By Claude Werder, Senior Vice President and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

COVID-19 has catapulted us head-first to the beginning of the future of work. While the situation is challenging, there are silver linings and hints of a brighter tomorrow if we adopt and adapt the changes we’ve made out of necessity into a more sustainable, productive and inclusive work environment.

An increase in remote workers is one of the many changes thought leaders predicted as we moved into the 2020s, so in that regard, the future is here; 65% of organizations have more than half of their employees working remotely and 51% have more than three-quarters working from home, according to ongoing Brandon Hall Group research.

Now what? When social distancing restrictions are relaxed, will we revert? Or do we build on successes and lessons learned to make work more collaborative, sustainable and cost-effective in a digital environment?

Apratim Purakayastha (AP), Chief Technology Officer for Skillsoft and SumTotal, believes changes made in response to the pandemic will trigger organizations to ask probing questions that could lead to profound long-term change.

“Many businesses that became ‘remote’ in a short time are going to reflect and ask, ‘Why do we have all the expenses from our offices and what are the other expenses of unproductive activities that are in place?” Purakayastha said during Brandon Hall Group’s HCMx podcast.

This is just one example of a silver lining from the pandemic. Because organizations were forced to do things differently amid the upheaval, they are now in a position to leverage those insights not just to survive, but to thrive.

The key is to engage employees to be creative and innovative as organizations transition from crisis mode to building new strategies and norms. Amid the urgency and stress to restart the economy, we don’t want to lose the ideas and new behaviors we gained.

For example, one of the unintended short-term benefits of more remote work is a reduction in companies’ carbon footprint. Organizations can build on that.

“I think we will find there are sustainability benefits from having a certain set of the population working from home,” Purakayastha said. “Not always, because physical meetings or physical gatherings will still be necessary. But I think it will be interesting what work arrangements emerge in favor of sustainability, in terms of digital or remote work.”

That will require optimizing budding technologies to build on the increased collaboration between dispersed colleagues during the crisis.

“While we have seen much more use of instant messaging and video conferences, I think those technologies in their current forms fall short of generating experiences that replicate working with colleagues in a room,” Purakayastha said. “They are digital, they are collaborative, but they are somewhat impersonal. I think collaborative technologies will mature through VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) where we can easily simulate a meeting space and we can actually capture gestures of people and much more closely simulate an ideal working experience with a colleague.”

Engaging employees to innovate and drive the evolution of work will take strong leadership tailored to the digital age. Leadership needs to be more “democratized,” meaning there must be strong leaders across all levels of the organization.

Brandon Hall Group research shows that more work will be done through teams focused on specific business needs. That means that a subject-matter expert could be an individual contributor on one project and leader on another project based on their skills, competencies and past experiences.

In this emerging environment, employers must scale leadership-development programs to include far more people. Everyone should be able to lead in some capacity at some point in time.

“You cannot afford to take so many people offsite and put them in a two-day classical leadership-development type of situation,” AP said. “I think democratization will become much more important, especially with agility and a much more metrics-focused work culture.”

The amount of change necessary to adapt to a new reality can seem overwhelming. But the good news is that, because of the coronavirus crisis, evolution has received a powerful jump-start. Now, we need to build on the changes that have already occurred and be inclusive in our approach. One critical driver of success will be empathy.

“It will be so important to understand the point of view of your employees or your customers, who are actually suffering and probably suffering more than you are in a particular situation,” Purakayastha suggested. “Display of empathy to your employees in a difficult situation, display of empathy with your customers in a difficult situation, is actually an investment with a long-tail ROI, because those are never forgotten. Critical business leaders should use this situation to display the proper empathy to seal in long-term relationships with their employees, as well as their customers.”

.-Claude Werder, Senior Vice President and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

Claude Werder is Brandon Hall Group’s Senior Vice President and Principal HCM Analyst. He focuses on Leadership Development and Talent Management. Brandon Hall Group is a leading research and analyst firm with Practices in Learning & Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development, Talent Acquisition and Workforce Management/Core HR.

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