Navigating the post-COVID future of work: New challenges require new digital technologies

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for digital transformation across organizations of all stripes. If companies were not already well underway with their digital transformation before the pandemic, they almost certainly are now. Post-COVID, this transformation will only accelerate.

Around the world, the companies that are furthest along on their transformation journeys are better equipped to manage and emerge from this crisis. Those lagging have found themselves on a burning platform, with too much tech debt, dated software and outdated processes.

At some point, whether in several months or longer, offices will begin to reopen in earnest and technology will help with the return to the workplace. But even when offices do open back up, the traditional office and desktop workspace will become a pre-COVID artifact.

A major change will be the move to a distributed workforce and workplace, which will require multiple technologies and platforms connected by digital workflows. That is true whether employees are in offices, in the field or geographically distributed. Specifically, digital workflows can enable people to work from anywhere, anytime.

This represents a fundamental change in the way we work, which has historically been done at a specific place. In other words, work was as much a place as it was what we did. For some that will remain true, but many people will continue working wherever they can. The result is a massive decoupling of “how” work happens from “where” work happens, whether that is at home or somewhere else: We are simply “working.”

The decoupling of how work happens and from where has evolved at a pace that no one could ever have imagined. Nothing has defined “agile” more than what we have all gone through in 2020. And digital technologies have proved to be the ultimate solution in enabling that agility, and in stabilizing the world of work – at least knowledge work – during the pandemic. According to Stanford University, more than two-thirds of economic activity is now driven by work-from-home employees.

The way forward

As we look toward what’s next, the focus of companies is shifting from being in pure crisis management mode to figuring out how to transition to our new ways of working, and figuring out which lessons we carry forward from both the pre-pandemic workplace and the mid-pandemic workplace. Going forward, digital experiences will almost certainly be at the forefront of how people interact with their workplace, reflecting the decoupling of work from workplace.

Depending on the state of the pandemic in a particular geography, some people may be ready to return to an office setting. But that is not true for most today. Because of personal needs or preferences, some are not ready to return and some may never go back to the office even when COVID-19 is tamed.

That’s where technology comes into the picture. Companies will need to give employees the right digital experience when those who wish to return to an office do so as well as for those who will only return at a later date or, in some cases, not at all.

Putting people first

At ServiceNow, for example, we are building digital solutions to accommodate a truly distributed workforce post-pandemic. This effort began prior to the pandemic, including digitizing across the employee lifecycle from recruit to career growth to alumni. Now, digital workflows must not only support traditional work experiences, they must also address the changing circumstances.

In my view, there are several new digital capabilities that will be useful immediately to facilitate the post-pandemic world of work.

  • Orienting employees within the office: Although office tours are an obvious first step in traditional onboarding, in a hybrid work environment employees may be on the payroll for months before stepping into an office. New way-finding technologies and AI-powered chatbots will help employees navigate floor plans and understand office processes whenever they choose come in.
  • Addressing surging demand for workspaces: In the “anywhere, anytime” office, employees will reserve every resource they will need – a workspace, an IT support appointment, a “seat” at a company event, a parking space and beyond. What happens during moments where demand surges, such as quarter-end or fiscal planning? Workplace technology will need to anticipate these needs proactively and remind employees to place bookings, or remind office managers to reconfigure spaces to meet demands.
  • Redesigning workspaces to serve a new purpose: Predictive and intelligent digital workflows can help businesses quickly and easily rise to understand how office spaces are being utilized, or underutilized, and allow them to enable more efficient layouts, collaboration and productivity of spaces. In the future of work, accuracy of data is crucial for understanding the utilization of real estate and increasing cost efficiencies.

More than ever, leading companies will be technology-enabled and transformed. This is our bridge to the future. Companies that deliver employees the right digital experience for their return to the workplace will increase engagement, improve productivity and maintain business continuity.

Robert Teed is vice president of corporate services for ServiceNow, leading real estate, workplace services, procurement, travel and business continuity management. He wrote this article for SiliconANGLE.

Image: geralt/Pixabay

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