Change as a constant
By historical standards, today’s complex, uncertain, volatile world is nothing new.
But for many organizations it’s very different to the recent past. Simultaneous, rapid, hard-to-predict change on multiple fronts—geopolitics, economics, social norms and interactions, technology, customer, and employee expectations—is one of the defining characteristics of the present age.
Companies are recognizing there’s no going back to the comfortable, predictable stability of recent decades. Constant variability is now a permanent feature of doing business. And this has significant implications not only for how their organizations are structured and run, but also for the way people work within them.
The pandemic forced the world into a giant experiment in tech-enabled hybrid working. And companies realized they could not only survive but also thrive in that model.
While the pandemic was clearly an accelerator, the underlying trends long predate Covid-19. Pervasive connectivity, the ubiquity of mobile devices, user-friendly digital communication platforms, easy-to-access cloud storage, and the growing prevalence of artificial intelligence and machine learning have all transformed people’s ability—and their desire—to connect, communicate, socialize, and work in digital spaces, irrespective of their physical location.
The upshot is that companies are now able to operate in more agile, smarter ways by empowering their people with digital tools and machine intelligence at the edge. Indeed, we now see this as a critical requirement for managing today’s business volatility and uncertainty.
However, the response needed isn’t just about deploying the right hardware or the right software. It’s also about culture. Top-down command and control structures are quickly becoming obsolete. Organizations need their people to be closer to the environment they’re operating in, to see and understand that environment more clearly, and be able to manage and respond to change faster.
How to respond
Three priorities to prepare for the future workforce
The good news is that we see many forward-thinking leaders recognizing the scale of this shift. They’re starting to create more agile organizations that can adapt faster, are better able to orchestrate complex systems, are less hierarchical and more connected with the frontline, and can collaborate more effectively with a broader range of ecosystem partners.
What can companies do now to prepare their workforces for this future? We believe there are three priorities.
Rethink the office
Step 1: Start thinking about what “the office” can and should be.
Arguments for and against remote and office-based working have been raging since the pandemic. But much of this debate is not only unhelpful, but futile. Because the way people want to work is constantly changing. And it’s being driven at a more fundamental level than any single company’s hybrid working policy.
To get out of this loop, companies need to recalibrate their thinking. Enabling people to work together effectively, regardless of location, should now be the primary objective. That means abandoning the entrenched idea of “the office” as a purely physical space, which is nothing more than a relic of the early 20th Century.
Instead, the office becomes more like a collection of tools that are flexibly available, within both digital and physical spaces, to help people work in the most productive and effective way possible. Office real estate can then be more narrowly focused on the activities for which physical collaboration is truly needed and truly valuable. These spaces can also be smaller, easier to stand up and down quickly, and distributed over a greater number of locations to optimize accessibility.
It’s also vital these are genuinely hybrid spaces. In other words, that they’re tailored not only to the needs of people who are physically present, but also to those who are connecting digitally—so that everyone enjoys the same level of experience, and can maximize their productivity whether they’re working individually or collectively.
Short term, that could be something as simple as better connectivity and more reliable video conferencing. But, longer term, technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, and eventually holographic projections will be critical, ensuring a far more immersive, engaging and connected experience for everyone in the organization.
Top-down command and control structures are quickly becoming obsolete.
Build a roadmap
Step 2: Create a plan for immersive digital experiences.
We’ve already seen many leading companies adopting these immersive collaboration technologies in practice. For instance, one major manufacturer of advanced digital hardware is using augmented and virtual reality to enable its geographically dispersed team of experts to collaborate on chip design via Microsoft HoloLens, transforming their productivity and speed.
However, there’s no doubt the underlying technology is still maturing, particularly on the hardware side. Headset size and weight, battery performance, charging time, and interoperability between platforms still need addressing. And more attention is needed on the physical impact of prolonged VR use, which studies have shown can disproportionately impact women—an important inclusivity hurdle that needs to be overcome.
Mass consumer adoption is, therefore, likely to be some time away. Meta, for example, estimates the metaverse will reach a billion people, but not until the end of this decade. However, a ‘wait and see’ attitude to the technology would be misguided for several reasons.
First, the technology is getting better all the time. And it will impact every industry and every business function. Disruption by faster, nimbler market entrants who understand this trajectory is a constant threat. Inaction or inertia can easily leave an organization stranded as the technology curve accelerates away.
Second, the cost of experimentation is continuously falling. Via the cloud, companies have fast and cost-effective access to a growing range of building blocks for immersive experiences (voice to text, video object recognition, and so on) that would previously have taken millions of dollars to develop.
Finally, companies need to look beyond VR headsets. Immersive technology is evolving to include a whole range of form factors. This includes lightweight glasses, contact lenses, sensors and wearable devices (many potentially powered by body heat) as well as VR goggles for certain use cases.
The concept shown below—developed for the TCS New York Marathon—shows how these technologies can be brought together to radically enhance a runner’s experience.
Now, imagine the same for the worker of the future.
These concepts will eventually extend to a huge range of consumer, leisure and work activities. So early adoption, experimentation and roadmap building should be a priority for every company.
Plan future needs
Step 3: Make sure employees have the right skills for the new workspace.
Ensuring workers and companies have the skills needed for the future workplace is a broad long-term question for learning institutions, governments, and society as a whole. But company leaders have a key role to play too.
The priority is to recognize that the shift towards greater automation is inevitable, and will only accelerate. Leaders need to be planning for a future in which customer value is delivered through a seamless blend of AI-enabled automation, digital tools and human skills and expertise.
Worker upskilling will be vital. Every employee, whatever their field of expertise or specialization, will need to be more comfortable working with digital platforms and immersive technologies, and using data to guide decision making. They’ll also need to be willing to relinquish activities to artificial intelligence and/or robotics as machines start to reliably outperform humans.
As this happens, softer human skills— creativity, curiosity, imagination, compassion, critical thinking—will become increasingly differentiating. The recent focus on STEM will need to be reframed to bring in more creative, ethical, and design-related skills and capabilities. The ability to constantly learn will become the most valuable meta skill any employee can acquire.
Organizations will also need to consider more flexible workforce models to secure the skills they need. We already see interesting moves in this space. In European consumer banking, for example, companies are starting to institutionalize the idea of gig work as opposed to traditional bulk outsourcing. That allows them to engage, say, a single cloud architect to meet a specific need on a specific project for a specific period of time in a far more flexible way.
Don’t wait for the future to happen–start making it.
There’s clearly a broader conversation to be had here about the interdependent relationship between the future of work and the future of organizations themselves. And the focus of that conversation is shifting in important ways—from profit to purpose, from hierarchies to networks, and from centralized control to federated empowerment.
As this happens, individual agency, employee experience, work-life balance and wellbeing are becoming ever more critical to company success. And this is feeding back into the way companies are organized.
The ability to constantly learn will become the most valuable meta skill any employee can acquire.
For example, we’ve already seen one forward-thinking airline appoint a head of employee experience. By bridging historical siloes between HR and enterprise technology, this move is designed to ensure employee needs always take center stage.
More innovative structures like these are inevitable as companies continue to redefine the workplace for a new era of digitally empowered, intelligence-augmented workers. It’s vital that every company, every leader, and every employee be part of this conversation. Change is coming. No business can afford to wait.