Kathy Gibson is at Fujitsu ActivateNow – Technology is having a huge influence on the future workplace – but it’s by no means the only driver of the new world of work.
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School and co-author of The 100-Year Life, points out that technologies like automation and augmentation are changing the way people work, allowing workers to focus on human skills like empathy, understanding, judgement and creativity.
“But technology is not the only story,” she says. “Demography is also playing an important role. Two things are crucial.
“The first is that we are living longer and more healthily – we may live to 100 and our kids probably will. So people will probably work into their 70s.
“We are also having fewer children,” Gratton says.
“Put these things together and you have populations that are aging.”
Today, Japan is the oldest nation in the world, but it is by no means unique, she adds. China will soon overtake Japan, and will age even faster.
“This changes how we think about work. It should also change how we think about consumers.”
The third trend that is apparent revolves around what is happening in families and communities, Gratton says.
“In families, women have gone back to work in their numbers, and they are assuming more senior positions. So the traditional family structure has changed.”
All of these trends were in play before the world was hit by Covid-19, she adds. “But during 2020, Covid-19 has accelerated everything. And it really has been the most extraordinary journey.”
The availability of technology has accelerated the move for users of all ages to become digital experts. “We have all accelerate our technology capabilities and will continue to change the way we think about work.”
The last few months have also led to a great deal of insight into flexible working, where staff work from both home and office.
“No-one wants to work at home all the time – or from the office all the time,” Gratton says. “That flexibility is going to be important.
“And this also leads to a really important question: What is the office for? We see the office becoming a place of serendipity, collaboration and communication.”
Jason Fowler, northern and western Europe region HR at Fujitsu, says the company has experienced most of the changes Gratton outlines.
“We have learnt a lot of things,” he adds. “The first is around trust. Workers need to be trusted by their managers and colleagues that they will get the work done. We also need to have trust in the technology that allows us to deliver services to customers and colleagues.”
At Fujitsu, the changes have also prompted the organisation to think differently about how people do work.
“We had already begun a programme of investment – now accelerated – in figuring out how the office space changes. We see offices as hubs where people collaborate and connect.
“We also see the role of the manager changing significantly. The manager has to co-ordinate and manage people remotely and becomes more a point of care, a coach and an enabler.”
Despite the challenges, Fowler says there many reasons to be optimistic.
“The first is that we have demonstrated that a new way of working is sustainable. And it offers a channel to access diverse talent pools such as people with other roles in life, or who may have been excluded by circumstance or disability before.
“We are going into the future with a lot of trepidation,” Fowler adds. “But there are huge reasons to be optimistic about what we have learnt and what has been shown to be possible.”
One thing that is clear is that people don’t want to go back to the way they were, Gratton points out.
“From the beginning we have been asking people how they feel and what they want. And only 8% of people want to go back to where they were. So we are clear that we are on the move.”
Gratton uses a metaphor of being frozen and unfrozen. “Pre-Covid we were frozen, locked in to a way of work. Covid allowed us to unfreeze – it changed the way people think about work and about themselves.
“Now we are beginning to go into a refreeze, and we don’t yet know what the new form will be. But we know people don’t want the form to be the same as it was.
“So we are going to have a period of real experimentation.”
Gratton believes that three things are crucial in shaping the future. “Firstly, we need to make a positive narrative about the future. There are many difficulties that Covid has highlighted, but we have the opportunity to build a positive narrative about the future.
“Second, leaders will be judged in terms of trust and transparency. Everyone knows there is no easy answer, but they want a conversation about the challenges and opportunities, and judgement calls.
“Finally, because the future is being shaped as we see it, people want to be involved in a process of co-creation,” Gratton adds. “They don’t want leaders to know all the answers. Leaders need to demonstrate values and purpose, then co-create, building the future together and making it better for all of us.”