To boldly work how we haven't worked before

Last year was a challenging, tumultuous one. It forced us to change, and these forced changes collided with other emerging phenomena. Taken together, these offer an opportunity to radically rethink how we work. 

We left the office and headed home. Technology accelerated to facilitate that. Fears of lost productivity didn’t materialise, and companies began to question their traditional cost structures. We learnt that we can be more connected than ever, despite being apart, if we have strong ties. 

The second trend is work organisation; it was already in flux. Organisations have created fluid teams to solve complex problems. Additionally, the definition of ‘worker’ has blurred. Organisations are experimenting with teams that comprise employees and contractors, but also gig workers, freelancers, crowd workers, borrowed talent and collaborations. Non-traditional work arrangements are on the rise.

When these trends merge they create the opportunity for work to be organised around fluid teams located anywhere. And that offers much to organisations and workers.    

The talent reach goes global – virtually and literally

There is greater flexibility in both the type of work employees want to do and how they prefer to do it. Their individual preferences are easier matched with business needs, supporting engagement and growth. Short-term teams convene in a flash, comprising an unconventional amalgam of workers whose diversity sparks creativity and innovation. Organisations that are bold enough to satisfy their employees’ preferences and embrace novel ways of working will get a competitive edge.

Different skills will be required for success in this new marketplace

There will be more pressure for employees to be functionally expert and to have strong team behaviours and self-confidence.

New leadership capabilities are required

Mindset shifts are needed to move from the assumptions that knowledge workers can be closely managed effectively. Even before Covid that was a challenge. We believe the premium for skills like creating meaning, managing communities and developing others will grow.

What can HR do?

Be open to different ways of organising work, exercising appropriate caution. Don’t turn workers into one-trick ponies who only work on the tasks they know or enjoy most. Extreme specialisation has implications for job satisfaction and career development. Besides, AI is not sophisticated yet. Data privacy regulations need to evolve. Global skills marketplaces will rely on heavy human monitoring and voluntarily provided information.

It is the role of HR leaders to guide organisations in response to these trends and provide oversight as we move from less local to more global, less physical to more virtual, less stable to more fluid. We will be the custodians of the data that determines teams, and the rules of allocation. We will own the challenge of maintaining culture and warding off fragmentation. It may be that there has never been a more strategic role for HR.

There is a promise of a new world of work. Not tomorrow. In the near future. One that has been accelerated by the world’s largest experiment on remote work. Are you ready?

This article is adapted from an academic review of the likely shape of post-Covid work, The New Face of the Workplace, published by Headspring executive development.


Angela Lane is a senior executive in talent management, researcher and author. Dr Sergey Gorbatov is professor of HR & organisational development at IE Business School.