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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

March 19, 2020 | 5 min read

From co-working to flexible working, to the gig economy, the way we work has been changing for some time now.

However, the increasing requirement for remote working as a result of quarantines and the on-going coronavirus pandemic has forced many businesses to consider how they can best respond in the current climate – and how this period in history will shape working culture in the future.

Sera Holland, co-founder of The Fawnbrake Collective is of the view that the conversation around the future of work is now inseparable from the urgency of adapting to the current situation. Speaking on a panel as part of The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival, Holland expressed that:

“On a broader level, all businesses are trying to respond to the needs of flexible working and remote working. Everyone is asking what a culture of impact and not hours looks like”.

However, she said: “in the last few days and weeks, the way businesses are now having to respond is unprecedented, and I think there is certainly a lot to learn from how we’re responding and adapting to the current climate.”

Responding to the question of whether digital businesses will fare better in the wake of coronavirus, founding partner and group chief executive of Forever Beta, Robin Gadsby said that leadership expectations of “bums on seats” would have to be re-considered.

“We’re all being forced to think about different ways of working. If you look at the way we used to work in the industrial era, there was a culture of clocking in and clocking out and we still have that to a certain extent.”

Gadsby emphasised that the move towards digital platforms such as Slack and Google Cloud in the present moment, and in the future, is an opportunity to re-think what it means to have a workforce.

“We work on Google Cloud and have done since 2012 and when we made that change we saw a 25% increase in productivity. So right now we feel like we’re going to have even more productivity because everybody isn’t losing two hours just getting into the office.”

“Then there’s the shift in mindset – it’s about having that trust with your people that they can work remotely and that we can trust them to be productive and efficient and collaborate with their wider colleagues.”

Sue Frogley, chief exec at Publicis Media also asserted that trust would be a key factor in the shift towards remote working.

When Publicis first introduced flexible-working a year ago, “we said there were no rules,” she told The Drum:

“It was all based on outputs and behaviours. A lot of our leaders still wanted to see bums on seats so we had to change their thinking, but we did and later on, we saw a rise in productivity and a reduction in staff turnover.”

“We still had teething problems of course - I noticed our offices were always a little bit empty on a Friday …But we’ve got past that now and the last week has certainly been a catalyst. We aren’t having to check when people are online and things like that, which is great.”

It remains to be seen how attitudes towards flexible working will change in the post-quarantine world. Holland believes that it will fall to employers to enact the same trust-levels we are seeing now and tailor the working environment to the workers themselves:

"If we design the way we work around the people involved … it doesn’t necessarily need for everyone to be the same fixed place every day, it’s about flexibility”.

“[At The Fawnbrake Collective] we think about what the requirements are for the project or the individual at that point in time, and we are starting to think about people and places and spaces in a more fluid way.

“What we have now, and the tools at our disposal, and what works well for every team – it’s not an either/or situation. It’s just about finding what works for you and your team."

However, Frogley isn’t convinced that it falls entirely to leadership to create a new type of worker:

“I don’t know if I want to invent a new kind of worker!” she said. “I think the workers we have now are great and are re-inventing themselves.”

She said that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, she is “seeing an amazing human spirit coming through – I don’t think we need to tell them how to do anything, I think they’re doing it themselves and that’s amazing.”

You can watch the full session here on The Drum's dedicated Digital Transformation Festival microsite.

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