Future of work

How to Plan for the Future of Work: A Comprehensive Guide

The future of work may look very, very different from the workplace we knew before 2020. To stay profitable in the years ahead, business leaders must understand and plan for that future.

Of course, the future of work is a complex topic, embracing the workplace, the workforce, corporate culture, and much more.


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In this guide, we’ll cover all of these topics and then outline a few tactics that can be applied today.

What Does “the Future of Work” Mean?

“Work” itself is a broad term encompassing several dimensions, so discussions about its future will be equally broad.

However, in most cases, these discussions revolve around topics that include:

  • The workplace. When most people think of the workplace, they think of an office or a physical workspace. Today, however, many employees work virtually, either part-time or full-time. For that reason, it is important to include the digital employee experience as part of this definition.
  • The workforce. Another key area to focus on when discussing the future of work is the workforce. Employees, after all, lie at the center of the organization and play a pivotal role in an organization’s performance. As we will see below, plans for the future of work should incorporate the workforce.
  • Business processes. Business processes refer to the systems, procedures, protocols, and mechanisms that underlie an organization’s operations. The design and execution are intertwined with employees’ everyday work routines, organizational effectiveness, and much more.
  • Jobs. Today, job roles are evolving rapidly. In part, this rapid change is due to digital technology, which is fueling innovation and disruption across the global economy. These changes, in turn, will deeply affect the future of work: employees will need to learn new skills, employers will need to redesign business units, the demand for digital talent will skyrocket, and so forth.
  • Company culture. Corporate culture is created when a company is founded, then adjusts over time as employees have new experiences and new talent is introduced. It is also possible to deliberately cultivate certain cultural traits, such as pro-learning attitudes and a digital-first mindset. In the coming years, traits such as these will become even more important.

In other words, the future of work refers to an organization’s internal operations.

The Biggest Catalysts Shaping the Future of Work

Here are a few of the biggest trends and forces that are influencing the world of work:

Digital Technology

Digital technology factors into virtually every area of organizational operations, from strategy to business processes to the workplace.

These changes are most pronounced in the commercial marketplace, which has a financial incentive to innovate, deliver new forms of value, and outperform competitors.

Since the workplace plays such a large role in an organization’s performance, it should come as no surprise that technology-driven innovations have also entered the world of work.

Among other areas, these technological advances have affected:

  • Enterprise software. The modern workplace has become immersed in enterprise software, and the effects of this immersion are too numerous to count. For instance, these tools confer countless benefits and allow for many business activities that would otherwise be impossible. Yet they also introduce a great deal of complexity into the workplace, which can result in software-related frustration.
  • Employees’ job roles. Many modern job roles are built entirely around digital technology and even specific software tools. A Salesforce administrator, for instance, specializes specifically in Salesforce.
  • Business processes. The modern work environment has been designed entirely around digital technology. The introduction of new technology often results in the refinement or redesign of business processes.

These are some of the direct and most observable impacts associated with digital technology, which in turn affect other areas of the workplace.

As a company’s software stacks evolve, for instance, employees must adapt by learning new skills. That demand for digital skills, in turn, will affect workforce composition, employee training programs, the workplace culture, and so forth.

COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the world of work and it will continue to affect the workplace for years to come.

In fact, a number of research firms suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently impact the way we live and work.

Predictions include, among other things:

  • Changes to customer sentiment and behavior. In the post-pandemic world, customers will almost certainly behave differently, at least in some ways. For instance, the financial downturn will undoubtedly depress discretionary spending for a while.
  • Increased regulations related to public health and safety. Public health regulations will almost certainly be tightened in order to maintain public safety. Certain businesses will be affected more than others, such as retail, hospitality, and others that require in-person contact. Such regulations will also apply to offices and other environments where people work together.
  • More interest in remote working. Remote working, as we discuss below, will become more common in the post-COVID era. Tomorrow’s hybrid workforce will likely include more part-time telecommuters, which will change the dynamic of the workplace, management styles, and the workplace culture, among other things.

Every business and industry is different, of course, but the vast majority of companies will feel these effects.

Preparing the workplace for the post-COVID era depends on understanding and planning for changes such as these.

The Business Landscape

The marketplace fuels a wide range of decisions that affect the workplace and the workforce.

In order to stay competitive and profitable, for instance, companies will shift strategies related to:

  • Business practices. Agile is a business methodology that prioritizes qualities such as adaptability, responsiveness, user-centrism, and collaboration. It has become extremely popular in recent years, and turns many traditional business methods on their head. In the future, we can expect to see more practices such as agile, since they are ideally suited for the fast-paced digital economy.
  • The workplace. A number of shifts can be expected in the years ahead. More remote working, for instance, may drive trends such as decreased office sizes and an increase in the number of fully virtual workplaces.
  • Competition. Competitive pressure is always a variable that compels companies to adapt. As businesses grow and adjust to competitors’ strategies, they will often make changes to their own work environments. If one competitor adopts a new business strategy or practice that proves successful, for instance, it may compel others to mimic them.

Catalysts such as these will all contribute to the ongoing shifts in the workplace, and they should be taken into consideration when planning for the future of work.

4 Trends That Will Define Tomorrow’s Workplace

When examining the trends covered above, research firms have come to a number of conclusions about the future of work:

  • The digital workplace will become the norm. The digital workplace is built upon digital technology, modern IT systems, and a digitally savvy workforce. As recent history has shown, the most successful organizations are those that are willing to adopt new technology early on. Laggards, however, are slower to adapt and often have trouble keeping up in the fast-paced marketplace.
  • Remote working will become more common. Remote working became standard during the COVID-19 pandemic. To protect employees and customers, many organizations chose to maintain these telecommuting policies throughout the pandemic. Although many expect workplace restrictions to be lifted once a vaccine becomes available, remote working may become much more common than it was before 2020.
  • Companies will place more emphasis on the employee experience. Organizations widely recognize the importance of the customer experience, since customer experiences directly affect buying behavior. The employee experience, however, also plays an important part in the workplace. Good experiences at the workplace, for instance, positively impact important metrics such as engagement, productivity, and job satisfaction.
  • Tomorrow’s workforce will be more fragmented. Workforces will change quite a bit in the years ahead, according to Deloitte. On the one hand, tomorrow’s workers will become older, more educated, and more diverse. On the other hand, workforce compositions will change, introducing more contractors and remote workers, for instance.

Preparing for changes such as these is not just advantageous, however – as we move towards an increasingly digital future, preparation will become a necessity.

Why Businesses Should Plan Today for the Future of Work

Workplace improvement programs can offer significant benefits to every organization, as long as they are implemented correctly.

Here are just a few of the benefits that can be achieved by enhancing the workplace:

  • Greater employee engagement and productivity
  • Increased agility and adaptability
  • Improved organizational performance
  • More innovation
  • A competitive advantage in the marketplace

All of these reasons are certainly advantageous, but it could be argued that change is a necessity.

Tomorrow’s digital economy, after all, will be fast-paced, volatile, and uncertain. It is important to do everything possible to stay ahead as we race towards that future.

How to Plan for the Future of Work: A 5-Step Roadmap

Before outlining a plan for making improvements related to the workforce and the workplace, it is important to secure commitment from leaders. Having that commitment can make an enormous difference in the program’s outcomes and its impact on the organization’s performance.

One of the best ways to “sell” a change program to executives is by highlighting many of the benefits covered above.

Another strategy for earning executive support is to highlight the downsides of not changing – a decreased ability to keep pace with the changing market.

When executive support has been secured, then it will be easier to move forward with the workplace improvement project.

Here are a few steps to follow when designing and implementing such a program:

1. Research, assess, and analyze

The first step of any business plan must focus on research.

Assessments and analyses can include:

  • A gap analysis. A gap analysis examines a performance target, assesses the organization’s current state of affairs, and helps to identify paths to achieve those targets.
  • SWOT analysis. This analysis focuses on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is often used in business planning, but the same analysis can be used when designing business improvement projects.
  • Market and product research. Adopting new technologies often requires extensive research into the marketplace. Good research is essential for choosing the right products and technology.
  • Employee surveys. Employee surveys can gauge employee sentiment, their engagement levels, productivity levels, and more. These can provide useful insight into employees’ mindsets, which can be used to construct communication strategies.

These analyses should focus on the areas to improve upon, such as those covered above:

  • The employee experience
  • Workflows and business processes
  • Workplace software
  • Organizational culture

It is important to perform thorough research, since that information will lay the groundwork for a workplace improvement strategy.

2. Articulate a strategy

When developing a strategy, there are a few things to keep in mind

Strategies should:

  • Be precise and concise. A strategic statement should be concise and understandable, according to Deloitte. Clearly articulating the vision in a compact message ensures that all stakeholders can understand the purpose of the effort, its goals, and why it is occurring.
  • Define a goal and a method. One straightforward way to create a strategic statement is by clarifying a goal and a method for achieving that goal. A goal, for instance, could be improving employees’ digital savviness. The method, in turn, would be the implementation of better training software.
  • Support the organization’s bottom line. All business efforts are tied to the bottom line, and workforce improvement projects are no exception. Linking a workforce improvement project to the bottom line makes it easier to create meaningful, performance-oriented KPIs and metrics.

A well-defined strategy should include both the method, such as aggressive digital adoption, as well as an aim, such as improved employee productivity.

That strategic purpose will then act as a guiding principle throughout the program.

3. Define goals, objectives, and metrics

The next step towards transforming a strategy into an action plan is to transform the strategy’s abstract aims into concrete goals.

When setting those goals:

  • Define end goals for the entire project. Workplace change programs should have overarching goals, which will vary based on the circumstances. These can include performance improvements, such as increasing employee productivity by a certain amount. Or they can be based on qualitative changes to the workplace – transitioning to a fully remote workplace would be one example.
  • Identify milestones, or sub-goals, to be met along the way. Those larger program goals should be broken into milestones, or sub-goals. Milestones help teams mark their progress and stay on schedule. Without milestones that demonstrate tangible movement, after all, it is easier to procrastinate and fall behind.
  • Quantify those goals and milestones with metrics and objectives. Metrics and KPIs turn abstract goals into quantifiable measurements. These metrics offer granular precision when it comes to tracking progress, informing decisions, and demonstrating ROI.

Having measurable objectives is crucial to evaluating, tracking, and improving a program’s performance.

When metrics and KPIs underperform, for instance, that information can be used to diagnose problems and create solutions.

Metrics are also useful for demonstrating the overall ROI of the workplace improvement efforts.

4. Outline a roadmap

Every business project must have a plan of action that includes:

  • A stage-based calendar or timeline of events
  • Goals, milestones, and objectives for each stage
  • Descriptions of roles and responsibilities
  • Key information for team members, such as protocols and contact information

The form of this plan will differ depending on the preferences of the project coordinators, the business, the project, and so forth.

Generally speaking, however, the more in-depth and informative this document is, the more useful it will be for participants.

A well-crafted roadmap, after all, can serve as a communication tool and a reference that keeps employees on track, in sync, and productive.

5. Implement the plan and adjust as needed

Every organizational change program should be managed carefully and adjusted based on incoming data.

A basic optimization process could look something like this:

  • Continually collect data. Data sources can include software usage, performance, productivity, and many others. These will provide the data needed to track metrics and KPIs, which, as mentioned, will be used to evaluate the performance of the program.
  • Evaluate KPIs and metrics against performance targets. The program’s goals and objectives should be defined clearly in terms of quantifiable metrics. For instance, if the goal is to increase sales productivity by 30% with a new CRM platform, then KPIs and metrics will track metrics related to performance, such as the opening and closing of sales opportunities.
  • Learn and make adjustments. Yet another reason to use data is because that data makes it easier to implement changes. No program is perfect right out of the gate, and it is important to react quickly if problems or weaknesses are spotted.

Using data-driven processes such as these can help ensure that the program stays on-track and relevant, even if conditions change or unexpected events occur.

Best Practices, Do’s, Don’ts, and Tips for Success

Not all organizational change programs are guaranteed to succeed, so it is important to manage the project carefully.

Here are a few tips that can improve the chances of success:

Don’t be afraid to make big changes

Improving the work environment can be done incrementally, but rapid transformations often deliver better results.

One study by McKinsey, for instance, found that bigger change projects delivered higher gains.

Though their study focused on business transformation, the underlying concept is still sound – larger investments, after all, yield larger returns.

Do adopt new technology

Digital transformation, in most cases, is built around successful digital adoption, both of which are key to modernizing the workplace.

In today’s modern work world, it is important to:

  • Implement new software and tools
  • Close the digital skills gap by training new employees
  • Designing digital workflows built upon well-integrated technology stacks
  • Maximizing the software utilization in order to fully realize the value of that technology

It must be remembered that the value of digital products depends heavily on factors such as workflow design, employees’ digital skills, and the software experience.

Don’t ignore the culture

Culture plays an important role in the workplace, affecting everything from employee engagement to job satisfaction to employer branding.

When the culture matches the organization’s mission and values, employees will be more aligned, more engaged, and more productive.

If that culture is poorly managed or fragmented, however, a number of negative effects can result, such as disengagement, inefficiencies, and poor organizational communication.

To avoid such problems, project coordinators may determine that organizational culture change should be built into the improvement efforts.

Do become data-driven

Data-driven business practices rely on data to inform decisions and actions, rather than emotions or preconceived ideas.

By using data to drive business activities, employees can significantly reduce waste, improve efficiency, increase productivity, and much more.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of today’s enterprises use data extensively to gain a competitive edge. This means that those companies who fail to use data effectively are at a competitive disadvantage.

Data, of course, represents only one important tool in the employer’s technology toolbox – and having such a toolbox will become more and more critical in the years ahead.

The Importance of the Digital Workplace

The digital workplace will play a large role in the future of work, as we have alluded to.

Today’s workplace has certainly become digital to a large extent, but tomorrow’s work environment will be even more so.

The importance of technology in the future of work should not be understated.

Technology represents a key pillar of the workplace, so it should receive special attention.

When designing a workplace digitalization plan, focus on strategic elements such as:

  • Modern IT tools. Naturally, a modern workplace must have modern tools. IT systems, business applications, hardware, and other digital tools will all have a major impact on business performance metrics. Since advances in technology have yet to slow down, organizations should plan to continue modernizing their tools indefinitely.
  • Digital transformation. Digital transformation refers to the use of digital technology to improve an organization. In recent years, digital transformation has been seen as an imperative, since technology-driven businesses are more effective, resilient, innovative, and agile.
  • Digital adoption. Digital adoption programs are the crux of digital transformation efforts. Successful digital adoption is not only a prerequisite for successful transformation, it also directly impacts software ROI and business performance.
  • A digital, data-driven culture. As discussed elsewhere in this guide, culture affects the workplace and employee performance, among other things. When looking to the future, business leaders should create cultures that are geared towards the digital workplace. Cultures that are digital and data-driven will embrace technology, adapt to new digital processes, incorporate data into their workflows, and so on.
  • A well-structured employee training program. Since the digital workplace relies on up-to-date digital skills, training programs are fundamental to success. Traditional training, however, is not suitable for the modern work environment. Classroom training, for example, is not scalable, efficient, or cost-effective. Instead, it is important to use modern training tools, such as digital adoption solutions.
  • Integrated workflows. Digital adoption, as mentioned, emphasizes the need for the complete utilization of software. Software ROI, after all, depends on how fully it is utilized. Another aspect of this is the design of workflows – if workflows are not upgraded and designed to exploit those tools, then those tools will only deliver partial ROI.

Digital strategies such as these will go a long way towards ensuring a workplace stays modern, relevant, and innovative.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Future of Work

To clear up a few final details, let’s look at some of the most frequently asked questions about the future of work.

What are the best software tools for enhancing the workplace?

The answer will naturally vary depending on the business.

However, a few software tools to look at include:

  • Digital adoption solutions. A digital adoption platform can significantly improve employee productivity, performance, and skills. These tools are used for onboarding and training, and since they are automated, they can be used either on-site or remotely.
  • Department-specific tools. Every business function will have its own unique software ecosystem to work with. Marketing, sales, finance, accounting, and every other department will have a dedicated suite of tools. It should go without saying that having modern tools is a prerequisite for having a modern workplace.
  • Human capital management platforms. Human capital management platforms are enterprise-grade HR tools. They provide an integrated hub for payroll, attendance, employee onboarding, and more. Organizations that have yet to implement HR platforms will see significant productivity boosts from these types of tools.
  • Enterprise resource management platforms. An enterprise resource management platform assists with financial management, forecasting, planning, and other key finance functions. These platforms don’t directly affect workers or the workplace, but they do represent an important trend: the centralization of business functions into single software platforms.
  • Automation platforms. Automation tools, as discussed below, can significantly improve employee productivity, reduce error rates, cut costs, and more. When they are introduced into a work environment, however, businesses will need to rethink how they operate and allocate human capital.
  • Data and analytics platforms. Data and analytics can be applied in a wide variety of business functions, improving efficiency, offering in-depth insight, informing decisions, and more. When the focus is turned inwards to operations, the right use of these tools can dramatically transform those operations and result in major performance gains across the organization.

In short, any platform that improves the employee experience, employee productivity, and employee engagement will help improve the workplace.

What is the best way to implement automation in the workplace?

Automation tools, such as robotic process automation (RPA) solutions, can significantly improve organizational performance, efficiency, resilience, and more.

Yet it is important to implement these tools wisely, since there are drawbacks.

Here are a few points to consider:

  • To be effective, automation tools must be tailored specifically to one’s own business
  • Over-automation can be detrimental
  • Automation platforms should not be viewed as replacements for employees
  • Employees need to be trained to work with automation platforms

As with any of the other technology solutions mentioned here, automation platforms offer yet another way to add value to an organization’s bottom line – but only if they are implemented strategically and effectively.

How will artificial intelligence (AI) affect the workplace?

Much like automation platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) will become more deeply integrated into employees’ everyday routines.

AI, however, cannot entirely replace humans.

Though AI can perform specialized tasks extremely well, it cannot think non-linearly or creatively, and it cannot empathize.

AI can deliver major advantages, such as increased efficiency and innovation, but employees will always remain at the heart of the business.

How will augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) affect work?

Both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will play a role in the future of work.

Today, AR and VR have begun emerging in the video gaming industry, but both can be applied in the workplace.

A few applications include:

  • Virtual conferences and meetings
  • Architecture and construction
  • 3D design

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations realized the value of remote work. In a world where remote working is more common, AR and VR may both offer significant value.

Is the future of work remote?

Some have predicted that the future of work is remote.

Although many employees have warmed up to the idea of telecommuting, several studies suggest that on-site work will still predominate after COVID-19.

A report by Morning Consult, for instance, found that:

  • 24% of people would not want to work from home
  • 20% would want to work from home 1-2 days a week
  • 23% would want to work from home 3-4 days a week
  • 32% would want to work from home every day

Nearly a third of people would like working from home on a daily basis, which is not an insignificant number.

However, the majority of people would still prefer on-site hours, which contradicts claims that virtual workplaces will become standard after the pandemic.

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