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The reimagined workplace

What will the future of work look like? Here are predictions and recommendations

When the pandemic first started to spread in early 2020, business leaders weren't concerned about what their workplaces would look like in the 2030s. They were focused on making it through the first wave of disruption: Get the workers communicating remotely. Keep people safe. Keep the business running.

Now, approaching the end of 2020, leaders are still dealing with the pandemic's effects. At the same time, they're starting to look ahead. They've learned how to adjust to a new mode of work and tested out new practices. In some cases, the pandemic has changed the way organizations think about the workplace. In other cases, it has simply accelerated workplace transformations that were already underway. Either way, these leaders are now ready to reimagine the workplace of the future.

What's it going to look like? What will change? How will businesses' responses to the current pandemic reshape the way they work in the 2030s and beyond? How will employee experience change? What will success look like for those embarking on the journey of transforming the workplace? These are all questions that need to be answered.

 

As with most things in life, there is no one size that fits all. There are shades of grey. Much will depend on how specific workplaces are structured and what they are used for. Different work environments have different needs. Traditional office settings, manufacturing floors, hospitals, and retail sites each have their own ways of communicating, dealing with customers, and generating business value. They each face different pressures today, they're each going to react differently to changes in the future, and they each need leaders with an ear to the ground trying to figure out the pace of change their people can sustain.

What ties them all together is an increasing reliance on digital technology to help employees deliver value. Organizations across industries and geographies have been investing in digital workplace models for years, seeking ways to become more efficient, cost competitive, and customer focused. Those digital models came in handy during the rapid transition to virtual work forced by the pandemic. As remote work takes on a greater role and other societal trends cast a wider influence, we will see a greater reliance on digital models as hybrid workplace models―enabling seamless productivity regardless of physical location―become the norm.

The pandemic is hastening the process where society redefines what the workplace is. It'll no longer be just the place people go to work, punching the clock each day. Companies will need to adapt their workplaces―that much is clear. But the severity of response will vary widely by industry. Here's a description of three different kinds of workplaces and some predictions of how each will evolve in a post-pandemic world.

Modern knowledge worker environments

These are the modern work environments where the pandemic has provided the clearest look yet into a future workplace that doesn't operate with strict boundaries. The office is one component, but it's less of a primary focus. Many people routinely work remotely, from home environments or from the road. Knowledge worker environments such as technology companies and financial services firms were best positioned to shift to almost entirely virtual environments in 2020. In the future, they'll have to reinforce the IP they have in house with more targeted technology investments and more refined processes.

Part of the challenge will be to reimagine the people functions of the workplace in these environments. The office has always been the hub of collaboration, the place where paperwork is processed, the place where information is stored. In a future of hybrid work, the office may be less focused on work and more focused on providing a place to build connections with the company. Working at home used to be a "nice to have" perk―dialing into a teleconference on a Friday. In the future, it might be more standard. Knowledge workers could do most of their real work Monday through Thursday at home and come into the office one day a week to attend meetings, hand out employee recognitions, and socialize with staff.

This realignment could save on real estate costs, but it will force companies to invest more in other areas. One area of focus will be the overall employee experience. Technology will be an important delivery mechanism in this area, providing employees with a wider array of programs, services, and other resources to reduce isolation and make their workdays more stimulating.

Another area is employee safety. Although knowledge worker environments will require fewer trips to the office, companies will need to provide more protections for those on site. Spacing of desks to allow for social distancing and better filters to capture germs will be part of the solution. Digital technologies will be as well, with offices installing infrared cameras and contact tracing apps to ensure workers aren't transmitting viruses throughout the staff.

Companies also will have to double down on collaboration technologies. In 2020, knowledge worker environments did a good job equipping workers with the hardware and software they've needed to get basic tasks done at home. But in a future workplace without boundaries, companies will need to do more to create access to different work experiences for different roles within the organization. At this point, remote connectivity is pretty much following that one-size-fits-all model. Going forward, that can't be the case. A CEO who has to address 50,000 employees from home will need different levels of connectivity, quality of service, and security than someone delivering code late at night.

Operations and manual labor environments

Environments associated with businesses that have heavy operational requirements―manufacturing plants, oil rigs, construction sites―can't operate without boundaries the way knowledge worker environments can. The work is on site, and companies will need to reconfigure those workplaces to allow for more collaboration, security, and cost effectiveness.

Safety will be a big concern. Even more than in knowledge worker settings, companies in operational environments will need to equip workplaces with modern health safety measures, including automated screenings for disease as well as infrared cameras, contact tracing apps, and filtration systems. New configurations allowing for better social distancing can protect workers on sites where work needs to be done and can't be outsourced.

A new division of labor will take place in these environments. First, this will be about greater automation to reduce the number of tasks that need to be done manually. Second, this will be about the augmentation of on-site resources with off-site resources to undertake the manual tasks that remain. Automation will reduce the reliance on humans to perform operational tasks ranging from assembly to final packaging. While the workplace of the future will reinforce the need for employees with higher level skill sets, such as the ability to design, program, and fine-tune machines, more automation and technologies such as augmented reality and remote collaboration will mean fewer workers on site.

But technology will provide opportunities for collaboration on actual operational processes. When a machine needs to be maintained, it may not be possible or cost effective to have skilled engineers on site. Using augmented reality, skilled workers who are off site can fix a machine or guide a lower level worker through the process.

Mixed environments

Mixed environments blend some aspects of the knowledge worker and operational settings. These include hospitals, where there is a heavy focus on knowledge-intensive activities such as those undertaken by doctors to analyze patient data and create medical records. However, that aspect is matched in equal measure by the manual labor and operational activities that take place in physically managing the needs of patients. Retail also includes a mix of on-site, off-site, and virtual activity, which poses unique challenges in configuring workplaces of the future.

These environments traditionally have been resistant to the move toward a modern virtualized setup. Some of this has had to do with regulatory types of concerns, while in other cases, it has had to do with long-held beliefs that customers (or patients in the case of hospitals) can best be served in person only. These environments will start operating more like knowledge worker setups, more frequently taking advantage of virtual work and creating "hot office" environments. For example, in a hospital, a doctor traditionally walks the halls and meets patients every day for consultations. Instead, doctors will do more remote collaboration with patients and more remote consultations with staff. Team reviews will be conducted virtually, and administrative functions will be distributed across departments and geographies through better information-sharing practices.

In retail, the shift to online sales will accelerate. Brick-and-mortar stores will play a reduced role, serving more as a display or a place to pick up goods. Automation and digitization will further reduce dependency on physical presence in the retail space.

Other trends will take shape, forcing industries to change the way their future workplaces operate. One involves fierce shifts in supply and demand spurred on by major events like a pandemic. Demand for certain products and services suddenly surges. Healthcare is an obvious example. So are telecommunications services when everybody's working from home. So are certain types of retail products, like sanitizer and toilet paper. The workplace of the future will require more agile technologies and processes to anticipate sudden changes in the market and ramp up supply to meet spiking demand.

We'll also see a new and more streamlined social contract emerging around privacy. Today, there are a lot of variations around the globe when it comes to privacy. It may take a while, but it's likely that countries will standardize more privacy-related measures. This would give workplaces more ability to implement tracing and tracking systems to control pandemic spread in return for some compromises on privacy.

Recommendations for the future workplace

  • Conduct assessments: Assess the impact shutdowns would have on your ongoing environments.
  • Be ready to adapt: Develop a strategy for addressing these challenges in the most cost-effective manner.
  • Embrace change as an opportunity: Rather than just prepare for disruption, look at change as an opportunity for innovation and acquiring greater market share.
  • Ensure security and privacy: Put these issues front and center in all decisions you make to address these situations.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.