The future of work is uniquely human

The disruptive shifts of 2020, including covid-19 shutdowns that led to millions of workers working remotely, forced organizations to radically rethink everything from worker well-being, business models and operations to investments in cloud-based collaboration and communication tools.

Across every industry, last year’s best-laid plans were turned upside down. So it’s not surprising that technology and work have become, more than ever, inextricably intertwined. As business moves toward an uncertain future, companies have accelerated their efforts to use automation and other emerging technologies to boost efficiency, support worker well-being, accelerate work outputs, and achieve new outcomes.

Yet, technology investments are not enough to brace for future disruptions. In fact, an organization’s readiness depends crucially on how it prepares its work and its workforce. This is a uniquely human moment that requires a human touch.

To thrive in a world of constant change, companies must re-architect work and support their workers in ways that enable them to rise to future challenges. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey of 6,000 global respondents, including 3,630 senior executives, 45% said that building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability, and resilience is critical to transforming work. To reach that goal, embracing a trio of essential human attributes—purpose, potential, and perspective—can humanize work and create lasting value for the workforce, and throughout the organization and society at large.

Purpose: Grounding organizations in values

Purposeestablishes a foundational set of organizational values that do not depend on circumstance and serve as a benchmark against which actions and decisions can be weighed. It relies on the uniquely human ability to identify where economic value and social values intersect. Organizations that are steadfast in their purpose are able to infuse meaning into work in order to mobilize workers around common, meaningful goals.

For example, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, credits Delta Air Lines’ sense of purpose for helping the organization through the covid-19 crisis. “When I took over as CEO, we studied what our mission was and what our purpose was, which has helped us post-pandemic because we were clear pre-pandemic,” he says. “Our people can do their very best when they have leadership support and feel connected to the organization’s purpose.”

Potential: A dynamic look at people’s capabilities

To thrive amid constant disruption, organizations need to capitalize on the potential of their workers and their teams by looking more dynamically at their people’s capabilities. Most leaders agree: 72% of the executives in the Deloitte survey said that “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill, and assume new roles” was either the most important or second most important factor in their organization’s ability to navigate future disruptions and boost speed and agility.

AstraZeneca, for example, is an organization that quickly mobilized its resources and took advantage of worker potential to meet a pressing need—developing a covid-19 vaccine. Tonya Villafana, AstraZeneca’s vice president and global franchise head of infection, credits the company’s accelerated response for its ability to tap into a varied pool of experts, both across the company and through its collaboration with the University of Oxford. In addition, AstraZeneca not only brought in top experts but also added “high performers who were really passionate and wanted to get involved” with the vaccine development team.

Perspective: Operating boldly in the face of uncertainty

In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to be paralyzed by multiple options and choices. Perspective—quite literally, the way organizations see things—is a challenge to operate boldly in the face of the unknown, using disruption as a launching pad to imagine new opportunities and possibilities. For instance, taking the perspective that uncertainty is a valuable opportunity frees organizations to take new, fearless steps forward, even if it means veering from the usual, comfortable path. For most executives in the survey, that includes a deliberate effort to completely reimagine how, by who, and where works gets done and what outcomes can be achieved. 61% of respondents said their work transformation objectives would focus on reimagining work, compared to only 29% pre-pandemic.

ServiceNow is one organization that shifted direction in this way during covid-19. In March 2020, the company held a “blue sky” strategy session as a forum for leaders to discuss the future of work, digital transformation, and the company. But as they considered these issues under the cloud of the emerging pandemic, CEO Bill McDermott realized the organization needed to take a different tack. “If we can’t help the world manage the pandemic, there won’t be a blue sky,” he said. As a result, he pivoted the meeting to focus on how ServiceNow could quickly innovate and bring new products to market that would help organizations maintain business operations during the pandemic. ServiceNow quickly built and deployed four emergency response management applications as well as a suite of safe workplace applications to make returning to the workplace work for everyone.

Putting people at the heart of work decisions pays off

Re-architecting work is not about simply automating tasks and activities. At its core, it is about configuring work to capitalize on what humans can accomplish when work is based on their strengths.

In the survey, executives identified two factors related to human potential as the most transformative for the workplace: building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability and resilience (45%), and building workforce capability through upskilling, reskilling, and mobility (41%).

Leaders should find ways to create a shared sense of purpose that mobilizes people to pull strongly in the same direction as they face the organization’s current and future challenges, whether the mission is, like Delta’s, to keep people connected, or centered on goals such as inclusivity, diversity or transparency. They should trust people to work in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential, offering workers a degree of choice over the work they do to align their passions with organizational needs. And they should embrace the perspective that reimagining work is key to the ability to achieve new and better outcomes—in a world that is itself being constantly reimagined.

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that putting people at the heart of a company’s decisions about work and the workforce pays off by helping companies better stay ahead of disruption. The result is an organization that doesn’t just survive but thrives in an unpredictable environment with an unknown future.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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Building relationships remotely, and not technology, has been the key to handling the pandemic, Dell and Slack executives say

Summary List PlacementWhile technology has been integral to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, building relationships among employees has been even more important to a successful work-from-home model, human resources executives from Dell and Slack said during an Insider event.
At Wednesday’s “Workplace Evolution,” hosted by Insider, Najuma Atkinson, the senior vice president of human resources at Dell, and Dawn Sharifan, the vice president of people at Slack, shared how they’ve continued to work with and onboard employees during the pandemic. 
In the session, titled “The Big Shift of 2020,” Atkinson and Sharifan said when their companies went fully remote last year, they had to weigh how to keep employees feeling supported, how to help managers lead a remote workforce, and how to build culture and community.
“Yes we use Slack; yes we use Zoom.” Sharifan said. “But I think really continuing to build that community is the most important thing regardless of what technology you use.”
Atkinson added that, “While technology is our enabler, the other key factor is about the culture.”
Working remotely has opened up opportunities for companies to hire new employees wherever they are, instead of location being a major factor, they said. Work is no longer tied to where we are physically, Atkinson said. “Everyone has a seat at this virtual table now. Because we are remote, you have more access versus less access to senior leaders and to opportunities that you may not have had,” Atkinson added.
People no longer have to leave their communities and homes to come work for a new company, she said. As for Dell, the company is using the remote opportunity to hire under-represented populations, such as women and minorities. The company has even launched a new effort to hire people on the autism spectrum to add to the talent pool. 
The playing field has been leveled for everyone, Sharifan said. One of Slack’s first moves amid the pandemic was to make all current and open positions remote. The company hired several hundred people during the pandemic who have never been into the office. 
With most people working from home, companies have been forced to think about the actual deliverables and skills needed for a job, as opposed to the amount of time spent in the office, Sharifan said.
“It’s less about butt and feet time,” she said. “You’re allowing more space for the moms and dads of the world that also need to be with their kids and don’t need to be seen in the office until 6 or 7 pm at night.”
Making sure employees have the ability to take care of themselves while working has also been key to success during the pandemic, the panelists said.
“Put on your own oxygen mask and take care of yourself,” Sharifan said. “It’s more important than ever for us to be thinking of the entire employee.”Join the conversation about this story »

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