whilst attending to interruptions both in and out of working hours, because they are always digitally connected. Covid isolation has made the natural consequences of connectivity blindingly obvious to us. Working from home during Covid has not caused these issues - it has shone a light on changes that were already happening! Becoming aware of the dangers of digital-workspace connection is not to say we shouldn’t work from home; rather, it gives us an opportunity to examine how we can make different choices to succeed at balancing our lives in an evermore connected world.
The Solution: Transforming our workers into experts at choosing
If the musings are to be believed, and employees are to work remotely more than they did pre-Covid, we need to ensure those employees are given the skills to manage their time and priorities as though they are sub-contractors. Focusing on adaptation to a new mode of working is what will set successful companies apart from unsuccessful ones - and investment in their workers is what makes the difference here. Technology has always, and will always, facilitate intrusion into personal life; it is how we use technology that determines whether it empowers or burdens us. Other people’s behaviour has always, and will always, be out of our control; it is how we respond and self-manage that determines whether we are empowered or burdened. Having the skills to make deliberate choices, automise personal working processes, filtering competing demands, and so on, will ensure that ‘subcontractor employees’ can successfully work autonomously and remotely.
Finally, let’s return to productivity. If we choose to maintain remote working conditions but do not empower our workers with these skills, we are likely to witness increased rates of burnout, anxiety, overwhelm, turnover, and so on. Boundaries between rest times and places become blurred; ‘switching off’ after hours becomes more difficult; and the temptation to do ‘just a bit more’ is more difficult to resist. Workers may produce more, but at what costs to quality? Ensuring that workers are able to create boundaries around their time will ensure that they flourish in remote settings. Not only will their productivity include more quality work (less distractions and interruptions, greater focus on important/impactful work), it will allow organisations to reduce running costs in the longer term as less office space will be required. Making these changes is the responsibility of both workers and employers: workers must employ behavioural skills to manage their time and workload autonomously; and employers must trust in the self-management of their workers and the wisdom of quality over quantity!
Experts had predicted, long before Covid, that the organisational landscape will change. We now have an opportunity to sit at the forefront of more flexible working conditions - if we take advantage by making investments that shift our workers from “employees” to “subcontractors”!