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How to Lead Differently in the Workplace of the Future

By Sampath Sowmyanarayan

The start point is that organizations need to think about remote working in the context of broader business trends.BCG research shows that pre-COVID, there were already two key trends changing the workplace: pervasive technology and data, deeply embedded in the business; and a dramatic shift in the talent pool, in terms of both candidate expectations, and required skill sets. Business leaders therefore need to be considering how they can leverage technology as an enabler to support remote working, but also acknowledge that their future organizational state will of necessity need to be more organic and flexible than in recent years.

Organizations will have to intertwine the possibilities offered by technology with human capabilities in a ‘bionic’ organization. This will combine:

  • An Agile way of working, focused on collaboration and rapid decision making
  • Organizing for change through new talent and skills
  • Considering location changes, whether flexible, remote or onsite working models

The How, Who and Where

So, organizations need to firstly focus on what technology they need, and specifically their data and digital platforms; but more importantly, they also need to look at how humans and machines, as well as humans and humans, interact across their business. A useful approach to consider is to examine the How, Who and Where.

  • How is about organizing for change by deploying an Agile way of working, focused on collaboration and rapid decision making, at scale. In a decentralized workplace, allowing employees to thrive in tech-enabled and interconnected teams, rather than reliant on formal reporting hierarchies, rigid job descriptions, and processes, will be key to success.
  • “Who” is about organizing change for and through new talent and skills. With organizations looking to use technology in new and different ways, they will also need to look differently at the talent pool – new, emerging skill sets will be at a premium. The challenge will be where to find this talent – and how to balance the acquisition of new skills against upskilling and retraining existing employees. One thing is clear – the gig economy is likely to have an important role to play, a dramatic change to existing corporate structures.  
  • “Where” is about organizing location changes– whether flexible and tailored remote or onsite working models. The first consideration here is the inevitability of physical work locations ceding into hybrid virtual and physical models, especially as flexible working models start to gain prominence. The challenge here is that many business leaders have grown up in office-based work models, and the concept of flexibility demands a big shift in thinking. However, we already know that the opportunity for flexible work is prized by many employees.

Lead with the Head, Heart, and Hands

The most important consideration in the workplace of the future is how to keep people, and the human touch, at the core of business. Organizations need to ensure that human decisions determine how the workplace will operate, rather than getting sucked into a world governed by algorithms. Technology is important – but people must come first, and people need to be able to control variables and thresholds, overrule any automated interventions, and most importantly, preside over ethical and moral quandaries based on human experiences and logical thinking.

For business leaders, perhaps the most critical task in creating the workplace of the future is to make their people feel engaged and involved – this will define their future business success. This means leading from the front, with strong and authentic leadership that balances forward-looking optimism with a realistic outlook on what employees can expect from any new working model. 

Employees are looking to leaders for empathy, assurance, and meaningful action, so leaders need to be fully engaged in what’s going on in real-time, and be seen and heard. They must show that they are investing their hearts and minds to support their workforce, particularly when physical interactions start ceding into virtual interactions, and focus on the “connective tissue” which binds people together across geographies and timezones.

There are three key human-centric, and interlocking pillars for leadership: “The Head, Heart and Hands”. These pillars must work well together – each supports the others in a cohesive organization:

  • The Head is about envisioning the future and focusing on the big rocks.What is your organization’s strategy and vision?
  • The Heart is about inspiring and empowering people. What is your organization’s purpose, values and culture?
  • The Hands is about executing and innovating with agility. What is your set of actions to make that happen?

It goes without saying that many organizations have already experienced a big shift in how they work. As we move forward, this shift will continue. But Tami and Sampath believe that the COVID-19 pandemic gives leaders the opportunity to deliberately reflect on, and if necessary, reset, their organization’s pillars – and the time to act is now. They need to think about where the business has been strong, and where it has missed the mark; which new practices might they want to keep, and which initiatives or capabilities they want to continue, stop or start; and are decisions and actions aligning with our company’s purpose? And then, more importantly, they need to translate theory into actions – how can these pillars be communicated, (re)articulated, activated and embedded into the post-crisis organization in order to fuel recovery – this will establish the path forward.

Those who make this transformation with consideration, keeping their people front and center, will be best placed for future success.

(The author is, President Global Enterprise, Verizon Business and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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