What does the workplace of the future look like?
Cast you mind back to January 2020. It feels like it belongs to another age. Squeezing on to packed trains and buses first thing in the morning and in the evening. Sharing a joke with colleagues across the desk, or gathering in meeting rooms with you team – Many of us haven’t done anything like this for months.
While we hope to see this pandemic end as quickly as possible, there are aspects of traditional working that haven’t been missed. Many of us have spent years commuting everyday for more than an hour each way, while there are countless examples of talent going unfulfilled due to the prohibitive costs of relocating to where the work is. As the question of how and when we return to physical workspaces dominates the opinion pages, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider whether we can use this opportunity to not just return to what we had, but instead to create something better.
“The benefit of flexi – and home-working have been made clear”
The future of work is that it can happen in any place, at any time, or any device in a secure and flexible manner. This will enable employees to make their jobs work for them, with greater scope to adapt their working patterns – and locations – to their lives. Rather than the employee going to where the work is, the overwhelming dynamic in what is called the “omnichannel workplace” will be work going to the employee, enabled by digital technology.
This trend will play a huge factor in a business future success or failure. Just as the retail industry experienced its own omnichannel revolution, causing big problems for companies that didn’t adapt to the rise of online shopping, organisations that think they can return to what normal looked like in January 2020 will get left behind. Moving to new, digital-first operating models will allow businesses of all kinds to take full advantage of their talent and make the most of the growth opportunities that are out there,
Putting People First
This new way of working will mean that people are not tied to rigid working times in particular locations. People will be able to choose how often they go into the workplace, and will be under less pressure to live in expensive cities such as London. This period of lockdown has proven that many can work very effectively from home and, while some of us are keen to return to the office at least part-time, the benefits of flexi- and home-working have been made clear.
“Moving to digital first operating models will allow businesses to take full advantage of their talent”
Food, clothing and home retailers Marks and Spencer, ensured the safety of their customers as it continued to meet their demands was (and continues) to be the top priority. Whiles its bricks and mortar clothing outlets had to be immediately shut, there was a surge in demand for food essentials. This required quick technological interventions to demand and fulfilment and supply-chain systems, back-end distribution set-up, as well as warehouses management – all to ensure that the in-store visitor had an undisrupted shopping experience.
In a move to ensure essential supplies reached consumers, M&S expanded its online clothing platform to deliver food, and saw heavy demand as a result.
Similarly, Halfords shut many of its stores when lockdown was first announced and again, they experienced a spike in online sales, requiring rapid and comprehensive changes to stock and personnel. Warehouse management systems had to be reassessed and redesigned. And the movement of some goods was revised.
Technological innovation enabled the deployment of collaboration platforms, cloud-enabled infrastructure and robust security practices to continue critical operations.
The virtual experience
Of course, the office-centric ways of working bring many benefits that are adjacent to employees’ main roles and responsibilities. Conversations in the kitchen or on a lunch break, building new connections and friendships, or creative workshops – it’s “ambient” moments and interactions such as these that do so much to give work meaning.
Technology is making great strides in replicating these experiences and the more employees get used to video calls and chat functions for core work, the more we will use them for quick chats and catch-ups with colleagues too. Technology must enable this human desire for conversation and interaction, not get in the way of it.
This is an inflection point – the pandemic has accelerated our thinking and the very fundamentals of work are changing before our eyes. We must all come together to make sure the workplace of 2021 any beyond captures the best of what we’ve seen over the past few months, while preserving the intangible qualities that bring vibrancy and humanity to our working lives.