Fundamental workplace changes — and the increasing adoption of AI — have shared the spotlight for several years. The Fourth Industrial Revolution had already reshaped the way we work in every single industry, causing a significant impact to our workspace. For years, we’ve been preparing organizations for this moment: the disruptions now taking place.
As we adjust to this new workplace revolution, we’ve worked in concert to transform our strategies and processes for the workforce’s current needs. Many of us have focused on creating purpose-driven and better workplaces that place great emphasis on the experience of workers. These changes have allowed us to create more meaningful connections with our staff and colleagues, and to get ready for the next iteration of the workplace. And while we may have been preparing for the not-so-future organization, we were surprised by a most unexpected situation. Our training time halted. The future was here.
For many companies, their entire workforce went virtual in record speed. We had to react quickly and demonstrate increased agility to adapt our products and offerings to the current digital landscape imposed by a virus too small to be seen even with most microscopes. Our entire ecosystem shifted with different priorities and needs. Like many, however, the move to remote work was in forward motion and had we not prepared, we would have seen even more economic carnage.
Agility has helped us navigate the times but has also inspired our employees to deliver on the constantly changing demands of our organizations. COVID doesn’t define who we are, it reveals it. Workplaces were already seeing a lot of migration to automation, but not at the cost of the human experience. Job losses and changes were happening surely, but in what might be the biggest paradox of all, machines also were enabling more of a focus on being human at work. The story is yet written on how this ultimately plays out, but even before COVID, we were seeing genuine progress toward the pursuit of meaningful work, including a very intense focus on the well-being of the worker.
"While we continue to work on business continuity in anticipation of business revival, it’s no longer necessary to clamor about the future of work. It has finally showed up. You’re currently leading within it."
– Scott Cawood, president and CEO of WorldatWork
The current pandemic has displayed vulnerability in ways most of us had never experienced. These glimpses into the full person normally get hidden behind the unwritten dress codes of how employees, parents, CEOs, boards and managers are supposed to act. We had been taking chances on being more human for our employees and by encouraging them to bring their fuller self into work. This now has become a core thread to the leadership and HR conversation. People are coming to work from their dining rooms, with kids and pets, and fears and anxieties — and bringing more than ever — their full selves into the digital workplace. So, while we continue to work on business continuity in anticipation of business revival, it’s no longer necessary to clamor about the future of work. It has finally showed up. You’re currently leading within it.
Tips for Leading the New Workplace Revolution
- Choose trust over control.
- Find both meaning and speed.
- Chase profits by putting people first.
- Rely on agility to survive the next wave of business disruptions.
- Find better ways of working together while further apart.
We have a chance to be part of workplace changes that provide a better, stronger and more meaningful connection between people and work. We are, right this very moment, standing on the edge of a new beginning in how, where and why we work. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of workplace changes, but it did not cause it — that was done by something far more powerful, the arrival of new work.
As you put together your own strategy for leading in the current future of work, keep the following principles in mind:
Focus on the Criticality of Work Itself
The importance of keeping the world at work has been presented on a global stage in the form of COVID-19. Let's not jump back to normalcy without working hard to make the connection between what people do and why what they do matters.
Work and people have been around trying to sort things out for a very long time. We can use our current situation to elevate the importance people can take from doing a great job for a great leader for a bigger cause. As businesses reshape their strategies and market positions, we can also change workflows and worker experiences that will result in more of what you want, but also more of what is needed.
Providing a deeper connection between people and work allows for more growth potential and activates the fuller person who can be of more support to your organization than just the employee part of them. The pandemic is requiring every organization to build more capability around speed and creativity. We should expect movement of work to smaller and cross functional networks allowing organizations to prioritize critical work and solve problems with those closest to the issue or customer.
Practices Over Cumbersome Policies
The future of work isn’t a free-for-all that lets entitled workers get what they want when they want it. But even if it did, so what? The goal is prioritization of outcomes, which means you likely need to raise your expectations but lower your intense focus on policies.
Leadership for the rest of 2020 is all about resilience. That means we must clear out the path of entangled policies and rhetoric that can restrict creativity and prevent organizations from delivering to their fullest capabilities. While certain and basic policies are important and required for compliance, they are not a panacea for leadership or a replacement for good decision-making. Processes that mandate excessive approval layers and hierarchical models create an over-reliance on the top — something neither the top nor the bottom really want. Offering guidelines, practices and frameworks instead of specific targeted rules and policies give more options — and if some continue to make bad decisions, they are likely not a fit for your organization.
Work now to create and implement culturally responsive practices to allow your teams to work together in a results and project-based environment. Create smaller networks that get things done and encourage the practice of going to the person with the answers rather than the title. The result? A culture that demonstrates the ability to get things done quickly and with a lot more meaning.
We have been preparing for this moment for more than a few years. Wherever you turned, leaders were discussing the future of the world at work. And though the future is now, and it happened faster than we thought, we are ready enough and the rest we figure out tomorrow.
The ecosystems of work and people are vast. This means there is more support, connectivity and opportunity than you realize and need. Lean into the obvious and not-so-clear discomfort created by COVID-19 and you will likely find the caliber of leader people need and desperately want to follow.
You got this. And, for those few moments when you’re not sure, I will loan you my standby confidence builder, courtesy of Julia Roberts’ character in the movie, My Best Friend’s Wedding: “I've got moves you’ve never seen!” And like Julia’s character, you should go on about your way with the internal fortitude we all need right now. Make your way and know you have what it takes!
About the Author
Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the president and CEO of WorldatWork.