We began discussing this publication in January 2020, before global pandemic and social unrest became central topics of everyday conversation. The impact of COVID-19 is devastating at the individual, local, national, and global level. It has created huge immediate changes to how and where people interact, and how business is done. For many organizations, it has also thrust the future of work (FOW) to the forefront, as management and workers grapple with changes today and prepare for a different and uncertain tomorrow. In many ways, the current environment has illuminated possibilities and opportunities that many organizations previously shied away from, but that are now accelerating the pace of change as management meets the challenges of now in preparation for now and the future.
While organizations continue to work through the near- and long-term effects of the pandemic, one of our initial observations is that companies leaning in on their future of work agenda appear to be better positioned to weather the impacts of this global disruption. These companies have strategized and planned for the what, who, where, and how of a shifting work landscape, proactively expanding their future of work portfolio over time, providing options for ongoing “forever” virtual work options, addressing and bolstering immediate needs for technology and connectivity, and implementing new ways of looking at jobs and interactions with the organizational ecosystem.1 The pandemic appears to be accelerating these companies into the “new normal”—navigating the disruptions while improving their market positioning and brand. We refer to this strategy as “returning to work in the future of work”.
As organizations look to contend with the changes precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis, boards have an integral role to play in understanding the immediate needs and responses of the organization while challenging and supporting management in actions to drive long-term security and sustainability. The focus changes from “what is the future of work?”2 to “what actions are imperative for the board to support the FOW agenda?”.
The future of work is at the heart of the future of the organization. Reimagining work can open new opportunities for business and workforce strategies, pressure-testing the status quo, and widening the lens of possibilities. The future of work is not only a management issue; it is interrelated and interconnected to the metrics and outcomes of the organization. The “why” of board engagement on this issue is multilayered:
The active engagement of boards to challenge the way in which work is done has moved past the question of “why should boards engage in future of work discussions?”. Instead, boards should have a clear answer to “what are the future of work and talent agenda issues on which we as the board should be engaging?”.
Boards play a critical role in questioning and challengng their organization to align the business strategy and the workforce strategy, starting with high-level questions to drive discussion and reimagination:
Drilling a level down, boards can encourage the organization to evaluate current business objectives in light of the talent strategy along three dimensions: work, workforce, and workplace.
In the recently published 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte outlines key metrics and guiding questions to help management anticipate future workforce needs and potential risks along these three dimensions. The “answers” to these questions can help management navigate and strategize through uncertainty. The board, in turn, faces related questions to help support, guide, and challenge management’s actions and strategies.
In considering a proactive and holistic FOW agenda, especially in light of the current pandemic, boards can recognize the importance of supporting physical and psychological well-being, promoting a safe and respectful workplace, endorsing policies and procedures that are fair and foster diversity and inclusion, and instituting mechanisms for reporting and escalating issues.
Questioning and emphasizing the intersectionality and interdepend- ence of the business and workforce strategy encourages boards to reinforce the critical role of the organization’s talent to build, own, and achieve the business priorities.
Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, published in May, outlined three fundamental attributes to be embedded into an organization’s DNA: purpose, potential, and perspective. This framework can help address several conflicts—technology and humanity, individuality and belonging, reinvention and security, and uncertainty and boldness—that exist in organizations. By addressing these conflicts directly, management and boards can be prepared to drive the future-forward approach of the organization by challenging how management executes on questions of work, workforce, and workplace, understanding and being comfortable with both the opportunities and the risks these changes may present.
Companies should consider moving beyond cost to encompass value and meaning for the workforce and the organization by expanding opportunities and creating new outcomes. Some organizations are doing this by designing hybrid human and digital teams, or “superteams,” augmenting their current workforce with automation and smart machines. However, even if an organization is not ready to include superteams, boards can support management to expand beyond the cost paradigm to understand what meaningful work means to teams and organizations. Building purposeful, meaningful work for workers drives trust and growth.
In the first half of 2020, over 80 percent of the global workforce was affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures.4 This puts the question of “workforce experience” front and center for many management teams. Questions arise, such as “how do you manage and influence the workforce’s experience from afar, and how do you support an inclusive and holistic environment using virtual collaboration tools?” and “how do you support workforce development and growth while providing a sense of security with the integration of new technologies?”. While the board can drive insights and inputs to those questions, it can also challenge management to consider the broader ecosystem of the workforce experience:
Future-proofing means having a strategy for today and tomorrow. This involves thinking through the impact of today’s changes on future outcomes and future needs. Moreover, future-proofing means considering how the organization can build, borrow, buy, bridge, or bolster the skills needed to execute the future business strategy. Boards can challenge management to move beyond current talent paradigms to identify new and emerging strategies to address their business priorities and objectives. This could mean an investment in training and skills-building or realigning the hiring strategy to emphasize specific skills/capabilities. This could also mean leveraging the alternative workforce to augment or complement the current talent.
The importance of the board’s role in future-proofing is heightened by the immediacy of management’s need to respond to changing internal and external factors. In the midst of unprecedented uncertainty, management has a central role in planning, coordinating, and executing responses to shifting work and workforce needs. And while boards can provide input and oversight to developing those responses, they can also challenge management’s thinking. This may seem to hinder management’s ability to react in the short term, but can potentially accelerate the future of work agenda in the long-term.