Reimagining the Future of Work Requires Leadership and Chutzpah

May 11, 2020

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We’re now months into a fundamentally changed economy and society where the nature, quality and structure of work has had to rapidly change with facts on the ground. But in truth, COVID-19 is simply accelerating the evolution of work, which was well underway already. What would have taken years to digitally transform industry, writ large, has been accomplished in a matter of months. Factors like automation and artificial intelligence, employee-employer trust, mobility, purpose and reskilling-upskilling have moved from serious considerations to drivers of change.

While too many variables remain to accurately predict the future of work, we can search for clues about what’s next from previous paradigm shifts and trends that were already in motion.

PHOENIX RISING

The success of open markets, and capitalism itself, relies on the idea of creative destruction – where one new idea, product or service replaces the old one. The catalyst for said newness occurs organically in free societies but is supercharged when a major event injects widespread variability into the mix. The more disruptive the event, the more difficult it is for the status quo to remain intact and the wider the opening for new entrants. What follows in these scenarios is a blossoming of solutions.

The 2008 recession birthed many of the direct-to-consumer services you know and love today. World War II catalyzed Silicon Valley’s already growing tech dominance and led to significant advances in computation and telecommunication technologies. The Flu Pandemic of 1918 provided major leaps in medical technologies and innovations in transportation.

Necessity is the mother of invention and COVID-19 has certainly presented massive volatility in need of navigation. We don’t yet know which companies will successfully steer themselves through a fundamental rethink of products and services to meet the challenges of this reality, but we do know the movement is afoot and so is an emerging workforce powering those innovations. In this environment, clients should balance the need for a consistent workforce experience against their appetite for experimentation with emerging solutions.

WORKING, 9 TO 5?

Remote working, pre-COVID, was acceptable but not a deeply established practice with only 7% of US workers having a flexible workplace benefit. Now, 74% of CFOs expect that at least 5% of their workforce will stay in permanent WFH status versus returning to the workplace. A recent study from FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence revealed that 61% of those who would normally need to be at their place of business to do their job are now working from home.

Entry-level, back- and mid-office positions with little critical need for physical interaction fall into this category – and are most likely to integrate automation in the near future. Further analysis of what functions can be performed onsite or offsite reveal two additional categories of jobs of the future. Some jobs, especially those in services industries, will continue requiring sensible physical contact and are at minimal risk of major disruption. Are you eager to visit a tele-salon or get a haircut via robot, after all?

The third category of jobs will require intermittent physical interaction and are especially critical to those in leadership positions and in industries that require serendipity, discovery and continual collaboration in the workplace. A crude parallel exists in how businesses approached cloud migration, which now blend on-premise, off-site and hybrid solutions to find the right mix of physical and virtual.

In all of the above cases, a decreased dependence on the physical workplace increases the demand on programs and tools that build culture and strengthen internal communications. Our experts are ready to assist clients who understand the importance of frequent and meaningful communication, especially important to younger generations within the workforce.

TRANSITIONING FROM REMOTE WORK TO TELEPRESENCE

While necessary and certainly up to the task, the collaboration solutions we’re currently using are only one part of recreating the workplace. They will continue to evolve and further redefine the future of work as competition to be the platform of choice intensifies and deepens. 5G, augmented and virtual reality, the Internet of Things and quantum computing have the potential to pull our 2D WFH experience into something richer and fulfilling.

The convergence of these powerful, paradigm-shifting technologies will be leveraged by a visionary (who’s possibly said, “You’re on mute” one too many times) to approximate what it’s like to share a physical space with someone. This could be picking up on nonverbal and environmental cues, being available for quick engagement versus connecting in rigid on-camera meetings, overhear a conversation that inspires or collaborate on the fly with seamless synchronization. These telepresence solutions will be delivered though emerging technologies like digital proxies, avatars, mirrored setups, and yes, even holograms.

You may guffaw at the idea and think that 2020 is not the future we were promised when these solutions should’ve already been in place. You’re right. But technology capacity, computation, bandwidth, complexity and even user sophistication aren’t the limiting factors anymore. Instead it is our failure of imagination, leadership and chutzpah that will prevent us from delivering the future of work we deserve in new, creative, inclusive and sustainable ways.

View additional COVID-19 counsel from the FleishmanHillard global network here.