By MIT Technology Review Insights
The disruptive shifts of 2020, including covid-19 shutdowns that led to millions of workers working remotely, forced organizations to radically rethink everything from worker well-being, business models and operations to investments in cloud-based collaboration and communication tools.
Across every industry, last year’s best-laid plans were turned upside down. So it’s not surprising that technology and work have become, more than ever, inextricably intertwined. As business moves toward an uncertain future, companies have accelerated their efforts to use automation and other emerging technologies to boost efficiency, support worker well-being, accelerate work outputs, and achieve new outcomes.
Yet, technology investments are not enough to brace for future disruptions. In fact, an organization’s readiness depends crucially on how it prepares its work and its workforce. This is a uniquely human moment that requires a human touch.
To thrive in a world of constant change, companies must re-architect work and support their workers in ways that enable them to rise to future challenges. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey of 6,000 global respondents, including 3,630 senior executives, 45% said that building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability, and resilience is critical to transforming work. To reach that goal, embracing a trio of essential human attributes—purpose, potential, and perspective—can humanize work and create lasting value for the workforce, and throughout the organization and society at large.
Purpose: Grounding organizations in values
Purposeestablishes a foundational set of organizational values that do not depend on circumstance and serve as a benchmark against which actions and decisions can be weighed. It relies on the uniquely human ability to identify where economic value and social values intersect. Organizations that are steadfast in their purpose are able to infuse meaning into work in order to mobilize workers around common, meaningful goals.
For example, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, credits Delta Air Lines’ sense of purpose for helping the organization through the covid-19 crisis. “When I took over as CEO, we studied what our mission was and what our purpose was, which has helped us post-pandemic because we were clear pre-pandemic,” he says. “Our people can do their very best when they have leadership support and feel connected to the organization’s purpose.”
Potential: A dynamic look at people’s capabilities
To thrive amid constant disruption, organizations need to capitalize on the potential of their workers and their teams by looking more dynamically at their people’s capabilities. Most leaders agree: 72% of the executives in the Deloitte survey said that “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill, and assume new roles” was either the most important or second most important factor in their organization’s ability to navigate future disruptions and boost speed and agility.
AstraZeneca, for example, is an organization that quickly mobilized its resources and took advantage of worker potential to meet a pressing need—developing a covid-19 vaccine. Tonya Villafana, AstraZeneca’s vice president and global franchise head of infection, credits the company’s accelerated response for its ability to tap into a varied pool of experts, both across the company and through its collaboration with the University of Oxford. In addition, AstraZeneca not only brought in top experts but also added “high performers who were really passionate and wanted to get involved” with the vaccine development team.
Perspective: Operating boldly in the face of uncertainty
In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to be paralyzed by multiple options and choices. Perspective—quite literally, the way organizations see things—is a challenge to operate boldly in the face of the unknown, using disruption as a launching pad to imagine new opportunities and possibilities. For instance, taking the perspective that uncertainty is a valuable opportunity frees organizations to take new, fearless steps forward, even if it means veering from the usual, comfortable path. For most executives in the survey, that includes a deliberate effort to completely reimagine how, by who, and where works gets done and what outcomes can be achieved. 61% of respondents said their work transformation objectives would focus on reimagining work, compared to only 29% pre-pandemic.
ServiceNow is one organization that shifted direction in this way during covid-19. In March 2020, the company held a “blue sky” strategy session as a forum for leaders to discuss the future of work, digital transformation, and the company. But as they considered these issues under the cloud of the emerging pandemic, CEO Bill McDermott realized the organization needed to take a different tack. “If we can’t help the world manage the pandemic, there won’t be a blue sky,” he said. As a result, he pivoted the meeting to focus on how ServiceNow could quickly innovate and bring new products to market that would help organizations maintain business operations during the pandemic. ServiceNow quickly built and deployed four emergency response management applications as well as a suite of safe workplace applications to make returning to the workplace work for everyone.
Putting people at the heart of work decisions pays off
Re-architecting work is not about simply automating tasks and activities. At its core, it is about configuring work to capitalize on what humans can accomplish when work is based on their strengths.
In the survey, executives identified two factors related to human potential as the most transformative for the workplace: building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability and resilience (45%), and building workforce capability through upskilling, reskilling, and mobility (41%).
Leaders should find ways to create a shared sense of purpose that mobilizes people to pull strongly in the same direction as they face the organization’s current and future challenges, whether the mission is, like Delta’s, to keep people connected, or centered on goals such as inclusivity, diversity or transparency. They should trust people to work in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential, offering workers a degree of choice over the work they do to align their passions with organizational needs. And they should embrace the perspective that reimagining work is key to the ability to achieve new and better outcomes—in a world that is itself being constantly reimagined.
If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that putting people at the heart of a company’s decisions about work and the workforce pays off by helping companies better stay ahead of disruption. The result is an organization that doesn’t just survive but thrives in an unpredictable environment with an unknown future.