The ongoing pandemic has radically altered the way we work, and companies of all sizes found themselves in a rush, experimenting with new ways to manage their dispersed in households organisations. According to various reports and surveys conducted over the last year, remote work is here to stay and even when the health crisis ends, a good portion of the workforce wants to continue working from home. The challenge is how to keep employees connected, drive innovation, knowledge exchange and to keep a steady talent pipeline, when people are geographically dispersed and there are less barriers to switch jobs.
Companies are prototyping new organisational models to keep up with this forced and rapid pace of change, while adjusting to the new norms of health and safety. Many are embracing artificial intelligence and automation to keep knowledge exchange and operations on an even keel, gather data-driven insights, improve information flow between otherwise siloed data sources, ramp up the talent search and manage global risk.
All this is happening when business leaders are already wrestling with economic shutdowns, health-care concerns and societal upheaval. Clearly, in such uncertainty times, most would like to prepare for what the future may look like.
What are the trends
A recent McKinsey & Co. global survey of 800 executives in a range of industries reveals key trends. These include:
- a push towards technological innovation and automation;
- the shift to remote work or hybrid remote workforces;
- an increase in the use of freelancers and
- growing reliance on artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to manage the workforce and other key functions with limited resources and under remote conditions
There is no doubt that Covid-19 is forcing stakeholders for a fast change since these shifts are already happening at the spectacular pace. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 85% of respondents had accelerated digitalisation of employee interaction and collaboration, and 67% have accelerated automation and artificial intelligence, according to the survey. Industries on the forefront include technology, finance and insurance.
For a glimpse of how companies are in the midst of this transformation one can look at Cisco. Today, 96% of the tech giant’s 75,000 employees are working remotely — from engineers to sales staff. Google plans to keep 200,000 full-time and contract employees working remotely until at least September 2021.
In the recent interview for CNBC, Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer said:
“We were lucky since pre-pandemic 40% of our workforce worked remotely so we already had technology and practices in place to handle a rapid transition to a virtual workplace […] AI and machine learning is helping us better understand how our people think and work […] It’s helped us develop perks to incentivize our employees, find pools of hidden talent around the globe and develop new ways to stimulate innovation. […] We are learning new ways to collaborate and team build.”
Cisco teams use data analytics to form teams and identify the best talent for projects across the organization. One thing the company has found is that like-minded workers gravitate towards each other, aided by technology, sparking bubbles of innovation. Another area where AI has helped Cisco make breakthroughs was hiring and talent development.
Properly designed AI systems can help to eliminate bias and let companies review the purity of a person’s work. This opens up a whole new pool of talent one can tap — individuals who may not have a college degree but are skilled at coding and a host of other expertise.
We’re already seeing how employees started valuing flexible working and the time they regained when not needing to commute every day. The vision for the next couple of years is further development of a hybrid model where leaders will be more deliberate in who comes to the office and for what purpose. That may include engineers working in the labs, customer visits in the office or innovation days to bring in project teams.
Across many of the surveys conducted with professionals, majority likes the idea of option to come to the office two to three times a week. The shift could make the company rethink its real estate costs and footprint.
As most of the employees are working remotely and have the added burdens of helping their children with school, caring for elderly parents while doing their daily jobs, there is more of a focus on mental health, wellness and work/life balance. We should expect to see a further development of mental wellbeing programs supporting hybrid models of working.
Despite initial fears, employee productivity increased
What has been surprising to some companies, most has recorded their workers’ productivity increase during this time despite the metamorphosis taking place.
In Cisco’s case where most of the employees have been working from home for months, data showed many were accomplishing more. For example, according to the company’s tracking, customer service representatives are taking more calls and customers are more satisfied with the help they receive.
This exemplifies a global phenomenon. A recent Boston Consulting Group study of 12,000 employees in the U.S., Germany and India found that productivity can be maintained surprisingly well in a virtual or hybrid work setting.
Many factors can contribute to such result. Without long commutes, small talk with colleagues and leisurely coffees in the break room, many workers – especially those who don’t have to worry about child care – are getting more done.
Companies, too, are discovering that processes and procedures they previously seen as a must-have — from lengthy meetings to regular status updates — are less essential than once imagined. And though some executives are concerned about burnout and social alienation as working from home continues, they are enjoying the gains for now.
Key to employee satisfaction (which turns into company success) is tracking the pulse of employee sentiment. When analysing the data, BCG found four factors that correlate with employees reporting continued or even enhanced productivity on collaborative tasks: social connectivity, mental health, physical health and workplace tools.