As we continue to negotiate the impacts of Covid-19 and social distancing as a society, the workforce as we know it has to change for good.
That’s not to say that going online completely is the answer. There are tensions, challenges and problems with managing a workforce that is both remote and virtual. As business leaders, we need to understand the impact of new technology on productivity and performance, the changing mix of remote and onsite employees, and how to ensure skills are constantly being updated through a culture of continuous learning. Transforming the workforce has to extend to the entire organisation and challenge our ideas of talent, skills and the resources we need to succeed.
The journey so far
In January 2020 roughly 5% of employees had any sort of contractual agreement to work from home. By mid-March over 60% of the working population was working remotely, a figure that could have been higher if organisations had the right tech to support more workers. Faced with no other choice, the UK workforce achieved the kind of transformation that had been expected to take up to a decade, in just five months. This success busted a number of myths such as the need to be in the same place to build rapport, be productive and keep organisational data safe.
The pandemic also accelerated trends towards flexible hours and output-based work versus hourly work and presenteeism, impacting both the workplace and workplace management. However, as workplaces across the UK negotiate another lockdown, some of the detrimental impacts of remote working are beginning to emerge. According to the ONS, almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the Covid-19 pandemic in June 2020. This had almost doubled from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) before the pandemic (July 2019 to March 2020). Initially, our focus was on survival. Now we need to understand how to sustain our ways of working, prioritising the wellbeing and success of our employees. The practices discussed below can help organisations pivot from reactive to proactive workplace strategies.
The intersection of culture, purpose and transformation
If the workplace as we knew it is a thing of the past, it is imperative we create workforces that are fit for the new world. We have to completely rethink our approach to work, optimising workplaces for productivity, collaboration and wellbeing, with the organisation’s value to society, its customers and its employees being its north star. It’s important to approach culture and purpose with the same rigor and discipline used to address operational transformations.
The blended human technology workforce
Technology can help create organisations connect with employees and customers, if used with purpose. There is an undeniable link between good employee experience and exceptional customer service. Companies such as Facebook and Uber – already excelling at customer experience – attract the best talent. To avoid this brain drain, companies must look to emulate this culture and provide similar opportunities on this side of the pond, creating a superior experience for their employees. Technology is also changing how we skill our workplaces. By 2029 5G-supported tech will have created an environment where AI can do about 90% of what any of our departments can do at the moment. AI is cheaper, smarter, faster and a lot more accurate at creating hyper personalised services. Therefore, there will only be three areas where humans will offer any real advantage over machines - creativity, complex communication and critical thinking. While technology is the great enabler, the true differentiator between whether your business beats the trend and survives is talent not tech.
In the transformed workplace, we as leaders need to ask ourselves: what skills will I need, and what skills do I have today that I won’t need in future? This will form the basis for how we approach skilling our employees and investing in intelligent technology. Our value will lie, as American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler says – in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn again. Most importantly, it is in creating new workplace environments that nurture employees, that in turn help us create great experiences for our customers.