Following the shock of a Brexit vote and the tortuous negotiations to secure a fair trade deal, not to mention a devastating pandemic ripping through the British population and economy, things are finally feeling brighter across the UK.

With a Brexit settlement well underway, a stunningly swift COVID-19 vaccine rollout and an economy showing signs of a healthy recovery, businesses across the country are looking beyond existential challenges and are focusing on the future, our research shows. The key question for British leaders is how to capitalize on the opportunities ahead from a newly branded, outwardly focused Global Britain.

To learn more about these new dynamics, we surveyed 4,000 global executives from across the world, 250 of whom were from the UK. We learned first-hand the challenges they are experiencing and the opportunities they foresee as the new world of human/machine teaming takes shape and form — rebalancing the division of labor between humans and intelligent algorithms.

Technology investment underpins customer obsession

Since our previous Work Ahead study five years ago, the baton of technology hype in the UK has passed from business analytics to technologies that empower analytics with deeper levels of engagement (see below). While customer experience may be the new mantra, customer obsession frames the forces now driving the future of work. Eliminating lengthy processing times, empowering customers with easier interactions, anticipating customer needs and personalizing in real-time are all hallmarks of a modern company that strives to be customer-obsessed and digital first to last.

The technology hype baton passes to IoT

Respondents were asked to rate the impact of several forces on work in the next three years. (Percent of respondents citing high impact)

Being customer-obsessed means getting past industrial-world process flows that are slow and unwieldy. Forward-thinking businesses are embracing a dynamic technology strategy, reconfiguring their business models based on insight and intelligence gathered by a plethora of smart devices, dongles, voice assistants and more, and layering these insights with machine learning to inform analytic output.

For example, UK insurers are moving beyond analyzing past behavioral patterns for pricing and underwriting, and shifting toward making predictions using current behavioral data. They’re resetting business models around algorithmic-driven, flexible, on-demand insurance offerings that target customer behaviors and trends — as they happen, in-the-moment.

How effectively insurers instantaneously price and transparently underwrite risk, with minimal intervention and a high degree of precision, will determine their commercial success. Workflows will creatively fuse emotion, trust and ethics into the algorithms that drive future customer engagement.

Delivering value against rapidly evolving customer expectations won’t happen by simply tweaking a customer touchpoint here or fiddling with an underlying process there. Instead, businesses must engineer connected practices that support the delivery of services and support for business capabilities across front-end experiences, community-driven product development and innovation, as well as back-office operations that continuously adapt.

And organizations cannot do this the alone. The trick is to architect corporate information systems and capabilities to interface with external systems and extend the customer journey across multiple service providers that bring unique and compelling technologies, insights and customer experiences.

  • Key learning point: Technology mastery enables organizations to tap into richer seams of data through hyper-connectivity and machine learning that power decisions and analytic outputs. New ecosystems are emerging across industries that layer decisions with meaning, accessed through application programming interfaces (API) and modular system components and capabilities.

Future workforce strategies hinge on strategic partnerships

Sourcing has returned to the enterprise shopping list, with almost half (46%) of UK respondents forecasting third-party services strategies to powerfully impact their future work strategies by 2023 — more than double the finding in our previous study.

With the impact of the pandemic and Brexit, accompanied by the rise of customer obsession, UK businesses are prioritizing short-term benefits rather than long-term goals. As one of the early adopters and biggest proponents of offshoring, UK businesses will turn to partners as an important lever for operational efficiency and cost control. The pandemic’s aftermath has unleashed greater scrutiny on spending, tighter cost controls and a laser focus on generating value from contracts negotiated with short-term targets and more precise ROI terms and conditions.

Driving this renewed interest in sourcing is the need for agility and fresh skills in emerging technology areas, such as hyper-connectivity, automation and AI. While these technologies are rapidly moving mainstream, finding partners with demonstrated expertise is a challenge.

Our read is that UK businesses want easily understood service arrangements, with fast, demonstratable results. Technology is only the first step; leaders need the talent in place, both internal and through partners, to ensure the technology works. The supply for skilled technology workers continues to outpace demand as the new division of labor between humans and intelligent machine algorithms accelerates.

For example, the UK's digital tech sector was growing almost six times faster than the rest of the economy prior to the pandemic, and that will only increase as organizations shift to digital-first operations. The rekindling of interest in third-party sourcing masks a serious talent gap.

  • Key learning point: Reinvent services partnerships for a cloud-centric, digitally defined world rather than relying on a short-term cost-containment workaround. The bigger issue is to undertake strategic workforce planning and identify longer-term skill requirements — and then figure out how to fulfill them. Conversely, policy makers need to invest in and increase the supply of STEM and technical skills into the country.

Executives struggle with leadership changes imposed by digital

Executive concerns about leadership have shifted considerably since our last Work Ahead study. Senior leaders express uncertainty about how well they’re adapting to the new styles of leadership driven by digital tools and ways of working (see below).

Digital tools and technologies hinder executive performance

Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following statements about the impact of digital on the future of your own job in the next three years. (Percentage point change in the number of respondents who said they agreed between 2016 and our current study)

Although UK society is much more willing than other regions to transact online, our study revealed doubt among our executive respondents that new technologies are helping them be strategic and productive in how they lead their organizations.

Leaders’ concerns about digital tools and technologies center on stifled creativity (with the number of respondents agreeing that digital would enhance innovation down 25 percentage points between 2016 and our current study), problematic communication (down 26 percentage points), productivity (down 36 percentage points) and effective collaboration (down a whopping 38 percentage points). This is a red flag for information governance as the explosion of data and dashboards and the endless reply-all emails and roster of meetings risk overwhelming leaders and creating corporate paralysis in their wake.

Moreover, the rise of instant messaging, Yammer feeds and SharePoints as the default method for cascading information throughout the organization appears to be exhausting senior leaders. And if this is the case for senior execs, then no wonder workers whose jobs increasingly interface with these technologies are feeling similarly fatigued. Our findings signal the degree that technology will play a vital role in employee satisfaction and productivity.

At the same time, general concerns about technology at work have faded over the last five years among UK executives. The positive impacts of new technology are much clearer, including helping people stay employed (with number of respondents up 29 percentage points since 2016) and mitigating the impact of automation in their careers (up 30 percentage points). These results mirror our finding on the safety of personal information, digital terrorism, threats of fraud/theft, which declined by nearly one-third since our previous study.

  • Key learning: Start measuring the employee experience at all levels of the organization through research, experience design and insights into psychological/organizational behavior. Then, develop practices and programs to take advantage of the growing volume of workforce data and improve the employee experience.

Final word

Business and political leaders are waking up to what the future of work means in an outwardly focused, newly minted Global Britain. As befits the most advanced digital nation in Europe (according to some measures), advanced technology has a defining role to play, but talent and leadership remain critical competencies.

Our Work Ahead study confirms that the future belongs to those companies that place both employees and technology at the center of their outlook. In fact, talent strategies and upskilling will be the hinge for UK success as human/machine teaming scales.

This article was written by AVP Euan Davis, who leads the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work in EMEA and directed The Work Ahead research project.