Today, 19 July, has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, the day restrictions are lifted and many hope marks the beginning of a return to the activities we used to take for granted. Leaving aside the politics of whether 19 July is or should be the day, now is the time to evaluate what freedom in the workplace could mean. If we’re serious about building back better, how can we lock in some of the gains of the pandemic for an unconstrained future of work.
The obvious work freedom the pandemic has led us to explore is to work where we like. We’ve learned that in knowledge economy jobs we can all work from home if we have to, that some people like it better and others find it worse. What represents freedom seems to be subjective and the solution for business seems to be reconciling corporate policies with flexibility for personal choice.
As a remote first organisation since foundation, we know that effective hybrid working requires a few things: good connectivity, software to allow collaboration such as video calling and virtual whiteboards, and ways to stay connected as human beings, including in person. By being organised and putting technology in place, we and many businesses like us can enable personal choice.
This applies to a subtler form of freedom too: release from the mundane but necessary parts of our jobs. A typical professional services job is composed of varied tasks and processes, some of them more exciting and fulfilling and others dull and routine. A corporate general counsel might find themselves dealing with dramatic and potentially business critical litigation but also a regular need to advise colleagues on export regulations or visa requirements. I know which sounds more interesting to me.
Just as with hybrid working, the reality is that an employer can now give you the freedom to achieve the objectives he or she wants from you exactly how you want to, including choosing whether you do parts of the job yourself or not. It sounds like fantasy that you could choose not to do something without your employer quickly wanting someone else in your role, but it’s entirely possible with the increasing sophistication of automation.
First, it began with IT-focused tasks and processes: Companies like UiPath accelerate the development of software and workflows, e.g. for data transfer across different applications – allowing companies to plug in multiple tools and solutions without long and costly implementation projects.
Now, this is possible for business scenarios too. Automation software is getting increasingly user friendly and accessible, even for users without IT knowledge: Clients including ING, KPMG and Hogan Lovells use our no-code platform to empower highly educated subject experts to build automated tools for clients and colleagues. The legal team at ING built a self-service application for colleagues to keep its contract database up to date. They could find the information they needed quickly by using a question and answer app built by an expert and integrating data sources, instead of going through this by phone or in long email chains with someone in legal. This saves the legal team time and their colleagues time too. Experts in law, finance, HR and pretty much any function can apply this to any process without needing any ability to code or any need to involve IT. We’ve also seen immigration lawyers in Lesvos process more claims for asylum and a covid vaccine centre in Germany speed up the rate of vaccinations using our technology.
The factors that limit the adoption of technology are many. The initial cost, even if it is dwarfed by the consequent gains; fear of the unknown, until competitors start to showcase an advantage and force a re-evaluation; the fact that things work the way they are, even if they could be better.
The adoption of automation technology has also been slowed by the fear that machines will replace us. Our experience has shown us that the valuable people our clients employ have used the time to think about how they achieve their longer terms goals in human interaction with colleagues, and to regain some of the work/life balance we’ve all to a greater or lesser extent lost over time. In future the employers who give freedom will do so to get results and keep the best people by treating them well.
The pandemic has forced us all to use technology to do new things which have opened up vistas of freedom and effectiveness. Before we swing back to the old normal on ‘Freedom Day’, let’s try to keep in mind that it includes freedom to make changes and learn the lessons coronavirus has taught us about the power of technology.