Predicting the future is a fool’s game, unless you happen to be a science-fiction writer. Even then, they don’t always get things entirely right. Although we seem to be living in a world something like ‘28 Days Later’ or ‘Day of the Triffids’ at the moment, dystopic visions like ‘Blade Runner’ (now, disturbingly, set in the past) seemed to predict air pollution and global warming at the expense of more fun things like flying cars and artificial people.
When it comes to predicting the future of the workplace, it is easy to start with the technology. But looking at technology can blind people to the most disruptive part of innovation – namely “us”. This is why we’ve taken a broader view. These trends are all underpinned and enabled by technologies such as smartphones, unified comms, connectivity and cloud, and show the importance of having a flexible strategy for when your business might face external challenges. And, let’s face it, we have a few of those being thrown at us at the moment!
These trends also all mysteriously begin with the letter ‘D’!
Global pandemics have been on the macro trend radar for a long time. That possibility seemed too like science fiction, though, and other micro trends (like the other ‘D’s below) were occupying all of our strategic priorities. That has changed fast!
Pandemics have historically forced us to take a long, hard look at the past and imagine a new, reshaped future. Pandemics aren’t the only future global disruptor on the radar, though. The climate emergency looms large and threatens even bigger human and economic upheaval in the years to come. How do we reshape the ways that we work to become more carbon neutral?
Technology is transforming the way that we work and collaborate. Pretty much every customer I am working with has “digital workplace” initiatives in place. But what is a “digital workplace”? It isn’t about working from home, or about offices, or even exclusively about technology. It is about enabling, educating and empowering individuals to be productive however, wherever, or whenever, they choose to work.
If we are going to reinvent work, we need to reinvent it to make us more, not less, productive. However, productivity in organisations which have a service oriented, knowledge worker base is extremely difficult to measure. Old proxy measures of productivity, such as number of hours worked, do not equate to real productivity, especially since long hours cultures are often the least productive. We may need to reinvent how we measure organisations in the future in order to make the transition to digital working successful.
From age to gender, personality type to culture, workforces need to be endlessly diverse – especially if you value innovation. Diversity can have its challenges, though. One size does not fit all in a diverse organisation, leaders need to be able to manage conflict, create purpose and bring people together on common ground - both physical (when appropriate), and (at the moment, anyway) digital.
Because of the diversity of the workforce, many people will adapt tools and technologies to suit their way of working. Some of those technologies, such as WhatsApp, are consumer, not enterprise tools. This started with trends such as bring your own device (BYOD) but now extends to bring your own software, apps, office etc. Of course, much of this gives IT people sleepless nights, as we don’t think about auditability or security as users. Saying “no” drives these behaviours underground. Saying “yes” but bounding it and making security a priority is a more sensible approach.
Or is it? Technology has untethered us from our desks and our offices. We can work anytime, anyplace and anywhere – but culture has anchored us back. It has taken a global emergency to propel home and flexible working to the forefront of organisational strategy, despite the technologies to enable it being available for more than 20 years. It may be that, post-pandemic, we may wonder what exactly our offices are for!
In truth, offices were already evolving to become more collaboration tool , than workspace. It’s not all about desks and capacity anymore. It is about providing productive spaces for the activities going on in them. Using data to understand how people are using physical spaces is vital to understanding how offices are working for employees when they choose to be in them.
Our “inner caveman” still behaves tribally. Despite many of our everyday interactions occurring in the digital world, trust is still a prerequisite for effective collaboration. Trust is most easily built in close proximity – but that isn’t possible at the moment. This means that we need to embrace and develop tools which help us to build trust digitally as well as physically. Rich collaboration tools such as video have had a massive growth spurt, underpinned by collaboration tools such as chat.
Or at least the 9 to 5 is (Ms Parton definitely is not). The problem of the future, according to Wired’s Kevin Kelly, is not connection but disconnection. An unwritten expectation to be “always on” can damage both productivity and wellbeing. Learning to turn off, have down time and ditch the constant multitasking are all challenges we face. This is especially true as our workplace and our home are one and the same.
Although artificial intelligence has yet to reach the sophistication of R2D2 or C3PO, there is no doubt that automation will impact us all in the future. I don’t predict the Terminator style Robo-Armageddon that some have forecast – mainly because many uniquely human skills are extremely difficult to automate (try having a profound conversation with Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, for a start). Augmented Intelligence, where humans and machines exploit each other’s strengths, is likely to become an increasingly common way of working.
However, bringing things back to productivity, because the machines will be dealing with the rules based, predictable, data driven elements of work, the human component will be increasingly difficult to measure. The last thing you want employees to be is robotic – but an inability to quantify their contribution means that they may well look worthless. Yet being human is possibly the most valuable skill for employees to have in a world of disruption and automation.
As we adjust to this new world of work, the key focus areas for business leaders are likely to be around three main areas: employee wellbeing, productivity and collaboration.
In the first of a series of papers on digital work, you can find out more about how to solve the collaboration conundrum and get teams working more effectively together, even if they are all remote: