People have struggled to predict the future of work since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Concerns that machines would replace humans in time became worries about robots and artificial intelligence (AI). But until the pandemic, few companies had effectively considered the issue in depth. Doing so now promises to open up a slew of opportunities for organizations to better deliver on their value proposition to all stakeholders, build competitive talent competencies, and adapt to the shifting nature of work.
As organizations explore the future of work post-COVID-19, it helps to view it as a combination of three symbiotic elements that shape organizations: work, the workforce, and the workplace.
Articulating the nature of work. The nature of work is grounded in two major questions that organizations should clearly articulate. The first question is “How do we make money?” This boils down to a company’s value agenda and how to deliver on it. Some actions, like better procurement or lean management, focus on sustaining the core value of the business. Others focus on new ways of generating value, such as building an e-commerce platform.
The second question is around how the work gets done. This requires organizations to get razor sharp on how they “run the place” to deliver on their value agenda. This includes investing capital (financial, human, and technological); implementing process efficiencies; and adopting tech enablement of work through automation, digitization, or AI. Having a clear north star enables companies to be strategic with their investments.
As companies start linking the answers to these two questions to a dollar value—i.e., investments and returns—a clear set of organizational priorities and enablers will emerge to help deliver on the strategic future vision.
Building the workforce of the future. The current war for talent underscores that people are an organization’s most valuable asset. The key questions here are “Who do you have (supply)?” and “Who do you need (demand)?” Understanding supply starts with taking stock of current talent and their skills. To understand demand, organizations must first establish a clear link between talent and their value agenda. Comparing talent supply and demand will clearly reveal the skill pools on which they are long and short. The competitive implications are profound. Organizations that expect to benefit from digital transformation or a promising new strategy won’t get very far if they lack the people to bring the plans to life. What might seem like an irritating talent gap today could prove a fatal competitive liability in the not-too-distant future.
Reimagining the workplace. The workplace is a combination of physical location and an organization’s norms and ways of working. There are primarily two approaches—bringing people to work or taking the work to people. Since the start of industrialization, the former approach has been the rule, leading to the creation of massive factories and industrial centers where people gather to perform work.
However, the past few decades, driven by technological advancements, have seen a steady if modest shift in taking the work to people. And once the pandemic severely constrained companies’ ability to bring people into work, a sea change to remote work and flexible schedules happened almost overnight. This will be an enduring legacy of the pandemic, not just on physical workspaces and footprints but also on norms and ways of working, including long-term remote models; greater attention to employee benefits, wellbeing, and inclusion; and productivity.
To adequately prepare for the future of work, organizations need to fully understand the nature of work they do, who is needed to perform that work, and where that work is done. Getting this right will determine the winners in the post-pandemic world.
Future posts in this series will further explore each of these three facets and the challenges and opportunities they bring for organizations as they seek to navigate an uncertain future.