As the trending joke goes, it’s not the CTO or the CEO, but COVID-19 that has led to digital transformation in most companies around the world in 2020. Indeed, before the crisis broke, less than half of all companies even had a remote work program. Today, institutions and industries where #WFH was, at best, a mis-spelt slang, are falling over themselves to decode and devise the right remote roadmaps. On the tech provider front, long rollouts are being accelerated to meet the sudden spike in out-of-office work. And while there’s nothing funny about a virus that runs amok without a vaccine, there may be reasons to smile for HR and organizations after the dust has settled - depending largely on how they approach this change. It is, after all, the biggest to happen to the workplace since the Industrial Revolution. And like all change, drags along opportunity.
When authors suffer from writer’s block, they need a gentle nudge to get back to the plot. In a way, COVID-19 is that nudge for our transition to a truly digitally connected workplace - one that started some years back but has been in WIP mode for a bit long now.
“We’re being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment”.
Saikat Chatterjee, Senior Director, Advisory at Gartner.
Trends underscore the story powerfully. The rise of digital technologies has been letting more and more people to work remotely - not just from home, but from parks, co-working spaces and while travelling. 95% of IBM’s workers are remote. According to Softchoice’s 2017 study Collaboration Unleashed, 74% of workers would be willing to switch jobs if they had an opportunity to work ‘off site’ more often. The ‘work-from-anywhere’ headcount has ballooned 10X (as compared to the rest of the workforce) since 2005. Kirill Tatarinov (CEO, Citrix Systems) had famously claimed that 50% of workforce will be remote. Not even in his wildest dreams would he have expected that his estimate would turn out to be a conservative one (which in the #NEWNORMAL of 2020, it certainly is).
THE ‘NEW’ WORKER
- 83% do not believe they need to be in an office to be productive.
- 43% believe they would be more productive working from home.
- 70% (aged 16–44 years ) want to be more mobile at work.
- 88% use smartphones for work daily.
- 49% use a tablet at least three times per week.
(stats are based on data online and reports & surveys by tech firm fuze)
The corona crisis will finally force us to get off that fence and commit to a workplace that is not just digital, but more optimized and humane as well. The gig and freelance economy - where companies regularly outsource work to professionals they have never met in person - has been clocking healthy growth. The huge popularity of collaborative work tools like Office365, Basecamp, Asana and Slack tells us that people are getting comfortable with ‘social distancing’ in a professional sense as well. Millennials and Gen-Z has been working ‘virtually’ practically their entire life and may wonder what the fuss is all about.
The #WFH tsunami is also a Litmus test of whether we have been doing our ‘People Strategy’ right all this while. For instance, organizations who have been able to bind their teams closely to a common purpose and engage them (with not only roles that are meaningful but authority and trust that comes without the micro-management) will experience the least amount of disruption - or bounce back the fastest - as work shifts from the office to the home. For others, corona will mean revisiting the drawing board, this time with serious intent.
Either way, HR and CXO’s will have to realize that this is not about office vs remote. It’s a more fundamental shift. This is about a pre-crisis attitude versus a post-crisis mindset. Our world isn’t the same it was last winter - and it may never again go back to the old way (not in the near future anyway). Be it the worker, the employer, the client, the partner, the associate or the workspace itself - everyone has a new set of needs, priorities and wish-lists. Organizations will have to start looking beyond installing shiny new softwares or tweaking legacy workflows, and get real about addressing these demands.
According to a webinar poll, over 90% ‘People Leaders’ from Asia & APAC shared that they have been putting in place ‘work from home’ arrangements since the current crisis started, but have been having a tough time figuring out the tech side of things – in addition to getting comfortable with the new way of work. That sentiment, one can assume, is not restricted to the respondents of the poll. Change may be glorious at the end, but it can be messy at first. We can all make this journey a little easier by keeping in mind that it’s not just the HR’s job to reinvent the new workplace where remote could well be the norm instead of the exception. Each of us has a role to play and opinion to share, and the more responsibly and proactively we come forward to lend HR a hand, the faster we get a grip on the new reality.
Organizational design has been in metamorphosis for a while now, with clusters of smaller, more cohesive and agile ‘teams’ fast emerging as an alternative to the traditional, function-first hierarchy. A research by Josh Bersin’s team shows that 92% of companies believe their organizational design is not working, yet only 14% know how to fix it. The current churn may point a way out. We could be witnessing the dawn of a new era of workplace design where every function and leader has a ‘more equal’ voice in co-creating workflows and authority structures, leading to a matrix that is more logical, inclusive and organic - and leads to better outcomes. It could also spell more rewarding and personalized career models, luring untapped demographics into the workplace and adding diversity to the talent pool.
There’s no playbook. But you can still play.