The workplace of the future

13 Jul 2020


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the workplace is changing and with it the profile of the workforce. Consumer demand on the one hand and the relentless rise of technology on the other, are simultaneously forcing and helping businesses to evolve, so they can keep ahead of the competition and continue to satisfy customers profitably. This inevitably impacts on the people they employ and the way they work. Or, at least, it should.    

There are tensions and contradictions. Of course, many companies have the financial muscle to invest in the latest technology but often do so without an effective plan to apply it. 30-plus years after ERP systems first came on to the scene there are still too many organisations that have implemented ERP but continue to run their business on spreadsheets. The reason for this is that they have not made the corresponding investment in training and education to enable people to use the system effectively. Or perhaps those people who were trained on the system when it was first implemented have long since moved on and their successors have not received the training.  

This is the very principle on which Oliver Wight was founded back in 1969 and, half a century later, we see the same mistakes being made. Many businesses are focused on reaching for ‘the next big thing’, either because they think it will solve their problems and/or because they fear being left behind, but they neglect to make the corresponding investment in educating and training their people.  

Conversely, there are businesses that have still not invested in mission-critical systems, because they are led by a generation that has only just overcome its suspicion of homeworking or the misuse of the internet in the workplace. In this case, the paradigms of the executive team are hampering investment in technology and consequently any serious progress of the business. 

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable truth that the latest technology, such as analytics, AI and machine learning, present real opportunities for businesses, and that roles and responsibilities in organisations are already changing to reflect this. The rise of the data analyst is one such example, with an increasing number of companies installing them alongside their sales and marketing teams to better plan for changes in customer demand. Whereas on the supply side, the emergence of control towers is centralising the supply chain function among smaller, more capable, and highly paid groups of planners. 

Of course, some technologies are adopted more quickly than others, and these tend to be the ones that make people’s lives easier: Salespeople can place orders and file reports immediately via their smartphones and tablets, so rarely need to go into the office and, consequently, are able to spend more time in the field with customers.

Whilst on the shop floor, it isn’t uncommon for shift leaders to access everything they need on a tablet - from maintenance schedules to staff holiday requests – and it works because they would rather be on the shop floor than sat at a desk. Of course, it is hugely frustrating for executives who have invested heavily in new systems when they do not deliver the desired results. There’s another dynamic at play here too - it’s lonely at the top. It isn’t easy for a CEO to say to their staff (even their executive staff) that they don’t know what to do when everyone is looking at them for the answer. 

In truth, the irresistible rise of technology is not being mirrored by investment in people and, in this sense, nothing has changed in 50 years. Ultimately, leaders have to recognise that if technologies are truly going to be optimised in the workplace of the future, then the workforce of the future will have to receive the education it needs for new ways of working and be involved in designing the processes to support the systems.

So, here are six tips to consider when planning your future workplace and workforce:

1.    Do things in the right order – people then processes and finally systems. History shows that a system suddenly dropping into the business from out of nowhere is the fastest way to fail. If you are trying to get your head around the technology available, your first step shouldn’t be picking up the phone to system suppliers. Don't talk to them until you've understood which kind of technologies would even be useful to your business. Then make sure you’ve properly considered what your people need to open up the system and start using and trusting it. You can't just dictate to them that they have to use it, you’ll need to give them enough time and education to take the benefits on board, to understand ‘what’s in it for them,’ and then they'll start to engage with it willingly. Equally important is that you involve your people in designing, modifying, and optimising the processes that you will put in place to support the system – and that this is done before the system is implemented.

2.    Find out what your people already know. There will probably be people in your organisation who are already familiar with some of these technologies; ask them for their ideas about where they believe you could be using technology in your business, how they used technology in their previous companies, and what they think they need to help them in their role. All ideas are good ideas and asking your own people is free. Perhaps get your leadership team to pull these people together in a focus group and ask them: ‘What was good about the technology’; ‘what could have been done better?’; and ‘If we were thinking about it in this company, what would you advise?’

3.    Ask other businesses who have recently invested in systems about their experience and start by asking about what kind of education your people are going to need and what preparations they will have to make.

4.    Talk to HR about what they believe the implications of investing in new systems are for the organisation, including which roles are going to be important and if there are any that don’t exist in your business yet and need to be created. Ask them to research the kind of education, seminars, and webinars available to help develop people in different areas. Consider whether you are able to upskill some of your key people for demand analyst and supply chain control tower roles, for example, or whether you need to go in search of fresh talent outside the organisation. Don’t assume you haven’t already got the skills you need in-house just because nobody is called a demand analyst. What are the implications for headcount – is there potential for a reduction?

5.    Don’t feel you have to go backwards to catch up. It may be possible to skip a generation of technology. It’s worth reflecting, for example, that some emerging economies, which don’t have the infrastructure for computers, are moving straight to mobile technology.

6.    Talk to Oliver Wight. We have trusted relationships among a wide network of senior executives, which go back over many years and we often get a call when somebody needs a sounding board. Feel free to pick up the phone and ask for advice from one of our experts.

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