Haven’t business and tech communities been discussing the ‘future of work’ for the past… decade? Twenty years? asks Kristine Dahl Steidel, Vice President End User Computing EMEA, VMware.

Well, step forward 2020 where practices have in fact superseded predictions. And the irony is, that the ‘future of work’ has arrived in the shape of nothing new at all. Remote working has been with us for years, but now the context surrounding it has changed – for good.

Finally, the conversation has become a reality and, while unfortunate, the pandemic has been the greatest petri dish for proving what many people already knew: work no longer equals the office. Now, the topic on the tip of everyone’s tongue is whether ‘anywhere’ workforces – where the ‘work’ location becomes immaterial if the employees can still fulfil their job function – can truly work?

Many businesses have been forced to move their workforces to homeworking over the last six months, and for many this has been a wake-up call.  Why? Because it has actually worked. Businesses have continued to thrive and, in many cases, have forced permanent changes in workforce models. Some, like Barclays, have done a U-turn around what their structure will look like, with others opting for a complete virtual office like Capital One and Spotify.

But the conversation now isn’t one of ‘home’ or ‘office’ but an ‘anywhere’ approach – one that works for the business and employee, where productivity isn’t measured by being in the ‘line of sight’ of a manager, but rather based on outcomes, and with increasingly geographically dispersed teams.

But, assuming that businesses want to change to an ‘anywhere’ model, a critical question and consideration has to be: how do you really manage a distributed workforce no longer in the line of sight of management for most the time, and indefinitely? In fact, new research by VMware and Vanson Bourne found that 41% still worry their team won’t stay on task when working remotely.

The study also found a 41% increase in EMEA employees now recognising the ability to work remotely as a job prerequisite rather than a ‘perk’, so the conversation already feels it has moved on significantly. Yet, considering this, and the fact that millions of people globally are now working from home; how should organisations reconcile their business needs, management approaches, and the demands and desires of their employees as it pertains to where people actually work?

Making the journey to ‘anywhere’

In fairness to businesses, the world has changed. For all the years of discussion, few could’ve predicted anything quite like the events of 2020. And, while the challenge might be broadly the same for everyone, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; each industry, each organisation will require a bespoke model to truly make an ‘anywhere approach’ work – strategically and tactically – in the long-run. We know, for example, that certain roles – working a machine, looking after patients, running a restaurant – require a physical presence.  But there are many roles that do not and thus don’t require a fixed physical location in the traditional sense.

To be clear, adapting to this is no easy task. It’s perhaps the single biggest challenge organisations have faced. But if we break it down, there are considerations that can be taken to respond. On a positive side, technology isn’t considered the barrier. Only a third (33%) of those surveyed believe that IT is not equipped to manage the already evolved workforce.

Firstly, in order to realise any new organisational model, it’s essential that the existing structure – one often based on traditional notions of hierarchy – is keeping pace. The strategy has to have buy-in from the top, yet our research shows that 28% of decision makers feel their boardroom culture discourages remote working. So, management needs to rethink, and in many cases even retrain, to really get and embrace the notion that productivity no longer equates to time in the office.

For some, this is causing tension – prompting unwanted stories of inappropriate and invasive surveillance where bosses ramp up remote surveillance to try and maintain oversight of their dispersed employees. Indeed, as 59% of employees feel more pressure to be online outside of normal working hours, new working etiquette will be required – for example, not sending emails after 6pm in the evening, even by managers – to ensure employee wellbeing while working remotely.

Secondly, organisations must embrace the potential at hand. They must celebrate and promote the business benefits of ‘anywhere’ working. Of course, productivity output is a vital criterion in the boardroom and every company needs a business case for change. It’s encouraging, therefore, that one third (34%) of decision makers note a positive impact on productivity levels, three quarters see an improvement in personal connections with colleagues (76%), and two thirds do so in terms of seeing employees empowered to speak up in meetings (66%). With the right tools, collaboration platforms and management policies, people feel they can be engaged, are productive and indeed in certain cases feel even more empowered, when working from anywhere.

Even recruitment, faced with very tough market conditions and a virtual recruiting world, is faced with opportunities. Two thirds (67%) of decision makers say recruitment of top-tier talent has been made easier, specifically for working parents (83%) and minority candidates (68%). Perhaps, finally, we’ll see organisations better reflect the societies they serve in terms of diversity and inclusion – and where talent isn’t limited to geography. Incredibly, three quarters (72%) also agree that innovation – traditionally associated with in-person brainstorming and group ideation – is coming from more places within the organisation than before.

Building on this, consideration three lies in rethinking existing notions of ‘remote’ working and even ‘work’ full-stop. The global shift we’ve witnessed, moving away from the office as a fixed and permanent work environment makes the term ‘remote’ working something of a misnomer. For many there will be – or, already there is – no longer a central physical location that binds the business together and that employees can even be ‘remote’ from.

Now, on the other side of multiple society-wide lockdowns, it’s becoming clear that the employees are no longer defined by a single location. A purely centralised model for the sake of it is already obsolete. Whether in the home, at the office, on the move, or a hybrid of all three, the modern workforce should no longer be viewed as ‘remote’ but ‘distributed’.

Approaching the distributed destination

Those who embrace the needs of the distributed workforce understand that a business is not confined to the walls of an office (or even several offices). In other words, it is more important now than ever before to understand that a business is not an object, but a collective built upon the output and hard work, as well as well-being and happiness, of the individuals who make up its workforce.

This human element of work has come to the forefront of business operations. We’ve seen our CEOs in their living rooms, we’ve seen our colleagues’ family members in the backgrounds of our video calls.  Now it is prime time for to reassess assumptions with regards to the operational and personal impacts of adopting a decentralised working structure.

What does the ‘future’ hold?

So here we are. I believe the future has now arrived. The challenges in 2020 have forced businesses to quickly adapt to new working practices where ‘work’ no longer equals ‘the office.’ The future of work is no longer a prediction. It has arrived in the form of a distributed workforce, bringing with it tangible business benefits, from productivity and employee morale, to greater collaboration and enhanced recruitment opportunities.

Companies now need to instill the right culture and leadership approach to foster and develop this new way of working. This, alongside the right digital foundation being in place, so that employees have the right applications and security on whatever devices they are using, means we should be able to bypass the 2.0 wave of ‘future of work’ predictions, by ensuring businesses and the individuals at the very heart of them are truly future-ready.

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