In 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler (re)imagined the way people of our time would work: operating from what he envisioned to be "electronic cottages".
It's a setup we know today as the 'work from anywhere' revolution – a movement accelerated by disruption last year, half a century after Toffler's prediction.
Before the pandemic, only less than 10% of all work was held off site on a full-time basis. But almost overnight, in March 2020, north of 60% of work became full-time remote in most parts of the world.
Yet the transformation of work isn't just a matter of decentralizing the locus of activity, according to Ravin Jesuthasan, Senior Partner and Global Leader of Transformation Services at Mercer.
"Certainly, the pandemic challenged the 'where and when' of work. But that's not where we start," he said.
"Progressive organizations look well beyond that, to think about how work is done, what the work is, and what actually is the content of the work. And, increasingly, we're questioning who does the work as it relates to the use of automation."
Organizations are also "stepping back" and tackling another pressing question: the 'why' of work. The challenge now is alignment between companies and their people.
"How do I ensure that my values, my mission, my purpose [as an organization] align with those of the talent?” Jesuthasan said when he spoke about 'humanizing transformation' at Mercer's Regional HR Virtual Conference.
"Virtually every dimension of work now has been thrown up in the air, and it requires a whole set of new skills on the part of leaders as well as talent," he said.
5 dimensions of the evolving world of work
There are five dimensions of work transformation. "Firstly, a portfolio-based approach to work," Jesuthasan said. This entails "mitigating risk by thinking about alternative sources of work, whether that's the use of automation, the use of good talent, the use of outsourced labor, the use of other forms of labor, in addition to employees and jobs, so that when faced with a threat, or an opportunity, companies can rapidly diversify their source of work."
The second dimension is agility in managing work and talent flows or, as Jesuthasan explained, "moving beyond the frictional cost of that traditional one-to-one relationship between a job and an employee, to the many-to-many relationships between skills and work."
"A great example of this is Bank of America. At the height of the pandemic, Bank of America faced an influx of calls about the Cares Act in the United States, [so they] redeployed some 3,000 people from its head office to deal with those calls," he said.
As a result, the organization "developed a new muscle as it looked at more agile ways of working and better deploying talent to meet the evolving needs of the business."
The third dimension refers to the "changing imperatives for leadership," Jesuthasan said, emphasizing the "pivot from centralized decision-making, which can often be slow and laborious, to decision-making from the edges."
"The edges of the organization [is] where customer experience is shaped," he said. "How do we ensure that leaders at the edges have the same frames of reference tools and capabilities as those at the center?"
The fourth dimension is collaboration between companies to mitigate risk and fund innovation.
"During the pandemic, for example, McDonald's redeployed its talent from its restaurants to support Aldi, whose business was seeing a spike in demand in Germany," Jesuthasan said.
"We saw many other examples of that. For example, in the airline industry, talent such as cabin crew were being redeployed to support the healthcare sector in various countries in Europe."
The last dimension is "harnessing the power of digital/technology to conduct simulation and scenario modeling, so we can stress test our business model in a safe environment," he said. "This has gone on in production environments and in manufacturing for many years, but we’re seeing this now permeate into the service sector as well."
"During times of stress," Jesuthasan said, "we always see a spike in demand for certainty and security on the part of workers. We saw that after 9/11. We saw that after the 2008 financial crisis, and we certainly saw that during the pandemic."
But for a private enterprise, this promise of certainty and stability is a "fool's errand," he said.
"The best that a private enterprise can do is the promise of clarity to its talent and the promise that their talent will remain relevant for a changing world, either within the organization or without," he added.
For Jesuthasan, one of the most critical skills for leaders to hone in humanizing transformation is "orchestrating different means of work" sustainably for the future of the organization regardless of the headwinds they face.
People Matters is the exclusive media partner for Mercer's 2021 Regional HR Virtual Conference.