Has The Future Of Work Arrived? If So, How Should Companies Adapt?

November 18, 2020

Many believe that Covid-19 crisis fast-forwarded the future of work. The pandemic forced companies to abruptly shift work from offices to home and vividly demonstrated the possibilities of where and how work can be performed.  The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  Yet, while a new reality of work has developed rapidly, more time is needed for organizations to figure out what systematic changes are required to sustain productivity in the new workplace.

The Hackett Group is actively researching how the workplace and the strategies and systems governing the workplace have changed and will further change because of Covid-19.  To aid this effort, we’ve launched a brief research poll to collect data on the extent of remote/virtual working, its impact and the innovations in workplace strategy that are proving most effective.

Has the Future Really Become Now?

Since the onset of Covid-19 the workplace has been transformed.  Changes that were expected to take years happened in weeks and even days. While the workplace indeed appears to be irrevocably altered, more time is needed before the full picture emerges.  Our intent with the poll is to collect data to validate several hypotheses shown below regarding the extent and timing of changes to the workplace and the strategies implemented to address them:

  • The future workplace will be anywhere.
    People will work where they can do their job best. Some will work remotely all of the time.  Some will work in company locations all of the time.  Most will split time between their home, office or “third spaces.”  The imperative for HR, in partnership with other departments such as IT and facilities, is to create a seamless and high-quality employee experience, regardless of where workers are located.  This requires easy to access but powerful digital capabilities to communicate and collaborate as well as do solo work. It will also be crucial to reinvent physical spaces to enable effective in-person and blended team collaboration and provide enhanced trust-building experiences.
  • The future workspace will be digital and digitally augmented.
    As technology permeates most types of work, the workspace – i.e., where work happens – will become predominantly digital.  HR must play a leading role in shaping the new digital workspace, including redefining policies governing workforce performance, talent management and reward systems. For example, an increasing number of companies are using virtual and augmented reality technologies to design products virtually, test job applicants, conduct more effective virtual meetings and train staff in areas such as compliance, safety and diversity and inclusion.
  • Future workmates will be cross-organization, virtual and robotic.
    Most individuals will routinely work across teams and even multiple locations. Enabling collaboration within and across geographically dispersed teams and organizational units takes on new urgency. Software robots will become common – think job-specific versions of Siri and Alexa – taking on routine tasks at first and eventually providing AI-driven guidance and insights to workers at all levels.
  • The future work type will be fluid and unstructured.
    As digital technology gobbles up routine work, humans will be freed up to spend most of their time interacting with other humans – customers, stakeholders, and colleagues – engaging in tasks such as creating new ideas for products and services, problem solving, and building relationships. This will have implications for job design.  Some researchers are predicting that jobs as we’ve known them will “melt” or become deconstructed. They predict work will become more fluid, change frequently and that workers will be defined by their skills and knowledge, not their roles.  Work will become a portfolio of projects and activities rather than a job with strictly defined responsibilities.
  • Digital work tools will permeate the future workplace.
    The shift to work from home accelerated the adoption of digital messaging, video meetings, collaboration tools and individual productivity aids. The results have been a mixed bag.  The work is getting done and people are remaining productive by and large, but fatigue with digital communications, missed in-person time with colleagues, work-home boundary blurring and the drag of social isolation are taking a toll on emotional wellbeing.  This provides a unique opportunity to really understand where digital tools are most and least effective. A next challenge is transitioning this technology from supporting fully remote distributed teams to hybrid on-premises/remote working groups.

Are Changes in Workplace Strategy and Systems Keeping Up?

So far, I’ve talked about our view of the direction of changes to the nature of work and the workplace.  Below are several assertions about how workplace strategies and the systems that enable them will transform.  Although some new approaches have quickly emerged, we believe it will take more time, probably years, for a full reinvention of workplace strategies and systems to occur.

  • Strategy will be activated as much from culture and embedded beliefs as directives from the top of the organization.
    In organizations with more dispersed and agile workforce, purpose and meaning will grow in importance as a means to align, motivate and guide workers. Agile, cross-functional teams will become more prevalent across the organization. Methodological strategy execution approaches like goal cascading will be augmented, if not replaced, by values and principles-driven methods necessitating new leadership styles and skills.
  • Organizational structures will enable more worker agility and autonomy.
    Pressures will persist, if not grow, to distribute the locus of power and decision authority broadly throughout the organization.  Determining the right mix of hierarchy which centralizes power versus networks which distributes it is a chief imperative.  In highly volatile environments, pushing out decision authority guided by shared mission and values enables the workforce to act with agility.
  • Information will become more transparent and talent more mobile.
    The flow and volume of information will continue to expand. A key imperative is ensuring vertical and horizontal information flows are working effectively.  Determining the degree of transparency is critical.   Technology such as AI will play an increasing role monitoring, measuring and analyzing data flow to flag trends and issues for the attention of process owners and decision makers at all organizational levels.  Talent and resource allocation approaches are about to be reinvented. New technologies and platforms known as internal talent markets are gaining attention.  These systems match opportunities and tasks with workers possessing appropriate skills, know-how and ambition. They give employees greater horizontal mobility to work on multiple projects and process activities, accelerating learning, career growth and engagement while allowing companies to make better use of their labor capacity.
  • Intrinsic rewards will increase in importance. The impact of Covid-19 on employee health, safety and the workplace is forcing a rethinking of rewards and benefits.  What employees need and value most has changed and will continue to evolve as the new ways of working become permanent.  HR organizations responded quickly to the help employees weather the impacts of the crisis on their health, safety, families, and financial welfare. The mix of rewards and benefits will continue to change.  Learning, development, recognition, belonging and work-life harmony may surpass extrinsic financial rewards and incentives in their impact on the employee value proposition.
  • A new generation of HR policies, programs, training and services will emerge to address changing workgroup and individual needs.
    Delivery of HR services through digital channels will become the norm.  The types of services/capabilities will expand and become more personalized to individual employees, addressing their specific job, wellness, and productivity needs.  HR capabilities must be designed to build purpose and connection, enable autonomy and flexibility, and promote transparency, diversity, equity and inclusion.   A primary mission of HR will be to help workers to reach their full potential and perform their best, as individuals and in teams.
  • Productivity will be judged on results and outcomes. There is much speculation about how workforce goals and performance measures might change as a result of new remote and virtual ways of working. Our view is that the goals and measures themselves are far less likely to change than how they are formulated and tracked.  To be successful in working from anywhere, employees must have greater degrees of autonomy and flexibility and more of a say in setting performance goals. Measurement must shift away from inputs like time working to results and outcomes.
  • Successful leaders in the future workplace will be adept at managing remote/distributed workers. A key challenge for leaders is becoming comfortable with new and different levers of control. They will have to come to grips with increasing pressure to grant higher levels of autonomy and flexibility to large segments of the workforce.  This will not be easy for those leaders heavily invested in traditional hierarchical control structures and management styles that depend on workers being physically present in the workplace.

It will be a radically different work environment should most or even some of the changes come to pass.  HR organizations must build on their newly earned credibility to help lead the transition to the future workplace and to implement the strategies and tactics that will make it successful for the workforce and the business overall.