Nearly two-and-a-half years after the pandemic forced businesses around the world to embrace remote working, debate continues to rage over whether this will just be a passing fad or whether we are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how and where work is done.
We should, of course, always be sceptical of research from those with more than a passing interest in its findings, but the recently published Future of Work 2022 Report from the automation platform Zapier does suggest that U.S. workers are in no particular hurry to return to how things used to be. Two-thirds agreed that remote work had given them the flexibility to deal with the demands of family life, with 61% saying that they would resign from their job if a fully remote opportunity presented itself. Among those just starting work (aged between 18 and 24) the enthusiasm was even greater. All said they would leave their current roles for the opportunity to work fully remotely. And almost all feel that remote working enables them to achieve a better work-life balance and so be happier at work.
In many ways, though, the argument is already beside the point because work has been changing ever since computers entered the workplace, with the pace of that change accelerating with every advance in technology. Just how far things have moved is demonstrated by the fact that for the past three years the MIT Sloan Management Review has with the professional services firm Deloitte conducted research on the future of the workforce and particularly the “extended workforce”, which includes people who can range from full-time employees working in the office, through remote or hybrid employees to contractors of various kinds.
Those responsible have proposed that this new, more fluid approach to work amounts to a “workforce ecosystem” and in their latest report they say that managing, or “orchestrating,” it will require significant shifts in management practices and leadership style as well as the adoption of even more technologies.
Elizabeth J. Altman, MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor, assistant professor of management at the Manning School of Business at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and one of the authors of the report, explained: “Organizations today are increasingly relying not only on full and part-time employees but also on a more expansive and connected group of contributors: a workforce ecosystem. These structures include long-term contractors, temporary gig workers, subcontractors, complementors such as app developers, employees, and others. Orchestrating them requires new approaches to leadership, new technologies, and new management practices.”
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Robin Jones, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and another author, added: “For leaders to see significant increases in innovation and performance among their employees and other key contributors, they will need to change the way they think about their workforce and how an ecosystem can help support organizational goals.”
Achieving this, says the report, will require senior executives working with those running the different business units and functions working closely together to contribute to the performance of the enterprise. This in turn needs leaders to have a broad understanding of how each participant — whether within or outside the organization — contributes to creating value.
To help show what needs to be done, the researchers have produced a maturity index, with those at the top called “intentional orchestrators.” Such organizations are:
— More adept at cross-functional coordination, with 66% of them reporting that their organizations coordinate managing internal employees and external contributors across functions.
— More likely to focus on hiring and engaging the internal and external talent they need to meet their strategic objectives.
— More likely to say their organizations support managers looking to hire external workers.
Inevitably, the arrival of extended workforces brings greater complexity — and work — for senior leaders. They already play the critical role of setting an organization’s strategy, providing direction on companywide initiatives, establishing performance measures and generally serving as the final point of decision-making, says the report. “To this list, we suggest that leaders add the responsibility of acting as the ultimate orchestrator of their organization’s workforce ecosystem. Leaders should articulate a vision not only for the future direction of a business, but also for how a workforce ecosystem will enable the execution of that vision,” it adds.