Part One in a Three Part Series - By Robert Bolton

COVID-19 very rapidly redefined the world of work. For many of us, things are not going to return to the way things were — nor should they.

Technology has proven that much of our work can be done efficiently from home. Even if the virus eventually declines or a vaccine becomes available, employees may be reluctant to return to a daily commute, instead favoring a better work-life balance and fewer risks. And companies are questioning the true business need for travel at former levels, as well as the rent expense of returning to centralized workplaces. These considerations, and more, are among those that present opportunities within a recovery.

This is the first post in a three-part series addressing the future of work in a new reality.

Anticipate Tomorrow. Deliver Today.

Many organizations responded to COVID-19 by focusing on the critical actions needed to meet the abrupt challenges that the lockdown instigated: establishing the infrastructure to support the mass pivot to remote work, flexing and diversifying supply chains, stabilizing cash positions and other acute needs. To build a stronger, more connected enterprise, what’s needed now are shifts in investment, in resources and in technology.

This requires significant reskilling and upskilling of the workforce, as well as prioritizing learning and development: 

  • Reskilling workers: Pandemic or no pandemic, the adoption of new technologies and ways of working will likely continue to reshape the world of work. Employers need to ensure employee skillsets keep pace and that the workforce has the flexibility needed to adapt to changes that lie ahead. The good news is that the impact of the outbreak has shown that employees want to embrace new technologies and techniques. According to KPMG’s report, COVID-19 and the American Worker (PDF 302 KB), 70 percent of survey respondents say their teams are collaborating better now due to changes made in response to COVID-19. These findings are encouraging, even though some of it may reflect unsustainable heroic efforts as we’ve discovered that “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. However, the adaptations required for new ways of working have also exposed areas where employees could benefit from more knowledge and training — from the use of productivity and collaboration tools by displaced office workers to the adaptation of management strategies for business leaders who suddenly find themselves shepherding virtual teams.

  • Scenario planning: The COVID-19 challenge has made our futures volatile and unpredictable. Scenario planning is particularly valuable when disruptive changes mean the past is not a good predictor for the future. No company has the luxury of being fixated on a single view of what the future may look like and placing all bets on that outcome. Future options that identify cause-and-effect relationships have to model different scenarios for which future may unfold. Exploring these relationships from a diversity of perspectives from across the organization — such as the C-suite, operations, procurement, IT and HR — helps ensure that all angles, options and opportunities are considered as the company reshapes its workforce. Each scenario will require different changes to the business model, operating model, core services and processes, supply chain and critical tasks and capabilities.

    These scenarios allow organizations to see the bigger picture and make effective trade-off decisions. Increasingly enabled by AI and automation, scenarios can help them better navigate the uncertainties.

    Critical to the success of scenario planning is sourcing a broad range of both internal and external data sets. Examples of internal signal sources include costs, market share, talent retention, and productivity numbers. Examples of external signal sources might include government labor statistics, Google search trends, demographic changes, trends in restaurant reservations, airport security check point numbers and mobile phone map requests.

  • Staff augmentation and automation: The workforce required in the new reality is inherently linked to the scenario. To balance employee costs and business continuity, each future scenario will require a new optimal workforce mix of buy (recruit), build (reskill), borrow (3rd party and contingent), bot (automate) and base (where to locate people). Workforce flexibility will be needed to quickly scale up or down according to the service delivery model strategy.
    Remote work has produced a wealth of information around workflow and inefficiencies that can help shape future operations. Cloud platforms, automation and diverse partner ecosystems, among other factors, all affect operations. But in the end, an organization’s ability to make products or deliver services depends on its employees. The workforce can be the ultimate differentiator — whether in a crisis or not.

  • Virtual connects as part of talent strategy: Given the challenges of physical distance and electronics-enabled communications, any means to increase connections in virtual encounters is key. Beyond the social releases of virtual happy hours and the sharing of recipes and pets in costume, it’s important that professional growth continues amid, and beyond, the changes wrought by COVID-19. To that end, there is a need to develop mechanisms for remote mentoring, on-demand training and knowledge transfer. A cross-functional learning environment will support a collaborative and socially-engaged employee network. Building an enterprise response architecture that includes pulse surveys, collaborative virtual tools, crowdsourcing, performance check-ins and anonymous feedback will help provide an integrated view of how well those virtual connections are maintained.

  • Job atomization: The lasting impacts of COVID-19, coupled with the rise of artificial intelligence and other digital technologies, require that we reinvent the organization of work, how it is done and where it is done. Breaking down jobs into their component tasks and skill requirements, including the amount of time spent on each task, what each task entails and how critical each is to the end-to-end process is vital to workforce reinvention. This allows for greater understanding of which tasks can be performed by technology, leaving the more value-added tasks to be performed by people. With that said, productivity gains are not likely to happen simply by automating current work tasks within current processes, nor by forcing AI into legacy processes or technologies. They need to be reinvented and built. While no one can accurately predict what will happen as the ‘new reality’ of a post COVID-19 world sets in, reinventing work this way presents an opportunity for engaged employees to play to their strengths while building a more productive and rewarding workplace.

In my next post, we’ll discuss how to go beyond organizational agility and resilience.

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