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COVID-19 speeds up future-of-work plans for companies

Forrester Research analysts look at how companies must contend with four "shocks" for their future-of-work plans to have any measure of success.

Everyone has settled into the new normal, with offices requiring employees to work from home where possible and stores looking at ways to best keep frontline workers and customers safe.

What's interesting to note is that many of these remote work ideas and plans were something companies developed with the goal of them being ready five years or so down the road. The pandemic changed all that, with many businesses implementing these plans now or much sooner than anticipated.

The work done to ramp-up remote work includes more than just adding the tools that companies rapidly embraced, such as Zoom and Teams. At the same time, companies are also planning around the future of employee experience and implementing automation where possible.

Podcast Highlights

Forrester Research recently published a report about four key "shocks" that will come to define the future of work and they're relevant to this discussion. What are they?

James McQuivey: The first of these four shocks is what we call systemic risk. And systemic risk includes what we're in the middle right now. These are external or exogenous experiences that are happening and they can be economic shocks, they can be our economic risk, they can be supply risk, they can be weather- and climate-related, but in this case, obviously, it's a global health pandemic. These are things that you don't have any control over, but you do need to have a plan in place.

J.P. Gownder: The second one is the long-term impact that automation and artificial intelligence are having on how we work now. We've been tracing this for years now, and we've built forecasts. So, you know, RPA, DPA, AI, all of these technologies that take certain kinds of tasks out of the job set and give them to software have been growing over time, right? And, what we think is that these robotics-type forces are going to transform the way we work in the acute moment; it may be that there is a replacement effect where certain jobs are lost. However, the automation economy also necessitates the creation of new kinds of human jobs. People need to be able to run these systems effectively. And, most acutely, all of our jobs will eventually be impacted as we pass certain tasks off to the software and our jobs change as a result.

McQuivey: Data actually is our third shock to consider. We're referring to it as the "employee data tsunami" and our expert on human capital management tools, Mark Brandau, really is the one who said we need to describe this as a tsunami because it is a wall of data coming at us in a situation where today's employers don't even effectively use the data that they have right now, much less know if they're prepared to protect that data and protect the privacy and security of that data. J.P., I'll hand it back to you for shock number four.

Gownder: There's employee power now; as long as there's been labor, employees have had, you know, various kinds of relationships with their employers. Sometimes really good, sometimes challenged. In the recent era, much as we see in our customer research, customers have unprecedented power due to things like social media and mobile and the connectedness of the world. And the same is true for employees to some extent, right? You are going to make decisions about your employees about this pandemic -- but also just in general -- that get reflected on GlassDoor.com reviews or that get reflected in LinkedIn. You know, employees have a voice, they have an increasing number of things that they are interested in. And they're also very cognizant of their own employee experience. So, over the long haul, we have been expecting that successful organizations will not just cede to that employee power but to sort of co-opt it by creating a great employee experience and working with employees to shape what that future looks like.

Organizations need to invest in employees and provide avenues for additional education as employees work beside increased automation. What is Forrester seeing right now, though?

McQuivey: So many interesting outcomes that this could take. But I will say this, none of those things will happen, if you as an organization don't see that as a genuine investment that you're making in employees as opposed to benefits boxes that you're checking. And we've said a lot about box checking and, and how bad it is, I guess. But I don't know that we're going to hesitate to continue to do that. Because, for example, I was, I think, forever changed by an interview I did last year for a piece that we wrote about non-college educated workers facing these kinds of changes.

I did an interview with a gentleman who graduated from high school and attended some college and then has had a very satisfying career in a chip manufacturing plant that makes semiconductor chips. And he there now has risen in the ranks and [is] very happy with his career and his job. But I asked him about some of these lifelong learning benefits and he said, "Look, it's all been up to me." And I said, "Well, you know, what benefits is the company formally offering?" And he said, "like they have this thing where you can take night classes, it says on the list that that's one of the benefits. But in order to qualify for that benefit, you have to go talk to your manager, and your manager has to approve the particular class, and then they have to reimburse you the amount for the class under a certain limit." And he said, "Nobody here in this factory has ever taken advantage of this benefit." And you start to get the feeling that that's the way the company prefers it. Now, if that's the environment, if that's the ethic of the people laying out the benefits plan, well, I can guarantee you that the employees aren't showing up to work ready to give 100% out of respect for how they're being invested in as human beings.

What is needed to help handle these shocks and ensure a company can continue moving forward?

Gownder: When these shocks are coming your way, there's not one single response. Every company is going to have to use the tools available to them to respond in the best way possible. This is part of the nature of competition in the capitalistic free market society that we have. And, so, you shouldn't think of the shocks merely as something that is happening to you there or something that's happening to everyone. But how you choose to innovate your way out of it, using your superior mastery of employee experience using your capabilities in the area of the robotics quotient, using your leadership skills and using your human capital management skills. All of those responses are in your repertoire. That's your action, your agency. And that's where you get to distinguish your firm from others.

Interested in more Forrester insights?

For more discussions around running businesses during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, how the future of work is changing and more, check out Forrester Research's "What It Means" podcast.

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Hi, I think you made an interesting point here, thank you for writing this future-of-work plans article it was very relevant during at this state.

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