For this week’s article, I collaborated with Amy Loomis, Future of Work Research Director for IDC. IDC helps IT professionals, business executives, and the investment community make fact-based decisions on technology purchases and business strategy. Amy’s research specifically explores the ways in which these elements come together to shape the future of work.
When the pandemic first hit the U.S., many thought that it was a scary but temporary setback. We attempted to apply our ordinary workplace structure to the work-from-home setup. Once we accepted that there was no going back to the way things were before, the phrase “the new normal” became popular. This terminology had previously been used to describe incremental change that may be stylistic (for example, bring your device to work). However, what we experienced in 2020 was much more existential. This past year challenged our lingering assumptions from an industrial era and rapidly reformed them for a digital age. We broke down and continue to break down traditional office-based practices as we try to figure out what work models function best now. These changes aren’t just a technology shift; they represent a changing mindset targeting desired business outcomes to reestablish what processes are essential for thriving in trying circumstances. This transition started before COVID-19 hit, but has accelerated dramatically as a result of the pandemic. Let’s take a quick look at a few key areas, including workplace technology, leadership and organizational policy.
Technology transformation in the shift to remote and hybrid work
At the outset of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders drove companies into a mad scramble to cobble together resources to equip remote employees. Even the most prepared organizations had to contend with insufficient device inventories or software seat licenses to securely access the applications employees needed to work away from the office. People dug up pieces of equipment from the back of their closets or absconded devices from their kids’ rooms to ensure they had the necessary audio/video setup to attend online meetings. Besides meeting necessary hardware requirements, companies needed to verify interoperability between software applications, guarantee access to internal resources, and update a remote workforce’s security. For those businesses with adequate hardware, software and policy resources, the transition was more of a “lift and shift” than a mad scramble. However they were the exception. And with an increase in cybercrime, IT leadership contended with additional cybersecurity concerns, exacerbated by dramatic shifts to a much larger remote workforce.
While this growing acceptance of remote/hybrid workforce is a striking change when compared to where we were just a year ago, technology trends have accelerated to support these advances as well. Organizations that had not moved to cloud-based infrastructure and business models saw a new sense of urgency to do so. The sheer scale of work process demands, including password resets and remote employee onboarding, drove adoption of greater use of automation. As businesses began to weigh the costs and benefits of a safe return to offices, we saw additional technologies emerging as foundational to new ways of working on premise. IoT, augmented and virtual reality, voice initiated video conferencing, space management and many other technologies debuted as foundational for emerging models of office space.
Effective leadership for a remote workforce
2020 was not only a milestone for implementing IT changes and effective remote workforce policies, it was a challenge for leadership across the board. First line managers suddenly faced many new and challenging questions, such as:
- How do I check-in with and on my employees?
- How do I know they’re working effectively?
- How will my employees manage their children’s education while also meeting their project deadlines?
- And how will we deal with interruptions during the meetings, whether from children or pets?
Organizations have quickly learned that a hyper focus on tasks over outcomes inhibited rather than promoted worker productivity. By shifting to management models that offered greater flexibility and trust, organizations learned how to cultivate healthy remote workforce cultures. Employees with greater autonomy were allowed to figure out how to work through the new stresses experienced when working during a pandemic. Without commutes, they found more time in the day, which allowed many working parents to manage both work responsibilities and oversee their children’s schoolwork. Yes, there were and still are more frequent interruptions, but we continue to adjust. These pivots range from a new workplace culture that accepts less professional environments to technical modifications through noise cancelling microphones and realistic video backgrounds. We are learning to work better.
Successful managers have incorporated frequent check-ins with employees and gained a more holistic sense of how their teams are doing personally and professionally. They apply more agile and design-thinking-based structure to the relationship between workers and the projects they need to accomplish. Another positive mile-marker for 2020 has been the discovery of these new best practices that better ensured a more productive remote and hybrid workforce.
Organization policy to create experience parity
Still, many workers cannot work in a remote or hybrid way. Medical professionals, along with certain retail, delivery and manufacturing workers are all considered essential workers, and there are many others. The pandemic exposed new opportunities to better connect frontline workers; to ensure that they had access to critical information about shift changes, new safety policies and changing requirements. Just as remote workers fought to combat isolation, frontline workers made clear their need to stay safely connected in spite of rapidly shifting circumstances, and a vital part of that conversation is technology parity.
IDC’s formal definition for technology parity states that all workers have secure access to the resources to do their jobs, no matter their preferred device or if they are local, remote, or in the field. Organizations now need to shift their focus to creating policies to ensure experience parity: verifying all employees have the same access and the same ease of access to secure access to applications, data, colleagues. Successful deployment involves having the technology, leadership, and policies in place for effective rollouts.
While 2020 may not be an experience people want to repeat any time soon, it was a season of incredible growth for targeted technical industries, and a season of universal growth for the future of work. From embracing technological advances to developing flexible and trust-based remote work practices enabled by technological parity for all workers, it is astonishing how much has changed in less than a year. This leaves the final question: Since there is no going back to the “old normal,” how will we invest it in even greater advances for our future?
Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.