Future-proofing workplaces: Five factors to consider


Workplaces are certainly evolving, but the factors that create great places to work in the near future will continue to be all about people, not the feared revolution by robot.

While the UK is jostling for global prominence in new technologies – recently announcing the Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal - this will be one feature of the emerging workplace. Humans will continue to play a fundamental role in thriving organisations, so business leaders should not only prepare to adopt transformative new technologies, but to meet the changing needs and demands of the people who work with, on or alongside existing and new technologies.

This will require leaders to provide great places to work, which in turn, will see the age-old issues of attracting and retaining talent become much easier and help organisations to thrive.

At our recent Zebra Project event, this theme was explored revealing five factors that leaders need to consider to futureproof their workplace:

1. Conscious creation of workplace culture

Culture draws from shared values, norms, rules and belief systems. Savvy organisation leaders know that with or without their influence a workplace culture will emerge; those who consciously cultivate their workplace culture benefit from aligning those shared values and norms with business objectives.

Not only can this align their employees’ perspectives and behaviour with the vision and mission of the organisation, but it can boost productivity and a sense of work-based community and kinship.

Speaking at the Zebra Project’s 21st Century Workplace event, Matt Meyer, CEO of Taylor Vinters said: “Getting the best out of our team means adopting a ‘tribal’ strategy. This includes a strong sense of identity, ‘clans’ who are passionate about what they do, and a stable ‘family’ environment.”

Conscious creation of workplace culture should stem from an organisation’s leaders, who as role models in the organisation must also be aware that their behaviour – what they do, as much as what they say – will also influence the workplace culture and set the tone for the type of work environment that emerges, good or bad.

2. Authenticity of brand

It is said we are currently living in the Age of Authenticity. Social media enables all of us to share our views and experiences, which has challenged organisation hegemony over telling their brand’s story through selectively positioned advertising. Today, the lowliest worker has a voice that can reach board-level directors and beyond, and in some cases send share prices sliding.

A new norm has emerged, with workers and consumers alike demanding organisations behave as they tell us they behave, to be true to the perception and expectations of the brand. Of course, with less centralised, more flexible and increasingly global workforces, maintaining an organisation’s sense of authenticity is one of the more challenging aspects of creating a good workplace culture.

Zoe Humphries, Applied Research Consultant from Steelcase, says that when it comes to developing and communicating authenticity, self-awareness of your company’s challenges and failings is just as important as championing its successes.

She warned: "Being too positive is beginning to hurt some organisations - being too democratic means organisations can’t have difficult conversations and can’t communicate those difficulties.”

3. Good people management

Good people management should be rooted in genuine positive regard for employees and empowering them to build on character traits such as resilience that benefits the organisation through productivity and reduced absences.

Ben Wilmott, Head of Policy PR and Public Affairs at the CIPD said, "Social support and cohesion is the area of people management that makes the most difference - stress levels are key to this." One-quarter of respondents in a recent CIPD survey said work had a negative impact on their mental health.

Grahame Russell, Managing Director and Founder of Change Associates warned that remote and flexible workers – the backbone of the ‘gig economy - can be especially vulnerable. He said creating that organisational culture and sense of shared community is crucial for tackling worker loneliness and associated problems.

In terms of people management, diversity is no longer about 'not actively discriminating against people’, but rather about encouraging and embracing diversity of backgrounds, experience and thought.

4. Transparency of processes

Running a transparent organisation can be scary for fear it sacrifices commercial advantage. But transparency of process is a lynchpin in demonstrating brand authenticity. For example, Dominic Holmes, Partner and Employment specialist at Taylor Vinters, said: “Gender pay gap reporting has rightly been taken very seriously by employers and is not seen just as an admin task. Many employers view their own staff as the primary audience when preparing these reports, so the narrative they publish alongside the raw statistics is important in keeping staff engaged”.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) added: "Organisations often have a story they mobilise when things get difficult: ‘it’s hard being us’. Trying to hide behind this harms the organisation. Authenticity means going through often painful barriers”.

5. Technology as workforce enabler

While technology is superior to humans in generating, analysing and responding to vast data sets that can provide organisations with valuable intelligence, workplaces of the future must ensure technology is harnessed and managed by people, rather than simply distracting or enslaving them.

Dominic Holmes said: “Organisations need to look at deploying technology within the workplace in a more effective way; employers need to avoid the trap of using tech for the sake of it...without thinking about how it will impact employee engagement”. He added: “The most effective way of integrating technology into the workplace will be to remove from human spheres work that is either dull, dirty or dangerous. Machines are well-suited to certain tasks that humans are not and vice versa, so there is definitely space for both to work together in the future workplace”.

Zoe Humphries said: "We give people technology but don’t teach them the behaviour to effectively use it. This has an impact on emotional and cognitive wellbeing - it’s increasing the pace of work and feeding into the sense of stress. Employees are checking their smartphones over 200 times a day which causes distraction and we’re literally not breathing because we’re not using tech effectively.”

Organisations have an accountability and responsibility to decide how technology is used and the role it plays in supporting the other five factors to building great future workplaces.

To join the debate about the future of work, take a look at the future discussions and events, and how you can get involved.

Zebra Thinking