How companies can meet the needs of the future workforce

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How companies can meet the needs of the future workforce

As a system administrator and tech writer, I’ve been working from home for months for my first job and years for my second. It’s still a challenge for me at times, making sure I have the right tools, focus, and productivity levels I need to handle my various tasks.

I’m not alone in facing these hurdles: Review42 reports that 55% of businesses globally offer some capacity for remote work, and 18% of the workforce telecommute on a full-time basis. Results have been largely positive, but further efforts will be needed as the future of work evolves in order to ensure companies and employees get the most out of it.

I spoke with Craig Williams, CIO of Ciena, a telecommunications equipment and software services supplier, and Verizon president of Global Enterprise Sampath Sowmyanarayan to get their insights into the matter.

Scott Matteson: What are the needs of the future workforce?

Craig Williams: Working styles and behaviors among the workforce haven’t changed greatly over the past 50+ years: Employees have largely been tied to, or associated with, a physical corporate office. There have been slight variations to accommodate shifting needs and expectations of employees, like new perks and benefits. However, the workforce has largely, up until now, been status quo.

The pandemic, however, has created a leveling effect for all companies and employees.  Employees must work from their home offices, and many leaders are re-evaluating the corporate office landscape as they are seeing productivity levels at or higher than they had originally imagined. As such, the social norms of corporate offices are being tested. What was once a physical face-to-face interaction can now successfully happen over video. 

The future workforce will be more than just having the right tech tools to support remote work, but it will also require leaders to embrace this future and lead through it. It’s most important for today’s leaders to understand there’s no longer a blueprint for the future of physical presence in work so they must be adaptable and innovative when partnering with employees to navigate the new normal together.

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: An organization needs to be both agile and bionic to be successful in the workplace of the future. This means combining the possibilities offered by technology and digital transformation with the irreplaceable human capabilities that make a business a business. Leaders must develop a plan for how their offices are going to function: Whether they will be flexible in a primarily remote context or rely on onsite working models to accommodate their employees. 

The agility comes in how employees and decision-makers collaborate at scale, organizing for change through diversified talent and skill. It’s important to consider this well before a business reopens its doors (virtual or otherwise). Most importantly, people–employees and customers–must come first. A leader must involve and engage their staff for the future workplace to be deployed and executed thoughtfully and properly. Technology is important, and a key enabler of the future workforce, but people are the core of any business.

Scott Matteson: How can companies prepare now to get ahead?

Craig Williams: Companies can no longer base the success of their current or future workforce by comparing it to the traditional workforce of the past, and this is true when measuring the productivity of employees. Productivity isn’t measured by how long an employee is in the office–and it’s not inversely proportional to working from home, as was previously believed. 

As such, employers are realizing that their employees are increasingly more productive from their home offices and will need to continue providing greater options for working in this manner even after the pandemic is over. Leadership that accepts this shift quickly and plans for it in the long term will find it useful in staying relevant and ahead of the competition. 

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: Business leaders must walk the delicate balance of presenting optimistic yet realistic expectations for their employees. There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every enterprise as they envision the new normal. Flexibility is a must.

We think the key thing for business leaders is to ensure they lead from the front, strongly and authentically. Honesty is important when dealing with employees, especially for the unknowns of what will happen in the next few months. But communicating to employees that you are taking every precaution into consideration is important.

Human resources, IT, and business leadership need to be working hand in hand. Technology is going to be very important in our future workplace. But it’s also important for the IT team to have a strong understanding of the needs of the business–and how HR needs to support all employees, whatever their situations.

And communication is critical. Between the leadership team, among decision-makers, but most importantly, with employees. People need to be brought along on the journey.

We think the key is to lead with the head, heart, and hands. These three interlocking pillars for leadership must work well together as each supports the others in a cohesive organization:

  • Head is about envisioning the future and focusing on the big rocks.
  • Heart is about inspiring and empowering people.
  • Hands is about executing and innovating with agility.

Scott Matteson: How should employees prepare now to get ahead?

Craig Williams: The employees that will succeed in the future workforce will be those who can manage their time most effectively–and it’s up to their employers to help them. Employees need to learn to decipher how to use both their own and their co-workers’ time most effectively to create a successful work future. 

For example, before a meeting is called, the facilitator should ask themselves if it’s truly critical to meet live with people. If it is, pre-share the success factors and presentation material ahead of the meeting. Once the meeting is called, skim through the material but focus mostly on the success factors and outcomes. Once they are fully addressed, stop the meeting so people have their time back in the day. Simple changes to basic meeting norms can have profound effects on the quality and productivity of work.

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: Just as companies must adapt to the changing times, so must employees. The world around us is so volatile and unpredictable, so employees should be flexible and patient in understanding that constant change is the new normal. 

There are a few key elements to make sure an organization is ready to continue to face this “business as unusual” head-on.

  • Remote working setup: Having the right technology is important. Components such as reliable connectivity, devices and accessories, and the latest software help keep an organization current, reduce unnecessary downtime, and mitigate daily stress.
  • Training: Take advantage of every bit of virtual training the company offers. Whether it’s a webinar discussing how to better perform a job function remotely, or a class on mastering collaboration tools, editing software, etc., knowledge is power and something within control.
  • Mental stamina: As employees, we strive to work hard, but what we need to remember is that one can only work at full speed for so long. It’s important to find time to take breaks, exercise, meditate, make a healthy meal, disconnect from tech, and just breathe. 

Scott Matteson: How can we give employees a holistic, in-person experience while at home?

Craig Williams: When you really stop to consider it, how many in-person meetings were we really having with fellow employees while we were at the office? You see, as organizations grew into larger campuses or across multiple cities, it became harder to meet in person for meetings because your team would likely be spread across multiple locations. As such, we’ve been working “remotely” for quite some time. Unless we’re all in the same location or room, we’re all remote, if you think about it. I’m remote to someone else, and they’re remote to me.

In this new world, it’s important to be hyper-attentive during a meeting. Be sure to have your camera on, maintain eye contact and avoid distractions throughout. In addition, have some fun with it, and you’ll see people through a new lens maybe through simple things like their families and pets or the background they choose to share. These are conversation starters that can break the ice for building stronger relationships, which are especially important during trying times. 

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: Since this pandemic began and the massive work-from-home shift happened, we saw a meteoric rise in the use of collaboration tools, both personally and professionally. From virtual family dinners, happy hours, game nights, etc., to virtual employee meetings, customer meetings, conferences, and the list goes on. 

But once an organization has the technology, it’s how it’s applied for employees that makes all the difference, [such as] in-depth remote training on how to perform their job functions in a digital world; employee engagement experiences, such as meditation sessions, fitness classes, volunteering, virtual hangouts, and more. [It’s] rethinking what we once found to be business as usual and adapting to meet the current working and societal needs of employees.

Scott Matteson: What will the future office look like once employees can return to the office?

Craig Williams: For some employees, the future office will look exactly as it does right now: Their home. It’s possible that large portions of the workforce may never return to the office, which will help cut down on crowding in the workplace, as social distancing measures need to be taken, and also help organizations reduce real estate. Those who return will be staggered by prioritization, such as employees who need certain tech tools they don’t have access to at home or teams who need more face-to-face interaction for projects. The idea of closed conference rooms will likely become obsolete as teams look for larger, airier spots to convene. What will be most important is that the technologies between the corporate offices and home offices must remain the same. 

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: Everyone hopes for the return to the office and to get back to business as usual, but at least for the short term, it’s unlikely that that scenario will be a reality. In order to get back to an in-office setting, plans (and back-up plans) and protocols must be established. How do companies set up their floor plan to meet socially distanced workspaces? Is it a staggered or rotational approach to bringing employees into the office? What must the organization need to do to meet appropriate guidelines?

Employee safety and wellbeing is the top priority. It’s an employer’s responsibility to care for its workforce. I think we will see many scenarios where employees are allowed to return to the office, sparking a quick reversal based on societal factors and rinse and repeat.

Scott Matteson: What IT considerations should be taken into account?

Craig Williams: Personally, I think we’ll see organizations make more tech investments this year than in the last five or 10 years, and it’s crucial that they look at the benefits these technologies will provide in the long term. It should be a given that companies have a cloud and collaboration strategy but if not, IT leaders need to act quickly to get them in order.  

Some of the new/future IT challenges we’re thinking through right now have to do with product development–how to create an immersive experience for the engineering teams that used to work together in a room to innovate. We’re also re-thinking the office standard–we went from 70 offices to about 7,000 home offices overnight, so we’re looking at ways to better manage and support them. In addition, we’re working toward a Remote IT function by removing all logistical barriers to better support employees.

It’s also imperative that employees see the IT team as easily approachable and accessible at this time. 

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: CIOs and IT leaders should consider six key factors critical to maintaining an effective remote-working model. These factors include:

  • A scalable network enabled by automation, such as software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualized network services (VNS), that can flex to support new usage patterns with work shifting outside of offices, and enable application availability prioritization
  • Cloud-ready applications for collaboration, core operations, and support
  • Strong and secure mobile connectivity to access those applications, as well as the corporate WAN (for those that are not cloud-enabled)
  • End-to-end monitoring of network performance to maintain control, usability, and security
  • Zero-trust security implementation that strengthens the protection of sensitive information outside of physical offices
  • A resilient end-user support model and supply chain that can deal with spikes in teleworker demand, both in terms of calls for help and the need for laptops, tablets, or other mobile devices

When thinking about security, strong and secure mobile connectivity and end-to-end monitoring are key, but zero-trust security helps strengthen that protection with sensitive information now outside of physical offices. For an effective zero-trust security plan, companies need to implement comprehensive protect, detect, and respond mechanisms.

We think companies should consider three key areas:

  1. Protect: Establish a security architecture designed to support remote working, e.g., one that leverages strong identity management, multi-factor authentication, VPN, trusted mobile endpoints, network segmentation, and post-authentication access controls. The use of personal devices for work also must be weighed, as this may pose challenges when it comes to corporate-wide malware propagation and data privacy issues.
  2. Detect: Implement fully integrated risk monitoring and detection capabilities for work-from-home devices to identify potential security breaches. Organizations need to build deep, end-to-end, integrated data and analytics capabilities to detect breaches early, while also working to reduce the impact of phishing attacks.
  3. Respond: This is how the organization deals with a security threat. This is obviously easier within an internal environment and more complicated in a remote work model with multiple mobile endpoints. Cyber-risk monitoring enables organizations to effectively manage their security posture. Organizations should also consider the retention of professional support to assist in the event of a security breach.

Scott Matteson: What should companies do to prepare for the next pandemic?

Craig Williams: The coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and many of us faced a period of intense trial and error when it came to navigating this new reality. To adapt more quickly moving forward, leaders need to have the mindset that this will happen again. Experts predict that a second wave is imminent and, when combined with the upcoming flu season, may be worse than the first. The business community needs to consider the long tail with new technology investments so it is prepared and ready. To see continued success requires a continuation of the same steadfast and focused mindset we’ve developed thus far.

Sampath Sowmyanarayan: Beyond the six imperatives to drive effective remote work, having a comprehensive technology transformation and readiness assessment is vital when preparing for the next pandemic, or the next wave of COVID-19. 

Companies need to consider four key stages when looking to reshape their technology transformation agenda:

  1. Define transformation vision and goals
  2. Focus on future-readying the people “building blocks” such as workforce and talent
  3. Build scalable and adaptable application, IT infrastructure, data, and digital platforms
  4. Factor in cybersecurity from the beginning of the transformation

Addressing the six imperatives and giving the four key stages serious thought, can help companies be  ready for any potential future global disruption. However, they also need to remember the importance of flexibility–building agility into business infrastructure will be critical for enabling future business success.

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