In our most recent podcast episodes, we’ve been exploring the future of work and how it’s been influenced by the pandemic. Many of the changes prophesised years back are finally coming into effect because they’ve had to. People are finally being empowered to work from home and being trusted to manage their workloads as they see fit. These are some of the more obvious changes, but other, more subtle shifts are also being introduced, such as changes in recruitment processes and cultural changes within organisations.
The world of work has altered dramatically in the past 50 years, though as Marc Weedon commented in Episode 14 of the podcast “What we’re seeing is there’s been more change in the world of work in the last 3 months, than say, over the past three decades I’d suggest”. The pandemic has presented a buoyant opportunity to finally embrace some of these longed-for opportunities, but what are some of the ways we need to adapt besides remote working?
More and more things are becoming automated which will necessitate a need for employees to find new ways to make themselves invaluable in the workplace. The example of companies like ING which are stripping back their workforces to allow for more investment and reliance on digital services show the trajectory of this trend, and it is not confined to one sector or specific roles. Experts in the field suggest that even roles that were once thought of as safe, such as those in the judicial system, or even medical professionals, are now at risk of losing out to machines.
But while discussions abound around the fact that more machines will be employed for human jobs, the next step of this discussion is to explore how humans can then re-purpose themselves to find employment elsewhere. As a starting point, developing digital skills will be essential. Not only do we need to know how to use the standard tools currently in use, but we need to be able to adapt and incorporate emerging technologies into our working lives. The key here is to focus on critical skills that technology cannot provide, such as creativity, problem solving, communication skills, leadership. Not only will these skills ensure that as employees we remain relevant, but they’ll also allow us to create new roles that incorporate the latest technology, rather than fighting it.
Within many businesses, the term ‘smart working’ often equates to remote working, or flexible hours. But while that may be a significant part of it, there are other facets that come into play, and these are already shaping the world of and will continue to do so. One example is the growing reliance on gig economy workers; those who want to control their own workflow and demands. For companies who don’t have a need for regular, fixed term employees in a role, freelance employees and contractors are already available to fill the voids if and when they appear.
As demonstrated throughout the pandemic, this is a much more flexible way of finding work and recruiting employees to solve immediate need at both ends. This is likely to become an increasingly popular route as it offers organisations a way to reduce costs, and spend money in a more focussed way, and provides individuals with a flexibility and freedom that isn’t always available in full time employment.
For those looking to benefit from this arrangement or the rise in remote and flexible working, the ability to prioritise workload, manage time effectively and feel confident with minimal direction will be essential.
From a business point of view, to leverage the advantages of this working method there needs to be genuine consideration of how gig workers fit into the overall structure. It will also be vital to that effective and inspirational leaders are in place, and as well as the technology to support this endeavour.
In the new era of work, there will most likely be fewer ‘leaders’ in the traditional sense of the word, and hierarchical structures will be flattened out to allow employees to use their own initiative and skills to solve problems facing a business. Individuals will feel empowered to reach out to whoever it is that has the skills to help them with a task, rather than relying on the de facto ‘experts’ in a certain field. Roles will need to become more flexible to account for the tasks that need to be done, rather than adherence to job description.
For a lot of businesses, a significant cultural shift will be required for the organisation and its employees to truly benefit from this approach to management. Despite the monumental changes that we’ve witnessed within the workplace in the last few decades, there continues to be a reliance on 1950s management approaches, and while these are slowly being phased out, a final push is needed to help some companies embrace this new climate for success.
Real Time Feedback
Annual reviews have lost favour in recent times, with several high-profile organisations declaring that they are scrapping them completely, and we are already seeing an increased desire for instantaneous feedback and performance evaluation amongst workers. This trend will continue to evolve until continuous feedback becomes to norm, and people always know where they stand in their roles, and what areas they need to develop.
Part of how this will integrate into organisations will rely on the management approaches adopted, and the expectations that this brings. If an organisation does achieve a truly flat structure then it would be expected that instantaneous feedback would become the standard and would come from all angles rather than just from ‘management’. This is the ideal that many experts suggest we work towards, as it gives individuals far greater insight into how they are perceived across the whole business, rather than just within one specific area. This then allows for much greater growth opportunities, as well as greater cohesion across a business.
However, for this to be a successful approach, it is also important that all employees are given adequate information on how to provide feedback effectively, and are also given the opportunity to act on any feedback they receive. This could mean that improved access to on-demand learning is necessary, along with coaching and mentoring programmes, to ensure employees can adapt quickly according to the needs of the business, while receiving the support needed to do so.
The world we live in changes at such a rapid pace today that if organisations aren’t able to keep up, they will soon be left behind. Being adaptable is primarily about creating an environment where employees can make changes in how they work and what they produce in direct response to the needs of the market. For some organisations the need for overbearing bureaucracy needs to be tapered down, so faster decisions can be made, while others may actually require more structure to enable a clear decision path.
Better data analytics will also play a big role in this, enabling employees to make accurate and timely decisions based on fact rather than fancy. But this will require people who can both manipulate and interpret data, along with clarity on how to act on the insights obtained.
Employees as Ambassadors
As more employees seek to find roles that fulfil them and align with their own values, they are quickly becoming ambassadors for the brand they work for, meaning employers will need to work harder to ensure they live up to this expectation.
Communication will be essential from an organisation perspective, ensuring employees remain fully aware of what’s occurring across the business, and what the good news stories are. There also needs to be a degree of trust enabling employees to feel confident using social media platforms to share their enthusiasm. This may require a notable cultural shift, as for certain businesses, especially those established long before the rise of social media, there remains some resistance to this. However, as social media’s influence on consumer decisions continues to grow, encouraging employees to become active advocates for the brand will need to become standard practice.
It has long been known that happy employees are more productive, engaged and effective in their roles. The rise of wellbeing research and practices has seen this knowledge expand, and now organisations are clamouring over themselves to provide an environment where wellbeing takes centre stage. In many cases this piece will largely be achieved by allowing the other points mentioned above to occur, but there will also likely be a more focussed push to ensure employees are supported and equipped with skills and resources to manage their wellbeing.
This could take the form of internal resources, improved access to external facilities, or a mix of the two. It will also be necessary to actively encourage employees to be aware of and proactive when it comes to managing their health, but enabling this will require a change in culture and attitude – one that permits employees to tend to their health where needed, without judgement.
The Future is Now
The future of work is an exciting prospect. And while some organisations may feel confident that they’re already adopting many of the points above, the reality is that most are lagging behind, a point proven by the challenges so many organisations experienced as a result of the pandemic. If we’ve learnt anything from recent events, it’s that it’s the unknown changes, the ones that few anticipated, that are likely to trip organisations up.
In order to successfully recover from any crisis, you need a resilient workforce that can adapt and shift according to the immediate needs. But you also need a workforce that is competent, healthy, and willing to take on the challenges, along with leaders who inspire those around them when times are tough. While the above points have been earmarked as considerations for ‘the future of work’, the reality is that we need these skills, behaviours and cultural changes now more than ever.