Is the future of work a bionic organisation? This seems increasingly likely in a post-COVID ‘business as unusual’ environment, where organisations will need to intertwine the possibilities offered by technology with human capabilities to be successful.
The starting point is for organisations to think about remote working in the context of broader business trends. The paper I recently wrote with Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business and Boston Consulting Group shows that pre-COVID, there were already two key trends changing the workplace: pervasive technology and data, deeply embedded in the business; and a dramatic shift in the talent pool, in terms of both candidate expectations, and required skillsets. Business leaders therefore need to be considering how they can leverage technology as an enabler to support remote working, but also acknowledge that their future organisational state will need to be more organic and flexible than in recent years.
The How, Who and Where
To achieve this, organisations firstly need to focus on what technology they need, and specifically their data and digital platforms. More importantly, they also should look at how humans and machines, as well as humans and humans, interact across their business. A useful approach to consider is to examine the how, who and where.
- “How” is about organising for change by deploying an agile way of working, focused on collaboration and rapid decision making, at scale. In a decentralised workplace, allowing employees to thrive in tech-enabled and interconnected teams, rather than being reliant on formal reporting hierarchies, rigid job descriptions, and processes, will be key to success.
- “Who” is about organising change for and through new talent and skills. With organisations looking to use technology in new and different ways, they will also need to look differently at the talent pool – new, emerging skillsets will be at a premium. The challenge will be where to find this talent – and how to balance the acquisition of new skills against upskilling and retraining existing employees. One thing is clear – the gig economy is likely to have an important role to play, causing a dramatic change to existing corporate structures.
- “Where” is about organising location changes – whether flexible and tailored remote or onsite working models. The first consideration is the inevitability of physical work locations ceding into hybrid virtual and physical models, especially as flexible working models start to gain prominence. The challenge here is that many business leaders have grown up in office-based work models, and the concept of flexibility demands a big shift in thinking. However, we already know that the opportunity for flexible work is prized by many employees.
Lead with the Head, Heart, and Hands
The most important consideration in the workplace of the future is how to keep people, and the human touch, at the core of business. Organisations need to ensure that human decisions determine how the workplace will operate, rather than getting sucked into a world governed by algorithms. Technology is important – but people must come first, and people need to be able to control variables and thresholds, overrule any automated interventions, and most importantly, preside over ethical and moral quandaries based on human experiences and logical thinking.
Employees are looking to their leadership for empathy, assurance, and meaningful action, so leaders need to be fully engaged in what’s going on in real-time, and be seen and heard.
There are three key human-centric, and interlocking pillars for leadership: “The Head, Heart and Hands”. These pillars must work well together – each supports the others in a cohesive organisation:
- The Head is about envisioning the future and focusing on the big rocks. What is the organisation’s strategy and vision?
- The Heart is about inspiring and empowering people. What is the organisation’s purpose, values and culture?
- The Hands is about executing and innovating with agility. What set of actions is needed to make that happen?
It goes without saying that many organisations have already experienced a big shift in how they work. As we move forward, this shift will continue. As the COVID-19 pandemic gives leaders the opportunity to deliberately reflect on, and if necessary, reset, their organisation’s pillars – the time to act is now. Leaders need to think about where the business has been strong, and where it has missed the mark. Which new practices might they want to keep, and which initiatives or capabilities do they want to continue, stop or start. Are decisions and actions aligning with the company’s purpose? Finally, and more importantly, they need to translate theory into actions – how can these pillars be communicated, (re)articulated, activated and embedded into the post-crisis organisation in order to fuel recovery – this will establish the path forward.
Those who make this transformation with consideration, keeping their people front and centre, will be best placed for future success.