It has become something of a cliché to say that the way that we work has changed hugely as a result of the pandemic. Of course it has—but there were and are many other factors that were already driving a digital revolution. The pandemic accelerated the process, but we should not be in any doubt that change has been in the air for a long time, and will be for some time to come.

There is, though, an issue with this. If the pandemic is not the sole driver of change—and it certainly is not—then it becomes clear that it is impossible for workplaces to ‘return to normal’ post-pandemic. Organisations everywhere need to think differently about work. But how? 

Changing the conversation

Many companies are successfully starting to think about how to change how existing work is done. Automation is everywhere—and a mainstream part of doing business. This digitisation is crucial to improving efficiency. However, it is not enough. Our recent conversations with thought leaders around the world in different sectors and industries suggest some common themes are emerging. 

The first is that companies urgently need to go beyond changing existing work, and start redefining work itself. Crucially, they need to do so by defining value, which means who will pay for what, and when. We can identify four key trends in how we define value:

  • Increased connectivity, meaning that information moves faster, and makes it easier to disrupt;
  • Lower transaction costs, which reduce barriers to entry and costs to scale;
  • Automation, which changes how work is done; and
  • Demographic changes, and particularly the changes in career aspirations among younger people.

It is this last aspect that may be most important, because it links to one of the biggest drivers of change: what people want from work.

Valuing and empowering talent 

The pandemic exposed and highlighted many things about our approach to work. One aspect that has been mentioned over and over again is that it enabled people to think about what they really valued about work—and take action to get it. It turns out that what most people want is autonomy and flexibility. 

In other words, a change to remote working is not for everyone. Nor is it right to assume that we all want more meaningful work. We want the ability to make our own decisions, and the flexibility to act on them. At the same time, organisations also recognised that they had grown too inflexible, and particularly too slow. This has driven a move towards more agile forms of working.

These two needs can be brought together in new ways of working and less hierarchical structures. Flatter structures move decision-making out to the edge of organisations, closer to customers. Giving more autonomy to customer-facing staff speeds up decision-making, improves customer experience, and saves time and resources. It is a bit like the advantages of ‘edge analytics’: decisions are made quickly, where they need to be made, by those who understand the situation. 

The pandemic also highlighted the benefits of pivoting rapidly into new spaces—and showed that staff could easily be retrained and redeployed within just a few days. This lesson can be applied post-pandemic by adopting an approach that we might call talent pooling. Instead of concentrating on ‘jobs’, we should focus on the skills that are needed to achieve particular tasks. Any member of staff with these skills should be able to offer them, and move seamlessly between projects to use their skills as they see fit. Crucially, employees need to be seen as problem-solvers, and not people who do specific jobs.

This may need new systems and particularly ways to support staff—but these are relatively easy to deliver. We also need to recognise, of course, that these new ways of working may bring their own problems, just as increased digital working during the pandemic led to ‘Zoom fatigue’. However, these issues can be resolved in due course, provided we are alert to them.

Avoiding burnout and stress

Increasing levels of empowerment across the organisation should help to reduce burnout at all levels. It is generally recognised that lack of control is one of the most stressful situations for anyone. The pandemic has caused high levels of stress and uncertainty. Many people are still dealing with the fallout. 

However, this also means that now is a good time to regroup. There is time and appetite to pause, and think—and to make change. Let’s embrace it.