For the past two years, the concept of the Future of Work (FoW) has been a popular topic in the network of conversation among thought leaders, organizational researchers, and business executives. Digitalization, automation and other tools are powering new combinations of work, talent, skill requirements, and work relationships. Changing markets, shifting labor pools, ubiquitous on-demand talent, and non-traditional employment arrangements were becoming more common.
From Harvard Business Review to the Wall Street Journal, there have been countless articles outlining the challenges and opportunities associated with this shift. Numerous conferences and expos have been devoted to unpacking what this means for organizations and workers, alike. It was all progressing at a steady pace, helping early-adopter organizations become more efficient, effective and profitable.
Exacerbated by these unprecedented times, organizations find themselves struggling to anticipate hourly changes and deal with never-before-seen levels of ambiguity.Companies are strategizing to remain relevant and operational, to keep their employees safe, retain talent (short-term and long-term), and position themselves for what will hopefully be a smooth transition back to full strength.
The Coronavirus pandemic, in an instant, has provided us a fast-forward, hyper-focused glimpse into the future of work. Organizations have been moved to accelerate adoption of FoW technologies and approaches to 'keep the lights on', employees engaged, and get work done.Piloting new models, reframing business processes, refining distribution channels, and accessing different talent, have all been a part of this flurry of activity.
Most importantly, the current reality is not a temporary state. Rather, it reflects a deep, permanent change in the way we will think about 'employees', about organizations, and about the very nature of work itself. Long after we have returned to the vibrancy of life before COVID-19, its impact will remain. Below are ten observations regarding the very real transformation brought on by the unfortunate circumstances we are in.
- Altered the definition of work:Work is no longer somewhere you go, but something you do. And, the doing can be done from anywhere. Much of the labor pool was already engaged in or actively seeking a flexible work arrangement. Those who never had the option to work remotely prior to the pandemic, and have now had a chance to contribute virtually, may be reluctant to return to a more traditional model. Old-fashioned face time is fast becoming something of a quaint relic.
- Fast-tracked the adoption of technology:This one is huge. Communication and collaboration applications are ubiquitous, as Zoom, Skype, Slack, and others are now part of everyday reality. Workers of all types – full-time, freelance- are leveraging these applications. With so many now working remotely due to the pandemic, people were forced to up their technology game, overnight.
- Pushed AI and automation to the forefront of strategy:AI is here to stay. Companies cannot survive without automation/robotics and AI decision-making technologies like machine learning and other big data capabilities. The current crisis has provided an opportunity to examine how work is getting done and where there might be opportunity to augment work with technology. Standing back up, chasing efficiencies and improving margins makes easing delicately into this pool no longer an option.
- Revealed the supremacy of execution:Today, producing and distributing products, services, and information to where it needs to go as quickly and reliably as possible literally has life or death consequences. Manufacturing ventilators and N95 respirator masks and ensuring a reliable and efficient supply chain is just one example. Watching other organizations 'shift gears' and retool production lines to manufacture an entirely different product has been something to behold. Companies see that by leveraging FoW technologies and tools they are capable of pivoting quickly and, in many instances, doing more with less workers. This focus on hyper-efficient execution will continue, long after the Coronavirus passes.
- Highlighted the desire for purpose: Every day on the news we see moving accounts of doctors, nurses, EMS workers and others on 'the front line' of the pandemic putting their patients and their mission above their own health and safety.It is quite incredible to witness. That level of purpose and commitment to a cause is something that, coming out of our present circumstance, companies will be trying to capture. It will take more than a traditional Employment Value Proposition and a cool company logo and tagline. Designing and delivering a compelling employee experience (EX) consistent with its mission and purpose is just the start and one way that companies will be thinking about attracting and retaining employees and non-employees in the future.
- Eliminated skepticism regarding virtual teams:The introduction of communication and collaboration mobile applications over the past few years steadily increased the use of virtual teaming. At the same time, there were still those who clung to the seemingly antiquated notion that workers needed to be co-located, near or next to each other, for real collaboration to take place. Otherwise, how else would work get done?The current pandemic has hyper-accelerated virtual teaming, and not just among full time employees, but freelancers, clients, customers, suppliers, and others. And, while the FoW technology has been available, it took the pandemic to demonstrate to many employers that much work can get accomplished virtually. Clearly, employees and others can effectively collaborate outside the bounds of a pod of neatly lined cubicles, a cool 'open-space' set-up, or a conference room. Organizations now see they can trust their workers to be true professionals.
- Confirmed the value of effective leadership:People need to believe in the leader, the leadership team, and the strategy forward. Leadership credibility is no longer derived from one's role or title. Rather, one's ability to articulate a compelling vision, align a blended workforce with a mission, create an environment of absolute trust, and enable access to FoW tools has become paramount. The best leaders will model the behaviors they expect, building trust and alignment among ever increasing numbers of boundaryless teams.
- Positioned data as king:Having accurate data to conduct appropriate analyses, produce reliable findings, and make sound projections and decisions is paramount.We don't have to look further than the dubious Coronavirus data reported by China to demonstrate the potential catastrophic impact of misinformation.Sadly, it appears that our leaders in Washington D.C. were initially conducting statistical modeling exercises and making infection and mortality projections with data that, by all accounts, were misleading at best and wholly inaccurate at worst.In most businesses, the stakes are not quite as high, nonetheless, the point should not be lost.Many organizations are already using AI, big data and machine learning in a significant way, and many more will begin to experiment.Organizations are accelerating their search for data scientists, machine learning experts, statisticians, and the like. These same organizations understand that these approaches are only as good as the veracity of the seemingly unending stream of data becoming available.
- Created expectation of continuous, real time communication:With an increase in data and information has come the need for its swift movement though a company's various systems, business processes, and decision-making channels.What is at stake is the efficient and effective design, development and delivery of products, services, and experiences for customers, employees, and others. Seemingly, every stakeholder now has an expectation of real time access to information, data, documents, etc., and the expectation of being able to view, edit, co-create, analyze, forward, present, and discuss with others. The mind-shift toward ever increasing levels of accessibility and transparency within and across organizational walls and external stakeholder groups appears to be real. And, with the employment of FoW tools and technologies, it is likely this trend will only become more pronounced.
- Prompted an examination of value:The current crisis has brought into sharp focus what we view as essential and non-essential 'work'. As a society, we looked across our national landscape and decided what 'work' needs to continue to ensure we avoid the entire collapse of our economy. The exercise determined which industries, businesses, type of work, should remain at full strength, scale back, or shut down completely. This type of analysis has merit for organizations emerging from the pandemic. It is easy to imagine this exercise playing out at a company. From organizational strategy being revisited (e.g., products and/or services produced and delivered; markets to penetrate) to business processes being re-engineered (non-value added steps eliminated; FoW technology introduced), the examination of 'value' - regarding the type of work, the way it gets done, and by whom (e.g., full time, freelancers) is surely to take place.
By Dr. Michael Warech, Founder & CEO of Warech Associates, LLC, creator of the online FoW Audit™ (FoWA), tool providing critical data needed to move forward to outpace the competition.
FoW is the path to enable business strategy and provide for better customer experiences, a more compelling employee experience, drive innovation, improve productivity, and create greater overall business value. To do this, it is imperative to understand where you currently are in your digitalization transformation journey, identify where you want to go, and determine the steps necessary to achieve the level of transformation you seek. If you believe your organization can benefit from a formal FoW strategy and road map please reach out.
The FoWA™ contains 30 items reflecting three dimensions: Strategy; Tools and Technologies; and, People. Feedback from respondents is used to calculate an overall index of preparedness in addressing the challenges and opportunities of the new world of work.
Strategy: To what extent has the organization developed enterprise strategies or plans to address the impact of future of work technologies (e.g., AI, predictive analyses, gig platforms) on the organization's business model, strategy, and operations?
Tools & Technologies: To what extent has the organization adopted digital applications (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams, Trello) to empower employees, foster knowledge sharing, provide feedback, and manage projects across a blended workforce?
People: To what extent has the organization ensured employees leverage Future of Work technologies and tools (e.g., automation, AI) without fear of making themselves obsolete?