Discussions around the future of work typically focus on a central topic: changing employee behaviors and outcomes to provide better customer experiences, save money, and increase efficiency, revenue growth, and margin. But lately, executives face an even longer list of concerns as they transition their workforce back into the office after a year of lockdowns and remote work mandates.

I want to be absolutely clear—cost efficiency and productivity still matter. Those goals just can't be accomplished with pre-pandemic employee experiences. People and technology must be integrated to respond to current and evolving employee expectations, redefine disrupted initiatives, and amplify collective intelligence.

"Exponential change and the doubling of technological capabilities every 18 to 24 months challenges businesses to think about moving everything twice as fast. 2025 is the new 2030," Jeff Schwartz, author of "Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work," recently shared with me. "Business leaders need to lead the scale and variety of change we experienced and excelled in the past decade—mobile, cloud, AI, and cybercrime—from 2010 to 2020. And we need to do all of this in half the time."

New Maps for a Changed World

Albert Einstein was right: "You can't use an old map to explore a new world." Businesses must take into account today's norms and conventions to reframe the concept of work, their workplace, and their employee experience.

Considering 52% of the U.S. workforce is expected to have participated in the gig economy or worked independently by 2023, the traditional, 9-to-5, in-office arrangement is no longer a viable nor appealing option. Executives must contemplate two vectors of opportunity when shaping their future of work: human-machine collaboration and the redesigned workplace.

"As teams find themselves spending less time under the same roof, organizations will face the challenge of rethinking how they can build a strong culture and meaningful team connections," advised Schwartz during a session at the ASUG Next-Generation SAP Enterprise Architect Summit.

Schwartz suggests that businesses must push their ideas about automation beyond people substitution to fully embrace the potential to augment human talent and drive enterprise-wide and ecosystem-level collaboration. That opportunity helps bring together different employment models (including internal employees, freelancers, contractors, gig workers, and hobbyists), restructuring the workplace to mirror how and where people prefer to work.

With this mindset, businesses can continue to evolve their workforce model—no matter how people use different technologies to collaborate and get work done—and leverage the expertise of a mix of internal and external employees.

"If we're working in all these remote and hybrid ways, work itself will continue to change, and obviously leadership, management, and culture are being disrupted at the same time," warned Schwartz. "Right now, businesses are just beginning to make the shift from the first phase of the future of work to the next phase."

Schwartz considers 2020 “the end of the beginning for the future of work,” making 2021 the start of a new phase. This new reality may require updates to the management and culture models. For example, managers become cultural anthropologists, supervisors serve as coaches, innovation designers focus on work and experience architecture, employees advocate social issues, and IT experts act as digital long haulers.

A Path Toward What Work Should Be

The COVID-19 era has certainly opened executives’ eyes to what’s possible in the future of work, so much so that the nature of work will never be the same as it was before. And as Schwartz has outlined, the biggest lesson learned is how people’s ability to adapt and still fulfill their potential, despite experiencing challenges that break every norm.

“The closer you get to an individual,” Schwartz commented, “the closer you get to where actual work is being done. And we’ve witnessed how this enables the workforce to become more resilient and adaptable.”

More importantly, job descriptions will no longer matter. It’s the potential of the employee and the overall workforce that will count most. That evolution can be inspiring to watch, but it’s something that every business should never forget when creating “the best employee experience.”

What matters more now, Schwartz reminded us, “is what organizations and people can do. Their potential.” That’s something to aim for in the future.

Register for the ASUG Next-Generation SAP Center of Excellence Virtual Conference to learn about the 2021 playbook for your SAP Center of Excellence. Jeff Schwartz will kick off the event on May 4 with a keynote on the nuances of work disrupted.

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