May 30, 2022
What is the future of work and what part will automation play?
Depending on where you are in the world, you might not have seen the inside of your office for the better part of 18 months, but I will let you keep your feelings about that to yourself!
However, it is a bit of a misnomer to suggest that Covid-19 has brought conversations about remote working and the use of tech in how we run our businesses into our thoughts. The pandemic has certainly accelerated things - and made many businesses stuck in the 90s take a look at how they operate - but the reality is that technological advancements have been changing how we work and pushing the boundaries of how we can achieve things for years.
While people continue to talk about going back to the office, what we should really be talking about is technology, automation, and how we can use these to make our people even better.
What will the future of work really look like?
What do we mean when we talk about “the future of work”?
We are going to talk about “the future of work.” You probably see this called “the new normal” on the news, and that is probably a phrase I have used myself on this blog in the last year.
And, I know, it is something that it feels like we have been talking about forever!
Still, we can get away from making this exclusively about Covid-19.
After all, the future of work is a concept that has been around for years. The future of work is a big picture trend in which businesses use tech, including automation, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning platforms, to enhance their processes, bring flexibility into the workplace, and drive culture change.
Subsequently, this can drive several positive outcomes, including:
- Achieving a flatter hierarchy in your business, giving your teams more equity in how your business operates and grows.
- Taking advantage of agile structures and workflows that boost productivity, motivation, and the bottom line.
- Opening up the global talent pool by allowing you to take advantage of the gig economy. If you do not need someone physically present in your office to complete a particular task, why limit yourself to someone in your city, region, country, or continent?
As you can probably already tell, talking about the future of work is critical not just for laying out the path ahead but also for understanding which businesses have learned the lessons of the past 18 months.
It is obvious that for backward-thinking businesses, the "new normal" was only ever "normal for the time being before we can reinstate the status quo." Ultimately, these businesses are highly likely to find their people looking to work elsewhere. Great talent will gravitate to companies where the "new normal" is forward-thinking, reliant on tech, and fun!
Creating a future (and post-Covid-19!) workplace that works for your business and is tailored to your employees’ needs
While some businesses were getting better at considering things like employee well-being before Covid-19 was a thing, the pandemic threw a whole host of new spanners in the works.
However, the truth about the future of work is this. The best solution marries your requirements as a business to your employees' needs. Of course, there is an argument this has always been true. Still, we all know that it has been typical for businesses to set the agenda and for employees to choose to take or leave what they are offered.
Meeting the challenges posed by a post-Covid world
One of the biggest challenges around deciding what your business and workplace will look like in the future is that the number of considerations is seemingly endless. Another potential problem is that many of the questions you need to ask have subjective answers. If you are used to being data-driven, it can be challenging to get anywhere when faced with decisions that you could quite easily leave up to the toss of a coin!
At a minimum, you will probably find yourself answering the following questions:
- How can you ensure your people feel safe while at work?
- How big an office do you need? Do you need an office at all?
- Will you take a view on whether people coming into the office should be vaccinated?
- How flexible are you prepared to be around office vs. flexible working?
- How do you feel about your teams’ journey into work if attending the office?
- How can you continue to use the tech you added to your stack when forced to work remotely? What role do your people play even if you increasingly rely on automation?
- How will you equalize the experience of working in the office vs. working remotely?
It is up to you to set the agenda!
What the future of work looks like depends on several things. In reality, a lot of talk about "the new normal" in the past year has been a waste of time. What works for your business is not the same as what might work for mine.
I guess what I am saying here is that the future of work is whatever you want it to be! You do not have to be constrained by what anyone else tells you should happen.
Personalized working and meeting your employees’ needs
Once you are at peace with the notion you do not need to worry about what anyone else is doing, you can start to work on what the future of work looks like for your business.
Here are three things you should be thinking about.
1. Building your workplace with a holistic viewpoint
Businesses often have a defined set of "values" or commitments on top of their mission statement or anything else that talks about how they will do things. Usually, this is quite narrowly focused because it sounds good in marketing. After all, every potential customer wants to know that you “put your customers at the heart of everything you do.”
While I am not telling you not to put your customers first, it is a fact that what works for your customers might not be particularly appealing for the wider business.
- The best approach for your customers
- The best approach for your people
- The best approach for whatever products and services it is you sell
- The best approach for your business to enjoy sustainable growth
The answer will not be the same for each consideration. Still, you will find a sweet spot between them that allows you to design a workplace and processes that work for everyone.
2. Let your teams set the agenda
The easiest way to waste the potential and ability of your people is to tell them the way things are going to be and expect them to comply.
Such a feeling is one many people may have gotten used to after 18 months perpetually in and out of lockdown and being told what we can and cannot do. Still, it is not a healthy foundation on which to grow a business!
Empower your employees to take the lead and tell you what works for them.
This does not just apply to whether they want to work remotely or in the office, either! Let people tell you how automating tasks could help them claw back time to spend on other tasks or what bottlenecks they face when carrying out specific tasks.
The future workplace is an employee-driven one, so let them take the lead!
3. Retaining a flexible approach
How many businesses did not think they could work flexibly until circumstances meant they had to?
In the past 18 months, we have all had to be flexible around how we operate, sometimes changing how we work in a matter of hours.
Now you know your business can be flexible, why would you impose processes that put a straitjacket onto your people and constrains what and where you can do things? The future of work is not just about doing things differently. It is about accepting that how you work on Monday morning might be different from how you work on Monday afternoon and that things might change by the time the following Monday rolls around!
What are the risks you must deal with in designing your future workplace?
Considering the future of work is incredibly exciting, but you need to keep the following in mind to ensure you achieve the desired outcomes.
Avoid creating a “two-tier” workforce
If you give people the choice of where to work, your workplace culture must ensure an "Us vs. Them" dynamic is not allowed to evolve. Use the tech at your disposal to ensure your teams are connected. Remember that both people in the office and at home could have specific feelings about people in the opposite situation.
- Office workers might be unhappy that home co-workers do not have to take a journey to work and have more flexibility in their day.
- Homeworkers might be unhappy that they do not get as much face time with colleagues or feel they can leave their work in the office if their office is at home.
Hybrid working, where your people split their time between working in the office or at home, can help with this, as can creating a scenario where you leave it 100% up to your people where they work.
The need to better manage your recruitment
Recruitment was, and is, challenging at the best of times.
One consequence of embracing the future of work is that you will be a unique employer. On the one hand, this is great, because you will stand out and appeal to talent like never before.
On the other hand, it might make your recruitment more challenging. What if you recruit someone looking forward to coming back to the office but then decide they do not like working for you because there are only a handful of people in at a time? What if the person who wants to be able to work remotely turns out to be unproductive?
These are not insurmountable challenges! By using tech in your recruitment for things like personality testing, you will get a better idea of the people that are the right fit for you.
Falling into the trap of flexibility meaning "always-on"
The future of work means you might have employees working round the clock. This is particularly true if you used the pandemic as an opportunity to hire talent globally rather than casting your net only to people who can get to your office.
However, we must all be cautious that a flexible workplace does not mean that people are expected to pick up notifications and reply to communications around the clock. The best approach to take as an employer is to set the rules yourself. Saying "employees can manage their work-life balance and decide if they read emails" is a massive cop-out on your part. This leads to a toxic workplace culture where people believe they have to be "always-on" to get ahead.
Set boundaries for your employees, so they do not end up with no life. You could even have "fines" or a system to punish (in a fun way!) people who send and reply to Slack messages at 10 pm on Saturday when they are bored and looking at their phone!
Treating your designing of a workplace like a “winner takes all” competition
I always argue with my friends about our process for agreeing on where we will meet up or what we want to do. The reason? Because we always go with "the majority," even if that is a majority of one. This means that a handful of us end up never doing anything we want. A far better approach would be to incorporate the things different people want at different times.
The same is true for creating your future workplace.
If just over half your people want to do something, that does not mean you should disregard what everyone else thinks and hide behind “the majority.” All that happens here is you end up with 50% of your workforce being highly motivated and 50% who will probably leave in the next six months.
Ensure you listen to all points of view and design a workplace and processes that work for everyone.
You should be considering other remote workers, too!
All these rules should apply equally to workers you never meet, such as offshore freelancers or virtual admin staff. Granted, the person you have in the United Kingdom who writes your website content will probably never come into the office for a few days if you are based in Hong Kong. Still, that does not mean they should not feel like they are a part of your team.
Ask these people what you can do for them, too.
Do not have a situation where you have “the team” and then your outsourced and more remote workers as a separate entity. They are part of the team! Treat them as such!
What role will automation play in the future of work?
I have touched on the potential to use automation in various examples throughout this piece. The chances are that some of the tech you have turned to in the past 18 months involve elements of automation and integration, and both should continue to be vital components of your future workplace.
There are numerous benefits to automation, with cost-saving and efficiency enhancements often spoken about the most.
While these are clear benefits, you must consider the human side, too. Specifically, you should not see automation as a tool to replace your employees but as something that can empower them to do a better job. Most tasks that you can automate are repetitive, time-consuming, and low value in terms of the return you get, but they must be done. Furthermore, manually doing these jobs can be mind-numbingly dull, meaning motivation is zero by the time we can do something we would consider a little more engaging and exciting.
Automation will also help facilitate the changes you want to make. The ability to automate a process means you do not need dozens of employees in the office, for example.
Finally, automation will mean you can continue to spread your business operation worldwide to ensure you can always use the best talent available. Automation will help you do everything from creating and signing a contract with someone on the other side of the world to checking their work, keeping them connected to your team, and ensuring they hit their deadlines and get paid on time.
The future of work is built on automation and people working hand in hand, not primarily on one being more dominant than the other.
The future is now, so put your business ahead of the curve!
While we can talk about the future of work, the biggest thing to realize is that all this potential is waiting to be unleashed right now. The future truly is now, especially when it comes to utilizing things like automation!
The biggest lesson we can probably all learn from recent times is that things can change quickly, and are not always as they seem.
In the context of the future workplace, this knowledge should inspire us all to continue evolving, not take things for granted, and to continue to pursue more effective – and fun! – ways of working whether we are in the office, at home, or sitting on the beach!