What is the future of the physical and virtual workplace? Birmingham Business School’s Endrit Kromidha and Matthew Thomas consider the rise of entrepreneurial work and the dangers of losing unplanned and in-person exchanges of ideas
A shortage of containers for international shipping, missing products from supermarket shelves and an absence of workers to fill cars with fuel in petrol stations can, in great part, be attributed to a global mobility crisis due to the pandemic.
Excluding the violence, similar situations have been faced only in times of war. As expected, the response from business has been to innovate and adapt in order to survive and potentially gain a competitive advantage for the long run.
In times of crisis and when the future is unknown, it becomes necessary and therefore easier for everyone to dare more. This article reflects on the rise of entrepreneurial work, digital platforms for doing more remotely, and the hybrid future of the office, drawing implications for business graduates and managers.
Proactiveness has been shown to be a key characteristic of entrepreneurial orientation, related to actively seeking, creating and exploiting business opportunities. The current pandemic has been very challenging, but it has also created opportunities through systemic changes.
Many business leaders have, typically, pushed the pressure to be proactive down the hierarchical ranks of an organisation. In doing so, being proactive and adapting to changes have become expectations at any organisational level.
This leads to the second dimension of entrepreneurial orientation – innovativeness. This refers to developing new processes, products, resources, services, markets or organisations. Entering the unknown space of innovation requires taking risks, which is the third dimension of entrepreneurial orientation.
In this new environment, job redesign, job rotation, or other innovative ways of inducing change in the workplace, happen naturally. What’s required is an entrepreneurial mindset at every level of the organisation, together with a paradigm shift on the use of digital platforms and technologies for new ways of working.
Redefining digital work platforms
Digital platforms have long been used for a number of efficiency-related reasons in business, such as better communication, access to information and resources, easier exchanges of financial and other forms of capital, and transfers of knowledge through collaborative work for open innovation and co-creation across organisational and national borders.
Yet, until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, digital platforms were considered in great part peripherical to the physical workspace and human interactions. Not anymore, the paradigm shift to online and remote as the new norm has already happened. Technologies like Zoom or Microsoft Teams are only the surface of what the future could bring with metaverse virtual reality solutions at work.
In the new digital workplace, meeting in person is considered a rather dangerous (for reasons of health and wellbeing) alternative that needs to be used sparingly. Thanks to digital work platforms, the notion of the office has transcended organisational boundaries, often entering peoples’ homes, and now occupies their free time and weekends just as a business would do for a 24/7 entrepreneur – but this process is not without other challenges.
The post-pandemic office
The physical office must not be ignored. Early in the pandemic, when working from home was still a novelty, many enjoyed the newfound convenience of not needing to commute to and from work. In addition, there was a sense that efficiency had improved as well. Meetings became far more transactional, where agendas were prepared, people spoke one at a time, and they finished when the work was done.
As the pandemic wore on, we started to notice some aspects of work that were made more difficult by being remote from each other. Minor disagreements between colleagues could fester because there were no easily accessible social mechanisms to diffuse the situation. As a result, minor disagreements could become sources of conflict and sometimes hostility.
Perhaps even more seriously, we started to miss the unplanned conversations that occur just because we happen to be in the same physical vicinity as others. The conversations when walking with a colleague to a meeting, over a cup of coffee on a break, in the canteen at lunchtime or on the way to station when leaving work. On Zoom and Teams, these conversations hardly ever happen. But why is this so important? There is a lot of evidence that suggests that it is these unplanned encounters that fuel creativity and innovation. The best ideas come from encounters with people we did not know we needed. The danger therefore for organisations that abandon the office completely is that it may lead to an innovation deficit.
What can the business managers of the future learn from this?
Organisations have reacted to the newfound freedoms of remote working in very different ways. Some have abandoned the office entirely, opting for the convenience and cost benefits of working from home. Others have gone to the other extreme and insisted that all staff return to the office. Given the importance of chance encounter to innovation, it is no surprise that some of the tech giants are among those pursuing this policy.
Most organisations, however, have opted for some sort of hybrid model, allowing employees to blend working from home with working from the office. What business managers need to ensure is that these decisions are based on the needs of the business rather than the opportunistic saving of real estate costs or the evidence of short-run added efficiencies.
In this light, the role of the office may also change in the future. The main purpose of the office could shift from one that encourages productivity in the workplace to one that encourages unplanned social encounter. Already, some organisations are starting to reimagine their offices as social hubs that are there specifically to fuel innovation.
Endrit Kromidha (left) is an Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, and Director of the Birmingham MBA in Singapore. He is also an entrepreneur with industry experience in banking and finance, and the Vice-President for Policy and Practice at the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Matthew Thomas (right) is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and International Business at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, where he lectures in international strategy, innovation and strategic change. His background is as a practicing manager, most recently with Assa Abloy, a Swedish organisation ranked as one of the world’s 100 most innovative companies by Forbes.