The situation the world faces today is a classic ‘black swan’ event. Even the boldest Business Continuity Plan, conceptualised anywhere in the world, would not have envisaged a complete and simultaneous grinding halt of the world economy, travel and business, on the scale that has been witnessed over the past months. Simply because the costs would have been unimaginable.
However, as history is witness, we were given no choice and the global village was collectively pushed into this ‘unknown’, without any discrimination. I do not think any single organisation has the wherewithal to ‘normalise’ the process to where we were. Events have rolled too fast and too deep into hitherto uncharted territory to go back. Coming to think of it, the results have been far-reaching for both, Govt. and Private Enterprise, in terms of a quantum leap into the future, which we thought would otherwise happen sometime for the next generation.
Therefore, I would prefer to call it, ‘equilibrium’ rather than ‘normalization’. This equilibrium of sorts, would have to be the outcome of a collective endeavour by the govt and industry regulatory bodies, flexible yet pragmatic policies, re-imagined supply chain management, realigned business relationships, IT infrastructure and security robustness and the ability of people to adapt quickly to a digitized way of working, that will enable the industry to quickly discover and carve out new ways of efficiently delivering profitability.
The pandemic has made most large organizations step back and relook at the way they conduct business. Technology has been a huge enabler and managements have begun to think out of the box, in order to improve efficiency, de-risk their organizations, improve employee wellness and most importantly, cut down on operational costs. Keeping these pointers in mind, large organisations are in no hurry to start office operations on the scale that existed prior to the pandemic.
People have gotten used to working from home or anywhere and I have a sneaking suspicion that this situation is here to stay. Office footprints will decrease in the future. They will be designed in a more focussed manner and The days of fixed 9 to 5 office attendance will be consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’. People will increasingly attend office only on a ‘need-based’ basis and the entire office going ethos will revolve around this.
Two phases of the ‘future of work’
I would like to look at the future of work in two phases. The first phase would cover the next two years, wherein the focus would be primarily on mental wellness and COVID related precautions. The second phase, once the immediate dangers of the prevailing pandemic recede, would move on to focus on the conduct of business and its efficiencies.
This question would, therefore, pertain to phase one. In this phase, the world awaits a definitive cure, whether it be a vaccine or medicine. Both seem elusive at the moment, despite the hype and positivity surrounding development news in this direction. Simply because the virus is mutating so fast. Luckily for all of us, the newer strains we see, seem to be more infectious but less aggressive and the number of fatalities is highly reduced and the rate of recovery is climbing. If we do get an effective vaccine, it will need to be administered to at least 80% of the world population within a span of 6-8 months for it to do its job as a ‘herd immunity’ catalyst and be of use. This is a huge task and will need to be taken up globally as ‘one world’. In the meantime, ‘we’ in the sense businesses, will do what we can to protect our employees on our premises. The key parameters/ principles will remain:
- Temperature and symptom screening prior to entry.
- Social distancing.
- Personal hygiene.
- Wearing of masks at all times, in enclosed/ covered spaces.
- Tracking of personnel for efficient primary contact retracing.
- Effective sanitization.
- Monitoring employee health, both physical and mental.
We are likely to see increased touchless and cost-effective solutions right from dispensers to faucets. Deployment of various unobtrusive tracking and security systems, employee helplines, employee medical support systems, open office designs, modified HVAC systems, remote monitoring and control of building health, stringent sanitization protocols, etc. The ‘on-ground’ adaptations will largely depend on the size of the organization, its global footprint which makes it answerable to multiple legislations and how deep its pockets are. There will be universal principles but no universal design.
There are no key technological innovations that are universally adapted or universally helping organizations. Most organizations are seeking the cost-effective way out, as they are aware that this is a temporary situation and ROI is not viable in terms of timelines and options.
So, rather than technology, it is the key principles mentioned earlier, that are being adhered to. For eg. At one end of the spectrum, we have the security guard measuring the temperature of all employees manually at the entrance, using a contactless thermometer. At the other end, we have the walkthrough and completely digital temperature and health scanning systems, as have been deployed in the Dubai Airport. Both meet the criteria and do the job efficiently in their own context and settings. It’s basically a case of finding the ‘right solutions for different organizations’.
The critical challenges in phase two, in transitioning and defining the ‘future of work’, would broadly fall into the following categories:-
- Changing the work culture in organizations to adapt to the new digital world.
- Becoming familiar with Blockchain, IoT, AI and Machine Learning. Their time has come and they are here to stay.
- Upskilling employees technically and making them mentally resilient.
- Digital Collaboration as a major leadership skill.
- Developing EQ in Gen nxt.
- Complete revamp of L&D protocols to suit the new reality.
- Transparency in HR policies and digital inclusiveness.
- Defining the key processes of each business in that how would their individual verticals function remotely in a digital world – independently, yet as part of a healthy and efficient whole, focussed on common goals.
- Network centricity and IT infrastructure robustness and security.
- Empowering the employee. Decentralization.
- Outcome-based appraisals and immediate rewards as opposed to the annual practice extant.
- Being open to ‘Gig Working’ by the majority of the staff.
- Organizational agility.
- Navigating the increasingly ‘regulatory world’.
Organisations that are serious about being ‘first movers’ and reaping the attendant benefits, will give serious thought to these aspects today and operationalize their thought outcomes over the next two years. Key to being a pioneer in the ‘future of work’ is the commitment of resources and staying the distance once a deliberate decision is taken. Half-measures could spell disaster for organizations that are too ambitious and disconnected with their ground realities or on the other hand, are uncertain and approach the opportunity on hand hesitantly.