Why ‘The Future of Work’ Arrived Earlier Than Expected

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Join TL Insider on September 24th for a virtual Fireside Chat: The Future of Work, Now.

On September 24th, from 12pm-1pm, TL Insider will be joined by Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist, Salesforce and Zabeen Hirji, Executive Advisor Future of Work, Deloitte Board Chair, CivicAction for a virtual Fireside Chat: The Future of Work, Now. Afshar shares his views on why he believes “the future of work” arrived earlier than expected:

Anyone could tell you what a thriving economy in a city like Toronto used to look like.

You would know it by the sight of all the executives walking down King and Bay Streets, just before they packed into elevators taking them up to their offices. You might point to all the people shopping at the boutiques on Bloor’s Mink Mile, or you might nod towards the hoards of people dining at the restaurants in the Entertainment District.

The picture of a thriving economy as we adapt to the ongoing fight against pandemic seems blurrier. Although many businesses that had to reduce operations (or shut their doors entirely) amid the outbreak of COVID-19 are now opening up again, it is by no means a return to the old normal.

Instead, businesses across Canada and around the world have to make sure they don’t mistake the notion of “back to work” as an end point or destination. This is a journey we’re all just beginning to take.

As Environics Research found in a recent study, the share of Canadians working remotely rose from 9% in the beginning of March to 60% by the end of April. More than half, or 56%, said they were comfortable coming back to the office, but only a quarter were confident their employers would do everything necessary to offer a safe environment. No wonder 49% believed remote work would become the new normal. Data from ADP Canada, meanwhile, showed a need for multiple options, where 45% of working Canadians said they would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week and more than one quarter would prefer to work flex hours.

This echoes similar findings from Salesforce Research, which surveyed 20,000 people (10% of whom were Canadian) about their perspective on the future of work. While 70% said remote work empowers people to live where they want, 79% worried remote work was only available to a select few. This is despite the fact that 64% said they wouldn’t be comfortable taking public transportation to work anytime soon.

Employers should heed what this data is telling them. The changes they made to cope during the peak of COVID-19 may have started as a contingency plan. Now they need to evolve into lasting change.

According to Statistics Canada, 38.9% of Canadian workers have jobs that can plausibly be done with just a telephone, a computer and an internet connection. That doesn’t take into account all the other technologies we’re now using to communicate, collaborate and conduct commerce, all of which were available long before the novel Coronavirus emerged. What limited their adoption often came down to lack of awareness and, frankly, risk-aversion.

When the pandemic presented risks on a greater order of magnitude, however, it became clear that digital transformation — or at least some aspect of it —  could be executed at unimaginable speed.

Although other technologies will continue to be developed to support businesses reopening — Salesforce’s recently-launched Work.com is just one example — the most important elements that determine the “next normal” will come from the innate qualities that make us human. This includes empathy to forge meaningful connections with employees or customers through digital channels, and leadership skills to motivate and manage teams no matter how decentralized they become.

Some of the most successful brands in the world had already adopted a “digital first” mindset, but the future of work will be defined by those who understand that it takes more than merely being present via digital channels. It means perfecting the art of creating value through them at the speed customers demand, and building relationships as strong as those they once believed could only happen in person.

The priority for businesses now should be assessing what looked like a pivot to digital during COVID-19 and identify ways to optimize those processes on a more permanent basis. They should aim to design customer experiences that truly meet people wherever they are, recognizing that nothing is more ubiquitous than experiences that happen online, through the cloud and across mobile devices.

Most importantly, business leaders need to have a healthy and ongoing conversation with their teams to coach and guide them in any areas they need to adjust to remote work modalities.

The adoption of digital technologies was not simply an unfortunate consequence of COVID-19, it was a catalyst — one the many businesses will come to realize they needed.

Vala Afshar is an award-winning inventor and sought after expert in digital business transformation, digital marketing and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. As Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, Vala collaborates with C-suite executives, industry analysts and thought leaders from around the world on opportunities for digital change. He’s also been recognized as the top influencer to CMOs on Twitter by Fortune Magazine.