Why Business Culture Will Define the Future of Work
Unless an organization can build and maintain the right business culture, it will struggle to perform in a future of work where innovation, flexibility and employee experience are key to success.
What the future of work looks like is still uncertain. Will meetings require virtual reality headsets and avatars, for instance? However, based on the lessons learned over the past two years, we already know — regardless of look and feel — what the future of work means. For many organizations, it will mean greater agility, resilience and flexibility for businesses in terms of hiring and retaining the right talent, as well as physical footprints. When employees can work remotely from potentially anywhere, physical office spaces can be downsized or even eliminated altogether.
Indeed, with the right approach to how and where people work and the way in which they’re supported, the future of work represents a clear opportunity for organizations to build brands that are aspirational and differential in terms of their employee experience as well as their levels of customer experience.
However, for organizations that are unable to reassess and reengineer their business culture to reflect these changes, the future of work for them means being stuck in the past while the rest of the business world moves forwards.
Business Culture Will Define the Future of Work
Recent events may have triggered conversations about the future of work and put flexible working, employee health and wellbeing and the very concept of the physical office space in the spotlight. However, the fact is that the business and wider societal benefits that many of us have enjoyed over the past two years were not a new discovery. Indeed, renowned physicist Jack Nilles, the man dubbed “the father of telecommuting” defined the elements that we now call the future of work nearly 50 years ago.
Between 1972 and 1973, Nilles devised and undertook the first objective remote working study on U.S. soil. The hypothesis was simple. By eliminating the stressful, congested daily commute through Los Angeles and breaking with the conventional wisdom that being present meant being productive, employees would be better able to focus on their work.
In turn, an organization could capitalize in two respects: greater productivity and lower absenteeism; and lower operating costs as the company could continue to function as normal but with much less commercial real estate weighing on the balance sheet.
Investing in Employees and the Future of Work
The nine-month experiment was conducted at an insurance company in Los Angeles, and it proved its initial hypothesis. Productivity within the telecommuting group increased while their relative healthcare and related infrastructure and operating costs went down. Nilles not only proved that investing in your employees is the future of work but, based on the findings, if the insurance company chose to adopt telecommuting across the entire organization, it would also benefit from financial savings of $5 million a year.
Yet the revolution didn’t happen and the conversation around the future of work never progressed. And it wasn’t because of technological limitations. Even with objective proof of the financial benefits, business leaders were too rigid in their approach to management, operations and processes. Enabling and empowering people to work from home — or at least offer them the flexibility to work on-site or off-site as needed — demanded a cultural change many C-suite executives were not prepared to contemplate.
How to Prepare for the Future of Work
Cultural rigidity will ultimately decide what the future of work looks like. Traditional business structures and business philosophies are major reasons why as recently as 2020, beyond the world of startups, software development, the self-employed and the federal government, working from home in the U.S. was the exception rather than the rule. Just 12% of full-time employees officially worked off-site more than once a month and 3% worked from home more than once a week.
Within customer service, even though many leading business processing outsourcing (BPO) organizations have had mature work at home remote agent networks for many years — the number as a share of the total workforce was smaller still — only 6% of agents operated from their homes.
Then, of course, everything changed and since March 2020, those organizations with the right mindset and business culture are the ones that have been the best equipped to respond to constantly changing customer demands and a brand-new business landscape.
The BPO industry is a good example in this respect. Because of its existing expertise in operating with, supporting and managing dispersed virtual networks of agents, ramping up to a 100% remote working model was comparatively easy, as was continuing to engage and connect with employees while meeting changing client needs.
Digital Business Transformation Pays Dividends
When examining how individual sectors or individual organizations have weathered recent storms, it can be easy to make a connection between technology and success. Digital-first organizations — i.e., those that have successfully undertaken a digital business transformation — have, in general, performed the best since March 2020. But this performance is a direct result of culture. Without the right business culture, it’s impossible to adopt new tools and processes, to democratize data or to prepare for the future of work.
When leaders embody a culture that fosters innovation, understanding and communication — one that helps to forge positive connections between people within teams and between business strata — adopting new technologies, tools and processes that will better enable employees to deliver within their roles, becomes easy. A business culture that embodies each of these elements is the embodiment of the future of work.
For instance, the skillset that once defined a manager — within and beyond the BPO industry — now requires reevaluation. Recent events have highlighted the importance of managerial soft skills. As the day-to-day representation of the wider organization, the strength of an employee’s connection to the business has in many instances been defined by the strength of the relationship managers have been able to build and maintain. These soft skills will only grow in value as digital tools and processes continue to automate and eliminate many of the traditional tasks managers would usually have been forced to manually undertake.
There is an opportunity to recalibrate the concept of management to focus on employee expectations, talent retention, company culture and the provision of the necessary support and guidance to manage the development of individuals within a company based on talent and aptitude, as well as elements of professional or personal development.
This level of employee insight could prove fundamental in developing internal solutions for solving the problem of talent shortages. Managers could be recast as chief internal mobility, reskilling and upskilling officers.
Transforming Business Culture
A change of this type, within the managerial strata, needs to start at the top with the C-suite. But how do leaders take a transformational approach to business culture and start reaping the benefits?
Take It Easy
A transformation is a long and complex process. It is a journey where there are no shortcuts but often this obsession with speed comes from looking at change solely in terms of technology and viewing agile startups or disruptors as an organization’s direct competition.
Business leaders should remember that a startup’s speed is a direct result of that company’s lack of history, heritage or existing market share to defend. The faster an established organization attempts to move towards a transformative goal, the more likely it is to leave its people behind.
It’s clear that a cultural shift requires sponsorship at leadership level, but it also requires a full stakeholder buy-in. Transforming a business to align with the future of work is about having all people on the same page.
It’s imperative to formalize a message that is free of jargon and focused on people, and to ensure that message is relayed through channels that encourage dialogue. One of the challenges many organizations have had to overcome recently is the fact that digital approaches to working can make people feel less rather than more connected. So, develop a means of communication that builds connections and keep communication constant and consistent.
Reskill and Reassure
Transformation enables the adoption of digital tools and processes. But will machines replace humans in the future of work? This is a question many employees are asking, and it’s something that leadership has to make clear. Technologies that enable automation and the application of artificial intelligence are just one element of the future of work. These tools are not going to dehumanize or, worse still, replace employees. As well as communicating how this change will lead to empowerment, rather than elimination, leadership needs to set out a clear plan regarding reskilling and upskilling employees that focuses as much on building core human soft skills as it does on technological competency.
Rethink Business Structures
A successful transformation builds stronger connections across an organization and gives all employees the insights and agency needed to analyze and innovate and bring those ideas to the table. Everyone across the business should be involved in defining what the future of work looks like at their organization. However, even with a culture that inspires, maintaining a traditional hierarchical pyramid structure might prove inhibiting. A flatter, more flexible structure can remove unnecessary gatekeepers and barriers that prevent teams from working together or from ideas in one department being shared with another. Even if data silos are removed, operational or human silos can remain.
Monitor and Measure
A cultural shift takes time and effort and, unless progress is being analyzed and benchmarked, it’s possible all the work being undertaken and all the projects in the pipeline will fail to deliver. Continuously capture employee feedback and examine metrics such as absenteeism and employee retention alongside the performance of digital tools relative to cost savings or business efficiencies. Also bear in mind that cultural and digital shifts are ongoing. The future of work is set to change again and organizations that keep up with these changes are the ones with an optimized culture.
In 1973, a rigid, inflexible business culture prevented telecommuting from becoming the future of work. And today, the same lack of elasticity will hamper business leaders’ efforts to adjust or adapt operations. For some businesses, the future of work will be 100% virtual, and for others, it will mean a hybrid model with employees working on- and off-site. However, in each case, the future of work will ultimately be dictated by that organization’s capacity to change its corporate mindset.
To learn more about how culture is a catalyst for business transformation and to understand the other factors that are set to influence future business operations and strategy, download the latest Sitel Group® whitepaper “The Future of Work & Employee Experience: How Work from Anywhere Redefines CX Delivery”.