If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst to make mainstream the 1990s trend of working from home. A one-shift wonder, in many domains, the trend quickly fizzled out by the turn of the millennium when companies started finding it hard to monitor employees and measure productivity.
Roll things forward by two decades, and WFH has gone viral – if you’ll excuse the pun. Companies are being challenged to do a myriad things besides trusting their employees as they address the coronavirus pandemic.
In an incredibly short span of time, the crisis has caused seismic shifts in how we work and from where. What the future is likely to bring to the world of work — and when — is largely unknown. But already companies are being compelled to accelerate their digital transformation — endorsed by the dramatic upside in productivity.
Contrary to popular opinion, digital transformation is less about advanced technology and more about advancing people.
While technology has served companies well during the enforced lockdown, many of the challenges and impacts from prolonged isolation were unforeseen. Unlike technology, attempting to switch on people during a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis is challenging and chaotic in equal measure.
With infections nowhere close to the peak predicted by the mathematical models — at least here in South Africa — it’s almost impossible to tell when the tide will turn. It is an opportunity and an imperative for business leaders to use this downtime to fundamentally rethink how they operate and why they exist. Technology should not simply be seen as a means to cut payroll but as an enabler to unlock and leverage the potential of the organisation’s talent bench.
In such a rapidly evolving situation, business leaders must prepare themselves and their people for excelling in the coming age — just showing up as usual will be less than pedestrian in navigating unchartered seas of change and disruptive innovation.
Last month, Twitter announced that it will allow its staff to work from home permanently. Google has offered to pay its employees to set up an office at home. The CEOs of Mondelez, Nationwide and Barclays, among others, are also toying with the idea of a permanent shift to WFH and reduced office space. There is little or no basis to suggest that this trend will go away or be reversed any time soon — or ever.
If anything, an even bigger proportion of jobs will find a home at home. In the new normal, a variety hard technical skills may become obsolete fairly quickly given the pace at which technology evolves.
Companies that are truly committed to digital transformation in every context must invest in people who are willing to embrace the requisite elements of risk, going the extra mile, uncertainty and innovation in the midst of prolific change and challenge.
What will become increasingly distinguished by relevance and impact are the leadership attributes, competencies and archetypes that demonstrate agility, resilience, vision, empathy, inclusion and decisiveness. These are not learnt from a textbook or traditional classroom programme. These characteristics are found and developed in leaders and people who are willing to be vulnerable, courageous and considerate of all stakeholder groups in the pursuit of being a truly serving organisation.
Post-Covid-19, the evolved world of work will create completely new career opportunities and functional portfolios to respond to the innovations and new elements of work and business. The main implication is that when leaders think about investing in technology, they should first think about investing in the people who can realise the full potential of that technology.
A good starting point, to leverage human adaptability to reskill, is to identify people who can learn on the fly, relinquish old mindsets and skillsets and rapidly adopt in-demand skills. While the world and work will change in shape and form for everyone, what will make businesses stand out is its bench strength. Needless to say, everything in business can be copied, except for talent, so if you are looking for impact, investing in talent is where businesses will get the most value.
The global WFH experiment suitably demonstrates our agility. This agility is primarily driven by people and supported by technology. Across all industrial ages, people have been the common denominator to the concept of future-proofing. So, in actualising talent in people, businesses must celebrate and seamlessly integrate their technical capabilities with their cognitive abilities, adaptability, and social and emotional competencies and strengths.
- Bryan Hattingh is founder of exponential leadership firm Cycan