Leaders need to reinvent work culture, deliver tech at speed and transform existing processes to inspire the changing workforce
Suresh Shaw (name changed), CIO of a leading consulting firm, is in a state of a quandary these days. In a recent executive council meeting, in which he is also a member, it has been decided that his company will resume physical offices for one-third of its working population soon. The phase-wise plan was scheduled to begin within three months in the selected divisions, functions, and geographies (where COVID cases lessening), co-existing with work-from-anywhere strategies.
The executive committee concluded that about 20% of the company's employees should be allowed to work from offices on any given day. The rest should continue to work from remote locations. Given Suresh's exceptional leadership at spearheading the organization's digital transformation strategy during the pandemic, he was yet again trusted with the responsibility of building the New Workplace.
As part of the company's long-term strategy, Suresh was also asked to focus on building a genuinely inclusive workspace of tomorrow that can support a high degree of collaboration across stakeholders and ensure business continuity. The blend of remote working and office staff needs a redesigned, tech-enabled workspace where every employee should feel secure, excited, and self-driven.
Interestingly, employees who rarely or never teleworked have become so hooked to the idea of working from anywhere that they might leave their jobs post-COVID-19-pandemic if they do not get some form of work flexibility, as per the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey. What looked like a concept in its infancy before the pandemic has become the New Normal. By using technology at scale, enterprises have created round-the-clock location-agnostic work platforms for millions of employees across the globe.
However, it is also true that remote working isn't for everyone and has its own downsides. For many entry-level workers, delivering while working from home without the necessary training can become a huge challenge, if not an obstacle. There are also challenges related to adapting to the new culture, lack of training, and insufficient bandwidth that many remote workers have consistently faced.
The changing work patterns have put technology and business leaders like Suresh in a conundrum as they plan to open up workplaces, especially the traditional office setups. Much rethinking is required to integrate modern technology in developing a truly collaborative future of work environment.
Based on our interactions with senior IT and business leaders, here is a 7-step journey for enterprises to navigate the road to a modern, new hybrid workplace.
1. Identify unique business needs
The widespread health crisis has dramatically transformed the way enterprises operate today. Across all industries, there have been several experiments, tech integrations, process refinements, and new learnings to navigate the uncertainty and build capacities to support the distributed workforce model.
During the pandemic, transitioning to remote work, moving to the cloud, and accelerating digital transformation at a breakneck speed was a huge challenge faced by businesses. However, getting their employees back to offices after COVID is even a more monumental shift that they are dealing with.
"Collaboration, continuous learning and innovation, and performance will determine the future of new workplaces. It would be a huge challenge to keep track of how individual workers are performing, innovating, and collaborating in the new hybrid work environment," says Mahendra K Upadhyay, Chief Information Officer at BARC India.
While some employees exhausted of work-from-home would happily resume offices, many others will resist, given the uncertainty around the future waves of the pandemic. For instance, with vaccines becoming available in most places and pandemic slowing, several employees, especially the young talent, are excited to return to the physical workplace. But that may not be the case with caring parents or people requiring long travel time to reach offices.
In this light, enterprises must revisit their unique business requirements before moving towards the new hybrid workplace models. Rational deliberations must be put in place by the top function and tech leaders around:
· Why are certain people required in offices?
· Who should be called to the offices first, of which department, and how frequently?
· What should be the short-term and long-term strategy to create an efficient mix of remote and on-site working for different roles?
Effective feedback mechanisms and data analytics tools can help businesses identify visible patterns and answers to the above questions, enabling them to decide on the real estate, IT, and office design requirements.
"A co-existing triumvirate of remote-working, physical workplace, and hybrid working models will become a reality across industries. This will be possible by significant investments of enterprises in technologies, process innovation, and reskilling to maintain productivity, leading to enhanced customer satisfaction levels," says Roop Singh, Chief Business Officer, Birlasoft.
The concept of 'new workplace' will continue to change/evolve rapidly, presenting businesses with novel challenges that technology interventions can solve.
2. Focus on healthy and safe return to offices
Once enterprises have identified their business needs and decided about the population that can work from offices, it becomes critical to develop a comprehensive and consistent workplace strategy to keep their employees safe and alleviate their fears. Enterprises need to ensure that people coming to offices are fully vaccinated and strictly follow safe work practices.
· Embrace employee health monitoring tools: Building a new workplace requires enterprises to leverage the latest technology innovations to collect and analyze distributed workforce's health data to monitor their current anxiety levels and well-being requirements. CIOs should ensure the deployment of necessary tracking and automation capabilities at various office entry points to identify employees who are yet to be vaccinated. While doing so, make sure that you follow best practices and compliance to use employee information only for their welfare and provide proactive support.
"Employee safety and wellness will be the key priorities as organizations determine the balance between remote, hybrid, and office routines. Seat visualization and people finder, parking reservation, contactless access, smart cafeteria, visitor management, wearables, IoT solutions, AQM, and digital information walls will play an essential role in building confidence among the workforce to return to the workforce office," says Aashish Agarwal, Managing Director, Workspace, ANSR.
· Ensure social distancing at the workplace: Make sure that layouts of new workspaces should be able to provide necessary social distancing to employees. The public dealing desks should have physical barriers such as acrylic partitions to protect employees from catching an infection. COVID-19 temperature and oxygen screening mechanisms should be at the entry gate to keep people rescued from the new virus strains.
Communication is critical in holding distributed work populations together. The New Workplace should provide frequent updates around the overall health situation of different geographies the firm operates from to its employees.
· Adopt touchless technologies: To reduce the chances of virus spread, businesses should deploy cloud-based touchless technologies and QR codes at various office points at high-risk zones – such as elevator buttons, door handles, attendance check-in, visitor screening kiosks, disinfecting mechanisms at night.
· Make a provision of employee isolation zones: By deploying video surveillance in common areas, organizations can keep a close watch on employee's health and isolate them immediately should there be a risk of infection. The potential of analytics can be leveraged extensively to study and analyze key employee and customer trends.
3. Assess your business transformation strategy
During the pandemic, technology became a savior and played a crucial role in ensuring business-as-usual scenarios. Organizations sped up technology adoption in the race to stay current, improve customer experience and keep pace with future-specific innovations.
In the new hybrid workplace scenario, the role of technology will continue to be critical in building a functional and data-driven future workspace. As a crucial step, enterprises should reflect on their technology readiness to drive the culture change, upskill people and ensure cross-departmental collaboration across its distributed workforce seamlessly and securely.
Across all industries, there have been several experiments, tech integrations, process refinements, and new learnings to navigate the uncertainty and build capacities to support the distributed workforce model. Business leaders have to make subtle shifts in managing their teams remotely.
· Evaluate your talent transformation needs: As we move toward a post-COVID era, several challenges are related to talent transformation that enterprises need to address. The pandemic has made many erstwhile job profiles redundant and required most of the talent pool to be IT savvy to operate and thrive in the new digital era. IT leaders will need to collaborate with HR leaders to identify the talent readiness to work in the new hybrid workplace environment. Create a plan to identify skill gaps to develop necessary learning modules to retain and nurture the talent.
One must remember that almost two years of an abrupt shift in the working model has created a large pool of young talent who may need extensive training support to work efficiently in the new workplace model. In addition, the remote work environment has also provided companies the scope of expanding their talent pool from the farthest of locations. This will increase the need for cultural alignment in the era of modern workplaces.
"There is a tremendous change in mindset and culture. A lot of traditional companies have earlier shied away to implement distributed work environments. And now organizations are hiring a lot of talent from remote locations. The success of the new hybrid workplace model will hinge on how effectively organizations leverage various technologies to enable working in a sustained manner in that model. Adopting unique collaboration tools and beefing up IT security will play a pivotal role in the success of new workforce models," says Neeti Wahi, Group Chief Information & Digital Officer at Sterlite Power.
· Do you have a work-from-home policy in place yet: The main challenge for companies in developing a new workplace foundation is the challenge of rapidly forming a WFH policy. "Many don't have one and have never needed one. But guidelines are imperative. However, the biggest challenge facing organizations deploying work-from-home policies is trust and accountability. Many Indian companies are centralized institutions, so decentralizing that authority is difficult to adapt. The adoption of digital solutions has been significantly helpful in enabling collaboration amongst decentralized staff or teams instead of a single, centralized location", says Sankalp Saxena, SVP & MD - Operations, India, Nutanix.
· Automate your business processes intelligently: Processes that are dumb and require a lot of manual intervention can be automated to increase productivity, reduce costs, better accuracy, and improve customer experience. According to a Deloitte study, Automation with Intelligence: Pursuing Organization-wide Reimagination, the number of organizations deploying automation at scale has tripled in the space of two years. COVID-19 accelerated the need for automation solutions – particularly those that offer options for scalability and rapid deployment – within enterprise organizations.
“Building a new workplace must require critical thinking of key decisions to enhance trust, transparency and teamwork. Developing virtual solutions has helped us increase flexibility, inclusivity, and accessibility during these trying times,” states Rishi Bhatnagar, President, Aeris Communications.
· Ensure experience equality across distributed workforce: In the New Normal, workspaces will be built for people to collaborate, celebrate and elevate their output over remote work. One of the critical challenges for organizations will be to provide experience parity – ensuring people feel connected to the organization regardless of whether they are remote-native, frequent work-from-home, or frequent work-from-office. Organizations will also need to deconstruct synchronous and asynchronous work patterns across generational and behavioral profiles to overcome hybrid work challenges and foster collaboration.
"While CHROs, CRE and CIOs need to work closely on identifying and deploying solutions, there is a need to collate and analyze data, monitor emerging trends, assess challenges, determine ROI of investments and explore more efficient and interoperable solutions that align with the organization's broader workplace strategy," says Aashish Agarwal, Managing Director, Workspace, ANSR.
From a cultural perspective, technology interventions will focus on enhancing the experience of virtual meetings, online whiteboards, document synchronization, learning applications, mobile applications, and community development.
4. Conduct detailed analysis of office space costs
The unprecedented scenario has put severe pressure on many companies to relook at the budget allocations, and CIOs and business leaders are not oblivious to this. Transforming workspaces comes at a cost. Be it implementing new technology areas, buying modern work equipment, or getting more retail space. There will be an operational cost associated with it.
For smaller companies, it may not be easy to design new ways of working straightaway. McKinsey, in its report, Reimagining the Office and Work-Life after COVID-19, noted, "Leading organizations will boldly question long-held assumptions about how work should be done and the role of the office. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer, different for every organization, will be based on what talent is needed, which roles are most important, how much collaboration is necessary for excellence, and where offices are located today, among other factors.
5. Track employee pulse before taking a decision
Among the significant employee trends that the pandemic has accelerated due to widespread remote work is flexible work arrangements. During the last few months, organizations have successfully helped their employees become more productive remotely by introducing flexible work arrangements – letting employees decide the working hours after taking account of their personal needs.
What looked like a concept in its infancy before the pandemic has become the New Normal. By using technology at scale, enterprises have created round-the-clock location-agnostic work platforms for millions of employees across the globe.
However, the pandemic has impacted different people in different ways. Hence, it is paramount to take qualitative and quantitative feedback from employees about their preferences, work skills, readiness levels, and productivity impact analysis that can help organizational leadership prepare an action plan around a well-defined structured workspace and seating capacity.
"Conceptually, hybrid teams and workspaces are still very new and bound to fail if organizations do not have the right assessment capabilities about their employees' unique requirements and strengths," says Rajesh Aggarwal, Head of IT at Aamor Inox.
SAP Labs India, for instance, conducted an internal poll to check the employee readiness of its people to back to offices. The result disclosed that 80% of the company's employees were keen to adopt a hybrid workspace with limited time in the office. The company has been leveraging its technology capabilities to design new workplace tools and apps to enable its employees to resume offices in the future.
"Earlier this year, we began a phase-wise reopening of our offices to facilitate teams wanting to work from office. We leveraged our technology expertise to build an app to book office visits and ensure safety on the campus through AI-based mask detection and contact tracing. We developed an AI-based video analytics solution that helped our physical security team reassure real-time, social distancing, and proper usage of masks in common areas across SAP office buildings. An app that allows employees to pre-order meals at the cafeteria is also in place. However, our campuses were closed once the second wave of virus spread quickly across the country," said Sindhu Gangadharan, SVP & MD, SAP Labs India.
The company has recently announced a flexible working policy for its employees worldwide and focuses on a flexible and inclusive work environment that is trust-based.
6. Prioritize intelligent workspace experiences
Contactless facilities, AI-powered devices, motion sensors will form a part of return-to-work strategies as organizations continue to maintain employee well-being and employee safety as essential parameters of the New Normal-based employee experience.
The traditional office environment comprising fixed individual office seats and meeting rooms is a thing of the past. In the post-COVID future workspace environment, even before the pandemic, many global enterprises moved away from the concept of fixed seating capacities. They introduced various tools and apps to find and book personal workspace online before coming to the office.
"The road to building future of work involves developing world-class enterprise applications across platforms. Everybody is talking about digital transformation and the future of work. But in reality, nobody knows where to begin. Building proof of concept is the first thing that any organization should do. There are security concerns, issues related to risk compliance which need to be evaluated thoroughly," states Sandeep Sudarshan, Head - Business Solutions & Consulting, Subex.
Besides applications to support distributed workspace, there will be a massive focus on developing physical workspaces that ensure a safe distance between employees to stop the transmission of infections while enabling them to interact with their remotely located peers through seamless teleconferencing. American technology firm, Google, for instance, is extensively focusing on redesigning its office spaces. According to a report in The New York Times, the internet giant is working on concepts like 'Team Pods,' comprising blank canvas of chairs, desks, whiteboards, and storage units in casters, replacing conventional row-based office-desk setups. It has also designed future-focused meeting rooms in its offices where employees can be seated in a circle facing giant screens to interact with their distributed team members or clients.
"We are focused on helping our people succeed in their new digital workspace by providing the right collaborative tools and capabilities. Our strategy includes four guiding principles that make it clear that virtual work is important and provides flexibility that our workforce appreciates. These principles are: fostering connectedness and belonging, sparking creativity and innovation, solving for speed, agility, and productivity and attracting and retaining top, diverse talent," expresses Saurabh Saxena, Intuit India site Leader and Vice President - Product Development, Small Business & Self-Employed Group (SBSEG).
7. Develop an effective change management plan
One should not forget that exceptional employee experience is essential to deliver more extraordinary business results and customer experiences. Hence, businesses should put people at the core while developing strategies around hybrid workspace models. CIOs, HR leaders, and Operations leaders should analyze carefully if their new workplace is well-equipped to live up to employee safety expectations.
The pandemic has impacted different people in different ways. Hence, it is paramount to take qualitative and quantitative feedback from employees about their preferences, work skills, readiness levels, and productivity impact analysis before preparing an action plan around a well-defined new-age workspace.
Last but not least, making an effective change management plan encompasses all the details around the timelines, advisories, and essential steps around the new modern workplace strategy. Ensure that the change management plan is accessible to all your employees and includes necessary web links, training details for employees, updated policies, FAQs, and details around execute and control phases in easy-to-understand language.