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Innovations induced by the pandemic and the future of work

[May 11, 2021] BY Worker's Resort Editorial Team

Workplace Innovation, an online event for APAC’s Leaders

COVID-19 provoked rapid digital transformation and drastically changed the workplace as workers shifted from commuting to the office everyday to working from home full time. Now, the way we think about work has changed permanently and new challenges have arisen. One such challenge is ensuring that companies design workplaces that are not only productive, but human-centric and forward-thinking.

Workplace Innovation, a WORKTECH virtual forum held on March 25, 2021, brought together international thought leaders from various industries to discuss how innovation and technology are redefining the future of work.

Through case studies, new reports, and actionable insights, the discussions aim to help business leaders navigate the ever-changing workplace and implement constructive return-to-work strategies.

The forum revealed three key takeaways, which we will uncover in this article.

Proximity breeds innovation and creativity

It is undeniable that machines are increasingly becoming an integrated part of our daily lives. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2020 report showed that “by 2025 the average estimated time spent by humans and machines at work will be at parity based on today’s tasks.” To simplify, humans and machines will likely spend the same amount of time at work by 2025.

Dr. Sean Gallagher, director of Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce, believes that the human competitive advantage is creativity. New knowledge always begins with individuals, while machines can only learn from existing knowledge. Thus, creativity should be at the core of businesses.

But to breed innovation and creativity, we must be able to learn and collaborate with one another.

Swinburne University of Technology’s 2021 report titled “National Survey Report: Peak Human Workplace” showed that worker-driven learning and collaboration diversity (people of diverse backgrounds and experiences coming together to produce something new) are the ideal workplace settings for idea generation and idea incubation in Australian workplaces. The more workers are empowered to learn on their own while collaborating with those of diverse backgrounds, the more ideas they generate.

Gallagher also stresses that bridging social connections — connections with distant colleagues, perhaps those on a different team or department– is particularly important for idea generation. On the other hand, bonding social connections— connections with immediate colleagues– is better for incubating ideas (making ideas become reality).

Although remote work allows for relatively easy communication with immediate colleagues, it is the social connections with distant colleagues that are a bit more tricky. Thus, a hybrid workplace is best suited for inspiring both idea generation and idea incubation.

Another aspect of the workplace that is difficult to have in the virtual world is company culture. In an omnichannel future, where employees work in multiple environments, companies will have to ensure that company culture remains strong.

This should be done on both the team-scale and company-scale, making sure that there is a strong connection with both close and distant colleagues. Catherine Bignell, Senior Analyst at PwC, believes that it is important for companies to create ways to draw people back into the office in order to maintain a distinct culture. This can be done through social events, networking opportunities, or seminars.

This is also imperative for new hires and new grads, who need to have a way to form bonds and relationships with colleagues. In order for them to feel like a part of the company, setting up induction meetings or onboarding events is crucial.

Another issue that companies face is workplace loneliness and isolation. Even if people come back to the office, the environment will not be the same if only 50% of the employees are there, with everyone spread out across the floor. Thus, it’s important that companies design seating arrangements that best boosts the energy of the office and encourages collaboration.

While the home office may be the place for productivity, the corporate office is the place for collaboration and innovation. Thus, companies need to consider ways to make sure the office enables and encourages learning and relationship-building opportunities that cannot be experienced at home.

Put the human at the center, not the numbers

While productivity and efficiency are vital, they are not necessarily the most important metric for success.
As stated earlier, creativity is what sets humans apart from machines and is what adds value for the customer. Thus, it is important to put the employee at the center of the company and think about their wellbeing in order to strengthen not just productivity, but innovation.

Dr. Richard Claydon, Chief Cognitive Officer of EQ Lab, takes this idea further.

Remote work has been great for many as it has allowed for more flexibility, but it has also caused more overwhelm and social isolation, impacting the mental health of many workers. Thus, companies cannot just see wellbeing as a “nice to have.” It has to be a core part of the business.

Claydon stresses that traditionally unmeasurable work should be prioritized— e.g. a coffee break with a colleague, drinks after work, or watching a YouTube video to learn more about a work-related topic. These bring out the most human moments, where we can be truly creative and imaginative.

However, these in-between spaces have been stripped away by the pandemic. Everything is formalized and scheduled. There is no such thing as a casual Zoom chat. Every meeting has an agenda, a defined purpose.

In order to keep these vital in-between spaces from being further eliminated in the future, we must be sure to make space for informal communication. Deep human experiences are absolutely essential to the success of any business, and we cannot get these if everything is quantified and measured.

Instead of only looking at productivity, Claydon suggests that employers consider the language that is being used at the office. They can get a better idea of employee sentiment and mindset by capturing the narratives, problem-solving discussions, or stories about experiences of struggles and triumphs. This is equally, if not more, integral to the organization as efficiency and productivity.

The measurement of informal communication doesn’t have to be qualitative and anecdotal, either. Experience analysis and employee surveys can quantify the data, and companies can use it to help inform future decisions to ensure the workplace enables not just productivity, but creativity.

Digitize the workplace

With people coming into the office less and less, the way we think about spaces and real estate is also changing. One report by Gartner showed that 72% of companies want to reduce their real estate footprint by 10% or more in the next 2 years. This indicates that hybrid working is likely going to be a part of our future.

Therefore, we must start to look at the workplace in an employee-centric way so that companies utilize the office in the best way possible.

Dinesh Malkani, CEO & Founder of Smarten Spaces, discusses the merits of digitizing the workplace, such as digitizing the floorplan to make collaboration easy. This includes rearranging the seats so that they are at a safe distance, determining fixed/flexible seats, and ensuring there are appropriate “neighborhoods” so that teams can work together in close proximity.

Companies should also make seat and conference room booking easily accessible and use automation technology to determine the best days for different teams to come into the office. Since workplace loneliness is a big concern for many leaders, ensuring that relevant teams are coming into the office on the same days to collaborate together is hugely important.

Malkani also discusses how offices were previously using point solutions, where each platform serves different functions like meeting rooms booking, scheduling, or access control. He believes that going forward, integrated systems will be more important. An end-to-end digital platform where employees can access all the necessary functions in one place will make the hybrid workplace much easier.

Chief Sales Officer at Condeco Mike Pilcher also suggests using software to improve the employee experience. Software can be used to control the number of employees coming into the office, confirm negative test results, and manage workflows and processes. This can help make the transition from fully remote to hybrid working smoother and safer.

With technology becoming more central to our work every day, it is crucial that companies embrace technology rather than resist it. As Pilcher points out in his session, digitization is something that has been happening for the past few decades. It’s nothing new– this is just the next step of something that has already been in the works.

The future workplace will be collaborative, human-centric, and digitized

As we head into the “new normal,” our workplaces are going to look a lot different than in the pre-pandemic days. Many companies will adopt hybrid, omnichannel working systems, and employees will need to adjust accordingly.

With the influx of innovation happening currently, it’s important that companies prioritize employee experience, company culture, and the right technology to help enable further innovation and creativity.

Workplace Innovation is part of WORKTECH, the leading international workplace conference series. It aims to create awareness, drive change and provide specialist insight into the future of work and workplace. The forum, borne out the first industry-specific conference, launched in 2003 by Philip Ross and Jeremy Myerson, has now become the world’s leading conferencing and thought leadership series for workplace intelligence. WORKTECH currently hosts events in 25+ cities across the globe.