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Finding balance between technology, humanity for successful future of work scenarios

Johannesburg, 01 Jun 2023

Business is facing one of the greatest organisational design challenges of our lifetime. The tension between equity, flexibility and personal autonomy is in the spotlight as leaders consider the future of their workforce. Carl Bosma, Head of TMT Advisory at BDO South Africa, shares insight into the role technology plays in building and retaining a future-fit workforce.

After almost two years of uncertainty, the only thing that is certain is the way people choose to work has forever changed. Remote work, distributed work, flexible work. Flexible hybrid, office-centric hybrid, remote-friendly hybrid, hybrid-remote office. These are just some of the revised work models being bandied around. They’re new, they’re easily confused and each one has vastly different implications when it comes to setting up employees for success.

As organisations contemplate the future of work, it may be prudent to shift the focus from finding the ideal work models to the type of work that is going to be done, how it is going to be done and the tools and technologies that employees are going to need to do it.

For over a decade, a ground-breaking fusion of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the internet of things (IOT) and advanced wireless technologies have signalled the start of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). One immediate consequence of the pandemic has been the necessity for the rapid adoption of this ever-expanding cohort of new technologies to accelerate the 4IR across business globally.

Although there are many benefits to leveraging these new technologies to improve current processes – including improved speed and efficiency, increased transparency, better customer experience, cost savings and revenue growth – many employees fear that new technologies, digital automation and mechanisation will threaten their jobs, often resulting in them consciously or unconsciously becoming resistant to these changes.

According to the World Economic Forum, and contrary to popular fears about job losses, automation will result in a net increase of 58 million jobs. It also has the potential to create new sectors and jobs that did not exist before in order to better service the 4IR. Although the nature of these jobs is still somewhat uncertain, it's essential that the workforce of the future is appropriately prepared.

Although technology underpins any future work scenario, it has never been more evident that business leaders and management need to lead with a human-first approach. It is crucial that organisations first define, communicate and educate their workforce about the virtual strategies and new technologies they onboard and how these will impact the work employees do and where they do that work.

This should begin at the recruitment stage. If organisations don't adopt a virtual, hi-tech strategy, they're not going to attract, and more importantly, retain the right talent. Potential employees are no longer merely influenced by singular factors such as payroll, benefits and perks, or a direct manager. It is critical to redesign working policies with the employee at the centre of this model and technology as the enabler.

Technology lies at the heart of retaining company culture as it guides behaviour. If the right virtual strategy is implemented, it can bring people together more so than ever before. Organisations may find it more difficult to build those cultures initially, but as virtual strategies become a reality and more ingrained in the way that employees work, culture will simply be incorporated alongside that technology – essentially we will see an evolution of culture. Fundamentally, technology does not change the values of an organisation, simply the way it operates.

Technology performs at its best in tasks that humans find difficult, time-consuming or monotonous. Virtual strategies that leverage technology’s ability to automate such tasks will improve the quality of work that humans do by allowing them to focus on more strategic, value-creating and personally rewarding tasks. In the new work experience, human workers will operate side-by-side with ’digital co-workers’, enabling human workers to focus on higher-value activities or those that require human input.

From a performance perspective, the continuous training and development of staff must remain a top priority in any virtual strategy. The ability of the workforce to implement agile decisions that can be adjusted if they are not working will become critical.

Communication is also crucial. Long before an organisation has its specific digital transformation plan established, communicators can start to create employee awareness about the evolutions in technology and relevant industry changes. In this way, employees will know what to expect and the role they play in the organisation’s digital transformation.

The future of work is about rethinking the way work is done. It is a fundamental shift in the work model to one that fosters human-machine collaboration, as an enabler of new skills and reimagined worker experiences. Technological innovation has the potential to transform workplaces, but it must fit into virtual strategies to ensure that we don’t go past the point of no return and lose that critical human element.