We all need to become futurists — not just to model potential or plausible futures, but also to invent and design them. The way work is managed is still largely modeled on the production lines of the early 20th century. There is a strong imperative now to synchronize technology and the shape of work to 21st century needs.
In many companies, work is still organized in defined roles within a command-and-control structure and a hierarchical culture. Many leaders promote an attendance ethos that rewards physical hours in a location rather than productivity. This isn’t the best way to organize your business: the workplace of the future should be much more digital, much more flexible and much less hierarchical.
Leaders will need to continue to optimize how work is done for efficiency and productivity. But you must focus more on the experience of employees. The culture of online work is in the process of being rewritten, as organizations apply the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to the longer term. The ability to attract the best talent will depend significantly on the flexible experiences your company can offer. Critical to that will be the culture your organization demonstrates and the collaborative action toward a defined purpose that energizes it.
Health and safety
We’re people first; employees second. Companies that win in this new economy will be those who care about the total well-being of staff (physical, mental and financial health) and put humans at the center.
The immediate focus on hygiene has accelerated the use of touchless systems and voice-activated controls; the new emphasis on washing and cleaning — both hands and surfaces — is now so much a part of our daily routines that we expect these measures to last. In China, for example, there is an increased use of voice-activated elevators,6 post-COVID-19. And companies, such as Microsoft have been developing new “noise-robust” automatic speech recognition technologies that can filter out background noise.
Mike Bertolino, EY Global People Advisory Services Leader, says: “Through the prism of ‘people mattering most,’ companies should be asking first and foremost: How do I keep my employees safe? How do I keep my customers engaged? How can my company help society? Companies who live their purpose through COVID-19 will generate long-term value that will pay dividends long after the crisis has passed.”
This culture of care will inform everything a company does as it applies the lessons learned from the pandemic to a new business cycle defined by value more than growth.
“Leading companies will emerge from the current crisis with the motivation to reboot and rebalance,” says Dan Higgins, EY Global Advisory Technology Consulting Leader. “Leaders need to examine their efforts for a trusted transition to transform their companies through a new lens and a different set of value drivers: putting humans at the center of their purpose; innovating at scale through ecosystems of partnerships and alliances; and deploying technology at speed.”
Automating routine processes removes drudgery from the human experience of work, elevating that experience to more creative and rewarding tasks.
As companies compete for key talent, more flexible ways of working that harness digital communication apps can improve work/life balance and meet employees’ personal preferences. Validating that the workforce is on a constant trajectory of training will enable a culture where no one is left behind as new technologies are embedded in business processes. For example, LinkedIn launched numerous courses focused on leading and working with remote workforces, including how to maintain an executive presence virtually.
As the use of advanced technologies in more and more business operations proliferates, cloud strategy and scalability are essential, as are cybersecurity controls. And the use of digital twins will become critical to strategic planning by helping model every business operation to uncover ways of improving it, from supply chain management to production processes and logistics to customer access.
Bayer Crop Science, for example, uses digital twins that model each of nine corn seed manufacturing sites across North America.7 Through the use of AI, these virtual factories create long-range business plans and perform what-if analyses to improve processes and identify new approaches.
Not all future work will have a set physical location. In some sectors, almost everything can be done remotely, greatly reducing real estate needs. Some companies are proving they can operate without a real estate footprint, with the office essentially serving as a flagship conference center — not a workplace. Insurer Nationwide, for example, has 98% of its workforce operating remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.8 It has already announced a permanent shift to a hybrid workforce model, with working from the office limited to four main corporate campuses and working from home in most other locations.
As companies look at a flexible workforce, there may be an increase in work done by contractors, or gig workers, that sit outside the organization. But the pandemic has also shown contractors to be particularly vulnerable, and there may be moves to offer them employment safeguards and benefits similar to internal employees.
Where work does need a fixed physical location, companies will focus on making this location more flexible (for example, through modular office space) and adaptable to new production processes, new technologies and new ways of making. The interrelatedness of physical location and technology will only increase.
Gear 2 is about preparing for the “next normal” so workforces are better able to drive long-term value for themselves, customers, suppliers and citizens. Here are some questions to help you reimagine the future of work within your organization.