• The 'black-swan event' of the pandemic is a chance to reassess the future of work.
  • We must ensure the switch to remote working ultimately benefits employees.
  • Less virtual meetings, judicious use of technology and more empathy should all be priorities.

Black-swan events – unpredictable occurrences with impactful consequences – have happened at an increasingly fast pace in the modern era. The invention of computing and the internet brought about changes in decades rather than centuries. Amidst positive black swan events, there have been a fair number of catastrophic ones, from world wars to pandemics, such as the Spanish flu of 1918.

The current pandemic is another black swan event: a high-speed inflection point for businesses globally that has sent a systemic shockwave through the digital transformation agenda. Up until now, digital transformation has been focused on customer experience, but the pandemic has forced a rethink towards enabling contactless experiences that also benefit employees. This change is likely to persist post-pandemic.

On the face of it, some of the enthusiasm for remote work is reasonably well-placed. Aside from reducing the carbon footprint of large offices and the scale of daily commutes from suburbs to cities, it also enables a significant level of flexibility in working hours and work styles. The result could be a more diverse workplace as companies adopt a borderless talent strategy.

Systemic problems do, however, exist. Asymmetry of access to connectivity and technology between senior and junior employees, as well as between richer and emerging economies, presents a challenge. Also, the socially collaborative nature of many work roles leads to stress and low productivity for employees trapped in endless video calls.

What is needed is a more nuanced future of work strategy: one that does not place all its bets on collaboration technologies and a remote-first operations strategy.

Reimagining the workplace

The emerging winners will be companies that realize that remote work at scale needs a significant ground-up reimagining of the employee experience value chain, from hiring, on-boarding, collaboration, employee engagement, talent and career management to cybersecurity and wellness.

Successful organizations of the future will be the ones that can hire people anywhere and virtually on-board them effectively into the culture and value system of their organization.

Here are a few points for consideration:

Non-taxing collaboration

Work should flow with fewer meetings. Organizations that pay close attention to the overall cost of collaboration will be better placed to develop remote work practices that make sense – ones that weave in a holistic sense of wellness and life-work balance into the framework.

Knowledge experiences

Investments in AI/bots that filter noise and provide relevant contextual information at a click or intuitively based on an employees’ action will be game-changing in terms of the overall employee experience.

Outcomes over presenteeism

Individual productivity will need to trend towards outcomes rather than presenteeism, and employees’ digital dexterity in virtual collaboration will become a higher priority skill over their express area of expertise.

Organizational empathy

Asymmetric access to remote work infrastructure, divided-attention challenges in the home and overweening micromanagement by anxious supervisors will become the single biggest HR/wellness challenge in the coming years. This requires a rethinking of support, including remote support chatbots with predictive, self-healing and system-health monitoring tools to help employees fix basic IT issues by themselves.

Workplace culture is an evolving mass of largely unconscious rituals. What is needed now is ritual design as an integral feature of leadership roles at all levels. In this new era of perpetual transformation, employees everywhere – particularly those in middle management – must wake up every day and reinvent what work means: assessing priorities, methodologies and, equally importantly, how to stay happy while getting it done.