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The future of work: Key ingredients for success

It was in 2020, a few months after the start of the Covid-19 crisis that Klaus Schwab, executive chair of the World Economic Forum, called for The Great Reset – a clarion call for the world to act ‘jointly and swiftly’ to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies.

Saying the tool to do this is stakeholder capitalism – and fundamental to this is a much-needed transition to a ‘fairer, more sustainable post-COVID world where companies have a responsibility, and a rare opportunity, to rethink organisational and workplace structures and to invest in their workforces’.

Over the last decade or so, conversations around the future of work have been largely linked to job automation. However, the pandemic has rapidly widened this conversation to also include where we work, how we work and the ways in which workplaces and the workforce is organised.

It has also had a big impact on employee-employer dynamics – effectively the give and the get – with more employees demanding improved flexibilities and employers struggling to catch up.

With productivity and organisational culture on the line, leadership engagement on the topic has mushroomed. The focus has often been on emblematic issues such as hybrid working, shortened work weeks and the redesign of workspaces to create more magnetic offices. However, there are some wider themes which we have observed through our work with investment organisations:

1. The hybrid work journey remains messy

It is clear that the future of work is hybrid. In a CFA Institute’s survey on the future of work, 81 per cent of investment professionals stated that they would like to spend more time working remotely, with employers having to rapidly adapt to meet this demand through more flexible working policies.

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However, hybrid design needs strong execution, with value being currently derived through considering social interactions, space utilisation and time optimisation and future value being developed through the presence of networks, relationships, shared norms and trust. There is a real opportunity here to think about what hybrid working actually means, with better policies involving a degree of co-creation with employees and where work is adapted based on location, synchronicity and connectivity needs.

Part of the hybrid challenge isn’t just about getting employees into the office – it’s also about making the most of their time. Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index notes that despite the fact that 44 per cent of hybrid employees and 43 per cent of remote attendees don’t feel included in meetings, just 27 per cent of organisations have established new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure that everyone feels included and engaged. Leaders need to make the office worth the commute and employees now have different expectations as to what the office experience should deliver. Social capital and the value that it adds through collaboration, belonging, trust and goodwill should be seen alongside human, intellectual and financial capital in organisations as a key enabler of value creation. Innovation is also powered by social capital. So the challenge for leaders is to reconfigure their workspaces to prioritise social engagement and set aside time for in-person activities where interaction is facilitated.

2. While talent is everywhere it is unnecessarily scarce

We are in the midst of The Great Reshuffle – a term broadly used to describe the mass movement of workers seeking roles that better meet their work/life requirements and/or are better aligned with their values.

US academic, Anthony Klotz – who coined the forerunner term The Great Resignation – notes that individuals are now seeking opportunities that allow them ‘to fit work into their lives, instead of having lives that squeeze into their work’.

Talent is dispersed globally and there is an opportunity here for leaders to become more creative in using global talent and to think about how it can be used to create a more agile and distributed workforce. The shift to a more networked structure requires moving from traditional approaches where employees are boxed into projects based on their current job role to a more holistic, flexible approach which matches employees’ varied skillsets to relevant projects. This requires the collection of more data on employee experiences, a better understanding of a workforce’s skills and embracing technological innovations that allow teams to work in more global and continuous real-time ways.

With in-person time being reduced, we also find that the T-shaped qualities of people and teams becomes more valuable in the new world of work. T-shaped individuals and teams seek to connect dots better through building inner ties and developing outer networks. There is a real opportunity here for leadership to transform existing teams into superteams – by combining diverse and talented individuals within a strong culture and having excellent governance – to deliver exceptional outcomes.

3. The rise of the human-centric organisation

The COVID-19 crisis has been a defining leadership and transformation moment, where leaders have been called to reset their future of work agendas and lead the way to better and more human-centric workplaces and workforces.

We are now in the era of human-focused company culture where workers are re-evaluating what matters most to them. This has prompted employers to focus on the wellbeing and personal satisfaction of employees though increasingly flexible work arrangements, investing in wellness programs and boosting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends survey notes a 147 per cent increase in the share of job posts that mentioned wellbeing since 2019 and a 73 per cent increase in companies’ posts about wellbeing. According to the survey, employees that feel cared for at work are 3.2x more likely to be happy at work and 3.7x more likely to recommend others to work for the company. The same survey notes that work-life balance trumps even bank balance for job seekers.

Productivity is multi-faceted. Work has long shifted from simply a function of time, activity and effectiveness and viewed solely through the lens of the value delivered to the organisation. Instead, the employee value proposition has become more central and includes work flexibility, work/life integration, personal growth, employee experience and wellbeing. There is an increasing appetite for a new leadership model to deal with these challenges that is less hierarchical, more networked, more versatile and is driven by more soft power. This new model needs to encourage empowerment, joined-upness and humanism with positive stakeholder outcomes at its core and which champions connections and collaboration while focusing on behaviours.

It’s a juggling act.

Successful work design in this new world will require finding a fairer balance between employee and organisation, where employees crave flexibility and meaning and employers require productivity, impact and a culture that aligns with its purpose.

A key ingredient of success will be an emphasis on how work is done. This is the sweet spot where organisation and employee can meet around belonging and teamwork at the same time as values and expected behaviours. Finding this balance will require some juggling and enlightened leaders will need to think deeply about these wider themes.

Marisa Hall is the co-head of the Thinking Ahead Group, an independent research team at Willis Towers Watson and executive to the Thinking Ahead Institute.

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