How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

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The current outbreak of COVID-19 is stress testing our institutions, infrastructure, governments, and societies more than any event in most of our lifetimes. We have to go all the way back to the two World Wars to find similar precedents. Yet, as our businesses and personal lives are profoundly impacted, some of us can also perceive great forces of change in motion that offer us hope for positive and important new outcomes that we might influence.

The realization has also set in that we won’t likely be able to roll things back to how they recently were — at least any time soon — so we must now look at what is likely to be the next new normal, as it was famously known as during the 2007-2008 financial downturn (and which now sadly looks increasingly minor by comparison.)

In the last month and a half, I’ve been exploring how organizations must rapidly adapt themselves to the pandemic as most of our organizations now consist purely of digital workers connected over our global networks. As many of us in the digital workplace and employee experience community have noted of late, there are now major opportunities to follow-up on significant yet often slow or stalled transformations of human-centered work.

But first we must face our currently situation and likely trajectory.

Profound Disruption of Work is Here

There’s just no avoiding it: The disruption we are facing today is as profound as it is pervasive. Yet I deeply believe it also offers an increasingly fertile and robust landscape into which we can drive meaningful and sustained change for good. Our timing must be careful and the thinking behind it — combined with effective action at scale — both crisp and clear, albeit real challenges in our fast-changing times.

There’s also no denying that how we’ve worked before is simply gone. Something much better than what we currently have must replace our current unwieldy situation for many of us: Weeks long slogs through endless video calls, tiring teleconferences at all hours, with our team chat windows scrolling mindlessly past our gaze. We can and must now create a much better design for our current working realities. Whether you will focus on remote work, more quarantine-friendly physical facilities, or a comprehensive rethink of the modern enterprise for being near 100% digital, we will have to go as deep as the core ideas that underpin work itself.

The Post Pandemic Organization for the Future of Work

We must also — to make it much easier to evolve going forward — start designing our workplaces and our work itself much more as a contemporary digital product in an ongoing and continuous exercise of collaboration and co-creation. I once asked in Designing the New Enterprise, “how do we adapt sustainably to constant change?” Now the question is also, “how do we adapt sustainably to large disruptive change?”

Answering these big questions will require profound and outside-the-box thinking. Our very foundations are straining. We now live in an era where even the traditional nation-state as well as the new global order both seem threatened. Answers to how we will thrive in a post-modern pandemic-stricken world seem stubbornly hard to find. Neither model seems sufficiently effective at providing adequately coordinated leadership or proactive response.

If we move down from the macro level of the global stage down to the size of our organizations (corporations, state/local governments, associations, non-profits, etc.) and other related but long-standing business structures like unions, partnerships, alliances, consortiums, and so on, we see that these too are now struggling to help their constituents in many cases.

The Ways Forward are Unfamiliar and Unknown, But Not For Long

Many better connected and easier to operate digital alternatives — at least in our currently locked down global state — do now exist, but seem either rather immature and/or unproven in comparison. These include global digital communities (yes, Facebook, and others), the larger and older open source groups/projects, and digital communities like LinkedIn and Github do seem to show that massively scaled communities can share information, powerful ideas, and help each other in compelling new ways, as many of us have long hoped. Yes, there are plenty of downsides to these too, but because the pandemic resistance of digital networks is outstanding, no other workable new modes exist.

We’re now entering a phase where we must begin to plan post-pandemic. This does not mean going back to where we were. It cannot, because we now know the reality of the impact of a return of a new pandemic or a newly mutated coronavirus:

It’s simply irresponsible and unacceptable to go back to the entirely too fragile and so easily-disrupted operating models of the pre-COVID-19 world.

What does this suddenly urgent near-future of work look like you ask? No one has all the answers, but the good news is that we’re about to discover very quickly what is working and what isn’t in the vast global living laboratory of #suddenlyremote.

From my conversations the last few weeks with CIOs, my fellow futurists and thought leaders in the Future of Work, digital workplace leads, and employee experience groups (mostly in IT, but some in HR), there’s a recent but increasingly broad swing from the tactical, as in just getting everyone the basics of working remotely, to the strategic, where we look at where we must now go, both in-pandemic and post-pandemic, and quite possibly the next pandemic.

How Work Will Evolve

From this vantage point, which I am very fortunate to have in the industry, I can see a number of likely outcomes that will allow us to take a precarious economic reopening and flailing early growth and turn it into a stronger story of resilient resurgence, no matter what happens:

  • Designing for loss of control. By taking advantage of the tendency of systems and people to use an organization’s people, ideas, resources, systems, and data to do new and interesting things, organizations can deliberately create thousands of emergent outcomes at scale, many of which they have a stake in (see: platforms, ecosystems, etc.) The raw components are well known and understood for making this happen. Now it is an imperative.
  • A strong preference for tools with exponential potential and leverage. The pandemic catches us at a time of exponential change, and is further driving it. We simply can’t fight exponential change with yesterday’s linear tools. Organizations now need access to near-instant response to large events at scale. This is only possible with capabilities that can respond in kind. This means everything from mass decentralized automation and AI enablement to using digital communities and social networks as our primary organizational structure.
  • The rise of fully open agile new operating models. The biggest question is whether our traditional institutions lead the world out of the pandemic, or will citizens around the globe come together and opt instead for something different using our global networks? We’ve seen the inexorable shift in agile methods in recent years, which came from key insights and experiences in the technology world, and which I’ve long noted has begun to infiltrate the broader world of business itself. The envelope of agile has expanded to something we now call DevOps, and the envelope will continue to expand and merge with mass digital collaboration models that now existing within the realms online forums, enterprise social networks, and team chat channels: Communities of practice, communities of interest, and now, communities of business, a notion I’ll expand on soon as I am currently collecting growing evidence for them.
  • Self-organization, self-service, and pull-based models for reorganization, restructuring, rebuilding, reviving, and thriving. The single most powerful model for work is humans collaborating together in open, transparent, and self-sufficient processes. As I’ve often strongly encouraged businesses and people: Let the network do the work. There is no time in modern history where this concept is more important. It’s how we’ll each have enough access to resources, skills, ideas, and capabilities to do almost anything. We’re already seeing things like this happen such as the formation of the Open COVID Pledge to mobilize invaluable IP quickly to respond to the pandemic in any and all ways necessary. The list of now free, but previously commercial, services available to help individuals and businesses is impressive as is the list of initiatives to help businesses most impacted. Again, all these resources have digital communities or capabilities at their core.

I also predict that digital communities of citizens, workers, and organizations will be the single most influential and important resources that we have in surmounting the challenges of the current pandemic. It’s an easy prediction, because that’s largely all that government, society, organizations, and our institutions are at this moment. While there are badly needed and greatly appreciated people out there in the real world still growing our food, staffing our hospitals, and keeping the peace, these still represent only a tiny fraction of the value of our global economy. The rest, for better or worse, has just gone almost completely digital.

We absolutely require the best ways of operating in this new reality. My point is that we largely have them, but the hard work remains to adopt, adapt, and succeed with them. It will be one of the most profoundly positive changes in human history, unleashing untold autonomy, human diversity, bold new ideas, dramatically transformative action, as well as human freedom and potential. Or not. The choice is ours to make, right now.

Additional Reading

When Our Organizations Became Networks

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

(Cross-posted @ On Digital Strategy | Dion Hinchcliffe)

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