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Work 4.0: The future of work is hybrid, personalized

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April 26, 2021
By Marcel Vander Wier

The future of work is coming into focus.

According to experts speaking at Talent Canada’s virtual event Work 4.0: Revolutionizing work post-pandemic, the post-COVID-19 workplace will see mass implementation of hybrid working conditions, and will focus on employees’ individual expectations.

More than 500 workplace professionals registered for the April 15 virtual event, which served to provide trusted, reliable information on how to redesign organizations to align with the future of work.

Since March 2020, employers have weathered the global pandemic with a variety of short-term, innovative solutions designed to keep doors open, staff engaged and productivity at respectable levels.

But with the one-year-mark come and gone, leaders are taking a step back and exploring longer-term strategies to respond to employee demands, capitalize on best practices and take advantage of proven technologies to create the best organizations.

The event was supported by title sponsor Salesforce, and gold sponsors ADP Canada, LHH Knightsbridge, Microsoft Canada, PwC Canada, and UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group).

What’s next for the world of work?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only crisis in today’s world, according to Dave Ulrich, human resources thought leader and professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Add a global recession, political posturing, the digital revolution, social injustice and an emotional deficit disorder, and you gain a much fuller picture of current issues facing the world of work, he said in his opening keynote address.

“On the one hand, people feel threatened,” said Ulrich. “On the other hand, we see that crisis as an opportunity. Many have said a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

The most important thing business leaders can give an employee is an organization that succeeds in the marketplace, he said.

In terms of talent, your staff are not only your most important asset — they are your customer’s most important asset, said Ulrich.

“Work is no longer a place — it’s a way to think; it’s a set of values,” he said. “The boundary of work is the value I’m creating for my customer.”

Work of the future will also be personalized, said Ulrich. Not only will work requirements be tailored to unique individual needs, it will also require emotion and empathy to be shown by leaders to create experience and energy.

Living with uncertainty will also be a constant, and it’s up to HR professionals to harness “realistic optimism.” The job is to build a great talent base alongside a solid organizational culture focused outside-in, he said.

For an HR department, forming solid relationships with your team, employees, business leaders, customers and investors will allow for maximum business impact to be achieved, said Ulrich.

In terms of skills, turning complexity into simplicity is key, he said. “HR is not about HR — it’s about creating value.”

Maintaining innovation, collaboration

Many expect the future of work to take place in a hybrid setting. But what does that mean for the future of innovation and collaboration?

“Technology is going to continue to be important in terms of the collaboration effort,” said Kathy Parker, partner, consultant and GTA leader of PwC Canada’s Workforce of the Future in Toronto. “But it goes beyond that.”

“The ways that we are going to successfully collaborate with people really depends on people having connection and trust, and people being able to feel part of something.”

Culture lays the bedrock for that effective collaboration, she said.

“This is not routine for a lot of managers. This is really about a new set of skills for managers to use.”

Technology can be a great enabler, and empowering employees with tools to help them shape their individual workflow is beneficial, said Jason Brommet, head of modern work at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

“The pandemic has really shown that when employees are equipped with the right technology and support from management to remain productive, engaged and connected, it’s truly amazing to see what they’re capable of,” he said.

Going forward, the employee experience may need to be rethought in order for organizations to compete for the best and brightest talent, said Brommet.

“We will see more and more employees looking at workplace strategies and decisions as the factors upon which they decide to move to an employer, or to leave.”

Offices of the future will likely be designed towards collaboration, said Robert Hosking, senior vice-president and managing director of search practices at LHH Knightsbridge in Toronto.

In the meantime, leaders need to challenge their assumptions and put their faith in their staff, he said.

“Leaders need to possess the ability to trust that their team is actually performing… allowing flexibility for people to work the way that they work best — providing that the results are there.”

“Just because it worked in the past, doesn’t mean it will necessarily work in the future,” said Hosking.

Leaders should encourage weigh-in on return-to-work plans, he added.

“There will be mixes of people — some that will really want to come back to the office and be there much more frequently, and others that will say ‘I would really prefer not to.’”

Achieving buy-in and building a plan

As business leaders map out the future of their workplaces, settling on the best vision and achieving buy-in from leaders and teams can seem like monumental tasks.

However, the past year has proven that pivoting is both possible and sustainable, said Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at UKG in Colorado.

“We have to take a look at the past and the future to move our path forward,” he said, noting trust is a currency of great significance through this time of upheaval.

Manager effectiveness is key to achieving trust in the organization, said Mullen. Manager training and coaching may be required to ensure a “wonderful experience” for employees.

“(People managers) dictate your unique culture,” he said. “Your CEOs can talk about it all they want. If the management and leadership don’t buy in… it’s really difficult.”

Decentralization and digitization were the major themes of 2020, according to Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce in Massachusetts.

“The pandemic was — some argue — a 10-year accelerant in terms of cultural and digital transformation,” he said, noting the massive expansion of remote work as of March 2020.

“We’ve proven that we can do this — many companies have had record performance over the last year, during this incredibly difficult time,” said Afshar. “It’s important to maintain a beginner’s mindset. I don’t think there are a lot of experts about tomorrow.”

“I think it’s a superpower now. If you can learn, unlearn, relearn and change yourself,” he said. “If you can do that, I think you position yourself to stay relevant in this new normal.”

Moving towards a culture-first, policy-second mindset is helpful, said Afshar, as is a design-for-movement type of mindset moving forward.

“Work from anywhere is going to be a new war for talent,” he said, noting one in four employees are ready to change their jobs as a result of shifting policy measures.

“It’s important to understand that if your job is no longer a function of location or time, and you’re not going to define your culture on proximity or perks… leaders need to really think about: ‘Are you going to be able to recruit, retain top talent if you don’t have flexible policies?’”

For employees unable to work from home, value can be found in recognition and acknowledgement, said Deon Blyan, director of global talent development, people and culture at Sunwing Travel Group in Toronto.

“Safety through the ongoing pandemic is paramount for those employees as well,” he said.

Plotting out a step-by-step plan is a slightly “high-minded” approach, according to Blyan.

“We’re paving the road as we’re driving on it,” he said, noting it’s often up to the CEO and executive to determine key focus and priorities.

“While doing that, it’s likely that you’ll tap into the strengths that exist in the organization today.”

However, it’s important for leadership to continue to thread regular communications towards the “vague picture off in the distance,” said Blyan. “It’s a way to bring people along on that journey.”

Leadership skills of the future

The current pandemic is changing more than workplaces — it’s been a “time machine to the future” for workplaces and leaders, according to Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor, future of work, at Deloitte Canada in Toronto.

“The future of leadership is human,” she said in her closing keynote address. “Leadership is not a title; it’s actions; it’s behaviour.”

Through COVID-19, leaders across sectors have come together to save lives and livelihoods, said Hirji.

“One of the things I truly hope is that we don’t let those silos build up again because big issues, big problems can only be solved by all of us working together.”

Transparency, empathy, compassion and vulnerability create resilient individuals and organizations — forming deeper connections, she said.

“Leaders are sharing information real-time, even when they don’t have all the answers… We’ve entered this era of radical transparency, and there is no going back,” said Hirji. “This new way of connecting is building trust.”

It’s time to turn this leadership moment into a movement to build a better future, she said — one that is “more human, more inclusive, and that works for all.”

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