How to manage the workplace of the future today
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How to manage the workplace of the future today

11 Oct 2017

The future of work is already here, so how can you start managing an ever-changing workplace? HR expert Dave Ulrich has some ideas.

Future of Work Week

Change happens. No one can deny the inevitability of change in our professional and personal lives.

Transformations occur in industries where new firms disrupt patterns of competition (Uber in transport, Airbnb in lodging, Amazon in retail, Netflix in movie distribution).

Of the original Fortune 500 published in 1955, only 60 firms still exist today. Firms do strategic makeovers to adapt to new business opportunities (GE became an eco-imagination and digital firm; IBM shifted to services; Apple moved into retail, watches and music; Tencent invests in video games).

The forces creating these changes require new thinking about the future of work and what the future workplace might be like.

Forces of change

In Victory Through Organization, we have identified four forces creating change that shape the future of work and thus the workplace of the future.

1. Emerging business context

The first force answers the essential question: why change at all? If organisations do not respond to the business environments in which they compete, they will cease to be relevant in filling the needs of their evolving stakeholders.

We have found that there are six categories that leaders can use to understand the force that contextual changes have on their own business operations: social, technological, environmental, political, economical and demographic.

Using this framework to think about factors that shape the business context, leaders can better anticipate future needs and create a workplace that fits the future.

2. How quickly change is happening

In measuring how quickly change happens and affects organisations, we use the acronym VUCA. Defined by the US military, VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

These areas describe general conditions facing organisations and have become accepted tenets of management. Studying these influences tells us that the pace of change is increasing, and organisations need to watch for and take advantage of the opportunities they present.

3. Who is affected?

Because the environment in which organisations is rapidly changing, so are the stakeholders within them. And because stakeholder expectations set the criteria for effective leadership, these requirements and demands on leaders continue to fluctuate and grow.

Leaders are increasingly being asked to help deliver customer share, investor intangibles, community reputation and partnership cooperation in addition to employee wellbeing and organisation success.

4. How you should respond

All these changes in external context also affect how people respond to their work. Some of their responses fall around how they feel personally and can be described by what we deem ‘the four Is’.

  • Individuation describes how individuals regard personal career paths and self-interests as more important than long-term commitment to a community or organisation.
  • Intensity refers to how our society of passionate responses and insults replaces insight and civility. We tend to value reacting rather than thinking first.
  • Isolation refers to a growing dependence on technology to connect rather than actually making true personal contact in work.
  • Immediacy involves a decreasing ability to wait; long-term gratification and commitment often means only waiting till next week. These trends in individual responses to personal work and environment shape the workforce, and how people are brought into and moved through an organisation.

The workforce is about the people; the workplace is about the setting in which those people work.

Obviously, the workforce of the future will require new competencies to anticipate and respond to the forces for change. Much has been written about the workforce or talent for the future, with a focus on agility, learning, resilience, collaboration and meaning.

In our research, we found that the workplace (organisation culture, systems or processes) has four times the impact on business performance than the individual talent does. Leaders and managers can have a significant impact on their employees and the organisation when they manage this workplace well.

The evolving workplace

Traditionally, we go to and return from work because work is a place. The workplace becomes a second home where we interact with others, accomplish tasks and create a new identity.

With the four forces for change (particularly technology), work boundaries are shifting from physical places to values.

Today, work can be done anywhere and any time. We can go to work, but work can also come to us. Organisations are bound less by space and more by networks of shared values.

These values may be around defining and serving customers, meeting investor expectations, creating and distributing products and services, building relationships, or accomplishing tasks. They define the boundaries of the workplace more than a physical setting does.

Employees who work outside of formal work settings share information with each other through technology links, but they are more formally connected to the organisation through shared commitments. Because these employees are not connected by a common space, they need to be strongly connected by the same values. These commitments focus less on the means of doing work and more on the outcomes of work.

These remote work locations are most conducive to the more prevalent knowledge employee who can access and process information in most locations.

As a professor, consultant and author, I am a case study of working in remote spaces. I share the commitment to the value of ideas with impact and am passionate about accomplishing work.

But where and how I work matters less than the outputs of the work I do. Dale Lake and I dedicated my first book, Organization Capability, to the Toshiba laptop computer that made it possible. We wrote that book on aeroplanes, in hotels and during off-hours at home 25 years ago.

Today, this column is written while flying, will be submitted while landing and read by others (hopefully) in a host of settings. My college dean holds me accountable less for face time and more for publishing ideas that will have impact.

Likewise, line managers and HR professionals with distributed employees need to be very clear about outputs. Employees who deliver these outputs may be less visible but still impactful.

The new workplace

To manage the new workspace, leaders organise it around principles of variety and choice (flexibility in work arrangement), human connection (mix of private and public space) and social responsibility (social capital and environmental sustainability).

Managing a workspace well enhances employee productivity and wellbeing. It should also communicate a company’s culture and identity – walk into an organisation’s physical space and you should quickly see the firm’s culture.

Google, Apple or Adobe headquarters are characterised by bright colours and open spaces that reflect innovation. The Walmart global headquarters on the other hand has a small, low-cost reception area reflecting its “always low prices” culture.

Each organisation should have a workspace that communicates its internal values that are consistent with the firm’s brand.

In traditional office environments, work has shifted from managing personal space through cubicles, to creating collaborative spaces that focus on interaction, openness and sharing, but at the same time allowing for privacy and solitude. But for the more remote and untraditional spaces – such as a home office, hotels or airports – a leading workplace philosophy today is ‘small office’, that is, a home office where a worker works in a very personalised and customised setting.

Managing workspace begins by categorising the types of work being done, then creating a living office environment or connection that enables how work is accomplished. When the work activity matches the work setting, a living office exists where employees want to go to work, not where they have to go to work.

Employees who live in these evolving workspaces are more productive and personally engaged. Work settings that match their work mode create more agile organisations.

The four forces shifting the future of work are changing both the workforce and the workplace.

Leaders who understand these forces and their implications on workforce and workplace will help their employees be more productive and increase their wellbeing, as well as enable their organisations to be more responsive.

By Dave Ulrich

Dave Ulrich is an author, speaker, management coach and management consultant. He is also a professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and co-founder of The RBL Group.

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