As the shock of Coronavirus continues, it's shifting the preferences and expectations of all of us as individuals, citizens, employees, and consumers. These shifts are impacting how we live and work and how we use technology. These changes will also determine how work gets done in the years ahead. My big call is that 2020 marks the end of work in the analogue era. And it just so happens we have a survey out in the field to prove it.
The Catalyst is Coronavirus
2020 is when everything that could move online did move online. We found out that the cashless society is healthier (no more dirty money to handle); telehealth through a screen trumped waiting in a doctor's surgery, nervously eyeing everyone around us; online fitness classes kept us in shape, educated our kids, while the weekly Zoom socials kept everyone sane. As consumers, we changed our habits, literally, overnight, and many of those changes will stick (even my elderly parents now shop online and bank online and tell me there is no going back).
The virus saw organizations double down on all things digital because their leaders recognized that those firms that reinvent themselves and make better insights and foresight about their customers and would emerge more robust to withstand the industry disruption after the virus. As industries pivot and consumer changes accelerate, the future of work has finally arrived in 2020 (five years ahead of schedule). With perfect timing, Cognizant launched its most extensive global survey to date, about the changes in work and how leaders should think about them.
The survey is called "The Work Ahead" and provides insight and guidance on how business and jobs will evolve as technology ramps up. With half the study complete, we can reveal that an executive class is grappling with a profound shift in work, driven in part by chaos and necessity of the virus. Leaders face a four-fold challenge: what's driving the changes in the future of work; which changes matter now; which changes will stick as the pandemic recedes from reality to memory; and what action should they take as a result. Attitudes to work are certainly changing but run counter-intuitive to what you would expect.
Working at home is a blip.
Yes, you read that right! We asked respondents to tell us what the lasting impacts of Coronavirus would be on their business and workforce. And down at the bottom on a long list of statements was "our workforce will spend more time working at home." Leaders don't see working at home as a lasting legacy of Coronavirus! This goes against the consensus that we are on the brink of a work at home revolution with stuffy, outdated attitudes toward flexible homeworking consigned to the dustbin.
According to the survey, the workplace is still where employers want their people to be. And I agree with them. The places where work gets done still matter (see read my report Space Matters). The office, factory or shop floor all deliver a multitude of benefits that long-term working at home simply cannot match. People like the camaraderie of working alongside one another; Thursday/Friday night socials boost team morale; Gossip around the watercooler or coffee bar provides the organizational insight that the hours of online meetings fail to deliver. And we have to think about how an organization builds knowledge capital across its workforce.
From my own experience, I wouldn't have been half as successful in my career without learning about the IT industry from the time spent at the start of my career at IDC, as part of its redoubtable IT services team. There was fun and banter but learning too about my industry, where it came from and how it evolved. I am mid-career, but those at the start of their career still need a steer on these things. They need mentoring and socializing about how you get things done through an organization intelligently (the sort of stuff that might sound obvious, and you wouldn't put down on an email, but you would stick your head-up and ask a colleague sitting next to you). This was essential when I started work way back in the day, and it's the same for those at the start of their careers right now. So, I get why organizations would want their people back at work (and there is much real estate that still needs filling!) We can talk about productivity at work, but that's a different conversation for another post.
Workforce flexibility trumps flexible working.
Work will change on the back of the virus, but those changes won't be achieved with squads of workers toiling at home. Respondents want to accelerate new digital working practices and want to root them in workforce flexibility. Leaders want and expect their teams to be multi-skilled, with the ability to team with machines and with functions across the firm. My read is that new skills and cultures need shaping as data, analytics and machine learning become critical competencies for the modern enterprise.
A raft of digital working practices will encourage diverse teams to work together through aligned goals. Resilient infrastructures and new work platforms need installing so work tasks can scale and switch seamlessly between distributed teams. Workplace tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Slack will be standard, enabling real-time collaboration and productivity with instant messaging and live video. But if the workforce needs more flexibility, then it's going to need organizing differently with best practices accelerated around inter-company teaming, accountability, diversity and inclusion.
To achieve flexibility, then enterprise-wide data cultures need shaping where employees are eager to use and apply new data services in their roles. They also need access to cross-company tools that can help them share their insights across the business. Emerging human-to-machine workflows with robust people management processes need developing in tandem, so people feel invigorated by these new tools, as well as secure in their use. The current workforce also needs new hard (job-specific) and soft (communication) skills, and new jobs will also emerge that require a fundamental relook at how organizations develop and source talent (read 21 HR Jobs of the Future to understand what they could be). There is so much to explore when we've finished collecting the survey data!
2020 marks the end of work in the analogue age. To put it another way, the future of work is here. Coronavirus is the catalyst for firms to modernize how they put people to work and survive the disruption wrought by the virus.
I will leave you with an intriguing snippet/survey cut from the interim results: Those firms that have made more significant progress augmenting their business processes with technology compared with other respondents, value and pay their frontline workers more (66% versus 58%); embrace workforce flexibility (60% versus 49%); and have introduced new HR policies in support (55% versus 43%). What is it about these super-augmenters that put them at the leading edge of the Work Ahead?