/ ‘Future of Work’ talk tackles tough issues for reopening

Some situations we encounter in life are scarier than others. COVID-19 has been one of those situations for me. Over the course of a distressing, three-day period in April, eight family members tested positive for the coronavirus. They’re all fine now, but for about 72 hours, I was worried sick.

In a perfect world, we could all ride this crisis out by simply pushing the pause button on the responsibilities we’re accustomed to dealing with. But unfortunately, we can’t. We have to work—not only for our own financial wellbeing, but because the work many of us do is essential to keeping others healthy and safe, and to keeping the economy itself afloat.

But how do organizations go about paving the way for all of us to get back to work? And what are some of the skills we’re all going to need to make the transition as smooth as possible?

Those were among the questions addressed last week during a virtual event we hosted with Fortune magazine. The wide-ranging, hour-long chat about the future of work included a wealth of valuable insight from Accenture’s Ellyn Shook, Constellation Research’s Ray Wang, and Wharton Business School’s Peter Cappelli.

If you missed the event, you can watch the edited version here. Or, you can keep reading to learn more about what we discussed.

How people are thinking about getting back to work

One of the first things we addressed was what a starting point should look like. For Ellyn, who serves as chief leadership and human resources officer for a company that employs more than half a million people worldwide, that’s meant: 

  • sending office services crews into workplaces to map out what those environments should look like and feel like going forward; 
  • scrapping the term “social distancing” for “physical distancing” as a way to help everyone feel more connected; 
  • and giving people a choice on where they want to work from—on site or at home.

The last bullet is the one most organizations are grappling with the most, said Peter, Wharton’s director of the center for human resources. Is a voluntary come-into-the-office approach a good way to get the ball rolling? Or would it be better if a clear policy was formulated?

“There’s no clear-cut answer,” said Ray, Constellation’s founder and principal analyst. “This is the world’s largest shared reality experience. The key is to give your people the tools and information they need in order to do their jobs from wherever they are.”

I couldn’t agree more. Over the last few months, I’ve found myself saying to people, time and again, “This digital transformation thing everyone’s been talking about for a while? We’ve got to stop talking about it and we have to just do it.” 

I say this because things are going to be different. Heck, they already are. Flexible working arrangements are fast becoming the norm, so we’re all going to need to collaborate digitally and have data at our fingertips.

“I’d say just look at the actual work people are doing,” Ellyn said. “Make sure that you’re treating people equitably and fairly. Are they productive or not? We don’t want to create more issues related to belonging based on physical space constraints.”

What we’ve learned

From there, the discussion turned to the importance of transparency. “Transparency builds trust,” Ellyn said, “and trust is the currency in this age.”

She added that a person’s employer is the No. 1 entity that they trust, “but that can go away pretty quickly if you do things to break that trust.”

To maintain employee trust, Accenture created a hub where workers can go to talk or learn more about matters that are affecting their lives and mental health, such as homeschooling and elderly care.

“A leadership characteristic that is sure to come out of this is compassion,” she said. “Understanding what people are going through, and being able to really talk to them—it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.”

Peter’s advice for how leaders can become better in that department? If you’re on a video call and your kids run through the room, make light of it. If you’re a supervisor, make a point to reach out to your subordinates regularly and ask them how they’re doing.

“And whatever you do,” he said, “don’t call from your country retreat or the deck of your yacht!”

We’re all in the same boat right now, and we have to lift each other up. We have to bond.

To facilitate that, we at Domo have virtual coffee chats and virtual happy hours, daily. Through such activities, I’m seeing more and more people come out of their shells. For many, it’s more comfortable for them to talk in a virtual room, rather than stand in front of their colleagues in an actual room.

That’s awesome. When walls come down, our potential to move the needle—as individuals and as businesses—goes up.

How data fits in

Just as transparency builds trust, so too does data. If we want to reopen in a way that makes our employees feel safe and taken care of, we have to be able to say, “Here are how many people we had to send home today because they failed temperature checks, here are the hotspots around the country—so don’t fly there”—and so on.

Data runs that ship. But it also gets businesses to where they want to go, and so much faster.

Take, for instance, a big company I know that conducts coronavirus testing. They put diagnostics right on their machines, so when there’s a problem with one of them, the company receives an alert right away, setting in motion the process for fixing it.

The way I see it, such capabilities are going to be made all the more possible by two things: the increasing ability to rapidly develop and deploy apps across the enterprise that are fueled by the data supporting each business process; and the cloud.

Just look at the stock market; companies in the cloud space—Zoom, Slack, DocuSign—are doing well. And the reason is simple: In a world with no more boundaries, being able to get at relevant information from all manner of sources is bound to provide the kind of edge required for businesses to succeed.

The bottom line

While COVID-19 has certainly thrown the world into disarray, it’s also forced people to innovate, and really hone in on issues that are going to determine how we function as a society and operate as businesses in the future.

“You see these technologies, and what you’re seeing are companies creating them and using them to elevate humans instead of eliminate humans,” Ellyn said. “They’re enabling decisions to be made faster, and they’re making the gap between the leaders and laggards wider.”

To that point, to that reality, we need to take this opportunity to create a “new normal” that is far better than the “old normal.”

We need to figure out what kinds of meetings work, and what kinds don’t.

We need to get a grasp on the type of assistance people need, and when they need it, so that mental health doesn’t become the next pandemic of our time.

We need to take diversity and inclusion very seriously, for a billion very good reasons.

Good things have to come from all of this. And they will. We just have to be creative and caring—and embrace data like we never have before.

To learn more about how your business can reopen safely and remain open during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, visit Domo’s Get Back To Work Resource Center.

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