The very nature of work is in the middle of a multi-level seismic metamorphosis: there's the profound evolution underway around how we define work, more generations than ever are in the workforce, and what we expect from the physical workplace stands at the gateway of a radical revision. Still, as Winston Churchill once said, "to improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often."
As organizations plan for the future of work, technology must be as much enabler as it is a disruptor. The emphasis should be on easy-to-use and reliable solutions for the end user that enable flexibility, speed, and nimbleness so that people are connected with the right technology seamlessly from wherever they want to contribute. The employee experience is key to the future success of businesses.
I see three important trends to consider as organizations chart their paths through the coming decade:
1) Virtual and 'Flex-ployees' are Flourishing Globally
Once considered a perk, flexible work arrangements are now linked to improved employee engagement and documented productivity improvements worldwide. In its annual Global Workforce Study, the International Workplace Group noted over half of employees are working outside their main headquarters office at least two-and-a-half days a week, with 80 percent of respondents indicating they would select a company with flexible working arrangements over one without. "The idea of commuting for hours to work 9-5 in a dreary office is fast becoming about as relevant as a fax machine," the study noted.
Much has been written about the ramifications of the gig economy through apps like Uber and TaskRabbit. Some research even suggests that by 2027 freelancers will outnumber any other type of worker in the U.S. workforce.
Contract workers and freelancers were once primarily found at startups and smaller companies that needed smaller projects completed, but now they're common at Fortune 500 companies too. The benefits for large organizations include the nimbleness that comes with being able to scale up or down based on needs quickly. Contractors say they're able to find more work opportunities across huge geographic areas by offering their services online.
But while much of the rest of the world embraces remote work, the United States lags behind. In a different study, Global Workplace Analytics found that only 7 percent of U.S. employers offer flexible and remote work arrangements.
Given historically low unemployment, the quest for critical talent, and the infrastructure challenges that force extended commutes, we'll see the trend for flexible work schedules and work locations accelerate. Organizations should be implementing strategies for them if they're not already.
Technology plays a key role as contractors and freelancers must be able to collaborate with other team members wherever they are seamlessly. It will be interesting to see how 5G—the next generation of wireless networking—affects remote work with its faster speeds and lower latency, which should dramatically improve workplace technology like video collaboration if it lives up to its promise.
There are so many advantages to a distributed workforce. You get access to a bigger talent pool, salary expectations can be lower outside certain regions, and workers are happier and more productive. Companies that don't offer flexible arrangements risk losing top talent.
2) An Office or a Workspace?
Does the future of work even include physical office space? Perhaps not. In a recent research note, Gartner suggests that offices are artifacts of industrialization and that corporations should stop sinking money into them. "As digitalization calls for far more agile, flexible, and productive digital working environments, IT leaders must prepare organizations to discard outdated ideas about physical offices, offered Gartner analysts Christopher Trueman and Carol Rozwell. The duo recommends companies take a hard look at inefficient space usage and move towards more flexible space, co-working space, and more flexible working arrangements.
There are many technical challenges to overcome. The Gartner research found that only 28 percent of respondents could access software and applications seamlessly outside of a physical office location. As I frequently tell my team, my "office" is my backpack, and my workspace is wherever I am at the time. Underneath it all—and unseen—tech can—and should—enable the end user to contribute anytime and anywhere while still maintaining security and compliance.
3) Embrace Work-Life Fusion
Thanks to ubiquitous mobile devices, the line between work and personal life became blurred over a decade ago to the point it's now virtually invisible. The shift has made the term "work-life balance" popular as workers struggle to define their own limits and how to get their needs met.
I find the way Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes his quest for "work-life harmony" very interesting. He's reframing the equation because he doesn't see it as a strict trade-off. "What I'm trying to do is harmonize what I deeply care about, my deep interests, with my work," Nadella explained recently.
I've taken a twist on this theme and called it "work-life fusion," which isn't completely new. It's a direct result of the flexible workforce trends above. The reality is that it is very hard to draw boundaries between our work and personal lives, especially with the elimination of the previous boundaries of office space and work hours.
While the above trends deal more with logistical aspects of space and time, this trend has more to do with technology and policy. As we move to "anytime and anywhere," the natural extension is that it becomes "any device" too. Many organizations offer "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) policies as end users want to use equipment they like in their personal lives when they come to work too.
The complexity of supporting user-owned devices is a challenge given the increased security risks. Access and encryption are top priorities. Updating and managing policies for what actions and resources are allowed to be accessed on which devices must be carefully managed. It becomes even more challenging when you consider both the business aspects of work-life fusion (e.g., corporate apps, corporate data) as well as the personal aspects (e.g., what personal data is stored, where, when, and why).
Make it Simple
At the end of the day, end users aren't particularly interested in how technology works. They just demand it work seamlessly and easily when they need it. Finding the right solutions to support digital workers managing the challenges of work-life fusion is critical. IT leaders must focus on simple, uninterrupted, and secure access for users wherever they are.