Future of Work

Visit this page from time to time to read our latest thoughts on the changing future of the world of work.

23 July 2020

This is the last of three posts based on the talk that Aptumus CEO Tim Connolly gave to the Cloud Industry Forum on 24 June, titled: "why covid-19 is accelerating the move to hybrid human / machine business models." In this post he looks at how the pandemic is speeding up our reliance on technology of many types.

Since lockdown began, there has been a lot of intensive learning about how things are really done – exceptions, workarounds, arcane practices that have survived the passage of time. And this learning is opening eyes to the potential to streamline and automate. The Head of Finance in a public sector body said to me in mid-April that they had been able to understand and change processes and protocols at a speed they’d never have been able to before, with streamlining opportunities being addressed first and candidates for automation queued up behind. Even at that early stage, he told me, “I cannot see how we would go back to how we were.” An IT executive in a Fortune 50 food producer – operating at very high activity levels to meet demand that had gone through the roof – told me “we are never ceasing to amaze ourselves at how much potential there is for us to automate.”

I’d expect that company to be one of many for whom the opportunities go deep into the manufacturing process. The move to Augmented Reality and other IoT solutions has been gathering pace during the pandemic. Augmented Reality is, for example, being used to train staff dispersed in factories around the world on conversion of production facilities for the manufacture of ventilators and safety equipment. Looking at the IoT more widely, there is extensive research-based evidence emerging over the past couple of months pointing to areas where the necessity to change in response to the pandemic is accelerating the rate of adoption of new technology solutions. This extends from use of drones and robots for delivering shopping to isolating customers, through increased uses in utilities management, to a whole host of healthcare-related applications.

What’s more, as businesses increasingly come to terms with having to factor the risk of pandemic into future planning as well as current reality, some will inevitably come to the conclusion that business continuity and growth will be derisked by reducing reliance on humans and making greater use of technology. This may sound a harsh view to take in the current circumstances – but it is neither unfair nor unrealistic. The global financial analyst firm Sanford C Bernstein notes that the pandemic has made “humans the risk to continued operations” in supply chains. Bloomberg estimates that nearly 60% of production work globally is in the category of “easy to automate” – and the scope of that definition is growing all the time. Covid-19 brings both the risk, and the opportunity, sharply into focus.

And let’s not forget the customer in this. Several recent reports, from the likes of McKinsey, Citi and the Oxford Martin School, predict lasting changes in consumer preferences regarding face-to-face transactions. The long-standing customer preference for human interaction may be fundamentally changed by the covid-19 experience.

It’s therefore highly possible that a sizeable number of organisations will accelerate the rate at which they embrace opportunities to automate, deploy machine learning, harvest the benefits of artificial intelligence and the IoT and exploit other technology-driven opportunities in the immediate aftermath of covid-19. Let’s take a look at a few of the factors driving this development around the world. I’m not going to get into how individual nations have handled the pandemic.

One is practical recent demonstration of the benefits, where good examples include the use of 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence to help respond to supply shortages of personal protective equipment; and the impact of automation on the process of getting items (testing equipment as well as PPE) out into the field quickly and safely. This can mean speed of ordering and testing and reducing the risk of error and contamination.

Another factor is the likelihood that the pandemic will induce governments to adopt industrial policies aimed at reducing dependence on global supply chains. This could accelerate the interwoven trends towards both reshoring and automation, as the increased potential to economically use machines to replace offshore labour passes muster both as a financial case and as a risk mitigation one.

A third consideration, argued by Forrester, is that, with each recession that passes, it takes longer for jobs to recover. This is because as companies rebuild revenues and reopen supply chains, they have an ever-increasing range of opportunities to invest in automation, thereby reducing their dependence on manpower. There are several reasons why this phenomenon might be even more pronounced this time, given:

  • The depth of the recession and the consequent loss of headcount in many businesses. Hiring new people is more difficult, riskier and more expensive than holding on to current ones, making the alternative of not having to do so all the more attractive
  • The ever-increasing coverage of automation technologies in today’s world – wider and more potent than at any time in the past
  • The growing contribution that technology is capable of making to risk mitigation and business resiliency. This is a major area of insight and opportunity, I feel sure, because it involves a fundamental rethink, or pivot, to use a word that has become fashionable. The chemical sector, for example, was slow to the digital transformation table, citing the primacy of safety concerns as its most compelling reason for continuing to rely on human experience and expertise. The tide turned when the realisation began to dawn that production processes could be made far safer by extending the reach of technology, resulting in lower or removed error levels, earlier and more comprehensive indication of problems, greater coverage, greater speed, lower accident rates and better equipment monitoring and management. What was thought to reside most effectively in the heads of experienced people and the knowledge and experience they had amassed, turned out to be held better in a machine. Indeed, covid-19 has laid bare the risk of holding knowledge in the heads of a few workers, who may go off sick with the virus. Hence the importance of embedding corporate knowledge and memory in automated business processes.

What’s common to a lot of these trends is that the case for automation was growing stronger already, but additional covid-19 factors just serve to reinforce the direction of travel. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the pandemic is accelerating the pace of change, whilst adding its own twists as well. 

2 July 2020

This is the second in a series of three posts based on the talk that Aptumus CEO Tim Connolly gave to the Cloud Industry Forum on 24 June, titled: “Why covid-19 is accelerating the move to hybrid human / machine business models.” In this post he looks at Remote Working and the Future of the Office.

It isn’t difficult to find a myriad of predictions about how the experience of lockdown is changing attitudes towards remote working, both personal and corporate. Over time, we will see a whole range of responses from some who, broadly, return to as close to their old status quo as they can to others who will use what they’ve learnt and experienced over the past few months as the trigger for a complete rethink about how they operate.

I’ll try to keep predictions to a minimum, so I won’t get into how widespread I think the change to ways of working is going to be, what percentage of people are going to spend all or most of their time working from home, and so on. It’s more constructive to reflect on some of the great opportunities organisations have not only to change, but to do so in a way that really engages their people and helps them build a growing and widespread culture of change readiness. Many have already surprised themselves by the speed at which they have been able to change when the need to do so was forced upon them and this sets the tone for thinking about the future.

There’s some pretty compelling evidence that many roles – though certainly not all – are proving to be at least as productive when performed remotely. For example, research published in The Times in mid-June suggests that around 1 in 3 people were more productive working at home and indicates a sizeable rise in the number of people who want to work from home more often in the future. Studies going back over the past five years or so, from Princeton, Harvard and Stanford through to marketing agencies and consulting firms, add grist to the mill. No doubt it isn’t always true, but there’s enough to make it worth looking at very closely. There’s the 2015 study that found a 13% productivity increase for call centre workers at a Chinese travel website, who took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and cited a more comfortable working environment. And a 2016 survey by a US employee engagement firm in which 91% of full-time employees reported that they felt they were more productive when working externally. Patent examiners analysed in Harvard Business Review in 2019 not only increased their productivity but, in the case of older workers, often took advantage of a “work from anywhere” policy to move to popular retirement locations, probably extending their working lives as a result, as they eased into old age.

So it could be that there is a twin assault on productivity levels from how people work as well as from the potential of automation. And in the UK especially, opportunities to improve productivity will surely attract management and shareholder attention. We have a well-documented problem in this area – described last year by Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, as the “single most pressing issue” for the UK economy prior to the pandemic.

Some organisations will, no doubt, revert to their old office-based models and cultures, and that will suit many but far from all of their staff. And there will be many who don’t – for reasons of economics, wellbeing, flexibility, sheer practicality for the duration of social distancing, and attractiveness of the employer brand. One person I spoke to recently told me about one of his staff, a New Zealander, who will be returning home soon after living and working here for a few years. After a few weeks of performing her job from home in London following lockdown, something she’d never done before, she went to her boss and asked if she could withdraw her resignation and continue to do her job from the other side of the world.

The insight that this gave to her employers was that remote working has the potential to open up the talent pool – to attract staff for whom the office location is of no importance at all. It didn’t take long for this idea to take root. By late May, Facebook had initiated an “aggressive” increase in remote hiring, setting the expectation that about half its workforce would be permanently remote within the next five to ten years. At exactly the same time Twitter was amongst those companies who announced that virtually all employees would have the option to work from home forever. And this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Lockdown, and the enforced transition of large numbers of staff to working remotely, forced senior people in many organisations to get a rapid understanding of how things really work before migrating to a situation where people were no longer in close proximity to their colleagues. In countless conversations over the past two or three months, I’ve heard people describing the discoveries they’ve made about ill-designed and inefficient processes. With the onset of remote working, it was no longer going to be good enough to assume that what it said in the manual was what was going on in reality. Workarounds that are OK when all the knowledge is embodied in people within easy walking distance of one another fall over when they’re not. The insights thus generated are helping to prepare the ground not only for long-term remote working, but also for more automation. I’ll come back to this in my next post, “Covid-19 and the Advance of the Machines.”

No matter who ends up going back to pre-pandemic working practices and who doesn’t, there will be a shift that will intensify interest in the changing role of the physical workplace. Again, this is something that was becoming an increasingly hot issue pre-covid and comes even more into the spotlight now. It isn’t new to be talking about offices becoming, increasingly, places where people meet, collaborate and get creative rather than being a fixed place to which one goes to work. If covid-19 even moves the dial a little towards more people adopting this approach to their relationship with the office, it will have a significant impact: on the demand for space, on how that space is used and on how technology is deployed and optimised. Enrique Soler, Head of Interior Design at construction and office development firm Willmott Dixon, captures the mood when he says: “The solution will lie in flexible and adaptable environments that support collaboration and ideas sharing while integrated with the communications technology needed for colleagues working remotely.”

For the foreseeable future, repopulating offices and other workplaces such as contact centres to their former level will be fraught with risk – and I don’t just mean the possibility of people getting infected. As long as social distancing requirements were set at two metres, I didn’t come across anybody who was projecting being able to operate at more than 40% of previous capacity. This figure shoots up when the distance drops to one metre – but every organisation that does start ramping up its workplace usage does so in the knowledge that they have to be ready to revert to the remote model overnight if an uptake in cases leads to a further lockdown. Just ask businesses based in Leicester. And, what’s more, plans to repopulate are based on the assumption that people who rely on public transport to get to work are able and willing to make the journey.

So where do you stand? Working from home? Getting back to your place of work as soon as you can? Here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be a choice. If there’s one insight that we can all draw from recent experiences, it is that there is rarely a single, right location in which to work. If you’re fortunate enough to have peace and quiet at home, and you have everything there that you need in order to do your work, and you thrive in that environment, you’re going to do it whenever you it feels right. If you can’t, or don’t want to be stuck at home all day but miss your daily commute like a hole in the head, you might be looking for a coffee shop or a local hotdesking hub, the likes of which will multiply rapidly over the next few years. When there’s a burning need to get together with some colleagues to develop some ideas or just chew the fat and remind one another about the humans you work with, you’ll find a place to do that. It might be the office, it might not. For many people there will be more choices than before.

For business leaders, there’s an amazing opportunity to think about all the options you have to provide working environments that will get the best out of both individuals and teams. As usual, whoever steps up to this challenge with the most innovative and creative mindset will be the one to catch.

25 June 2020

Tim Connolly, CEO of Aptumus, was very pleased to be invited to talk to the Cloud Industry Forum on 24 June on the subject: "Why covid-19 is accelerating the move to hybrid human / machine business models".  This is the first in a series of three posts based on Tim's talk.

“Human to hybrid” is a phrase that was coined by Capita for an excellent research program that they ran during 2019. In those pre-covid times, they confirmed that many business leaders saw the human to hybrid transition as their most important strategic challenge over the next five years. The future viability of organisations becomes increasingly reliant on their ability to rapidly and effectively manage the move from traditional ways of working to a fully tech-enabled future state.

The title of this series of posts makes two implicit statements: that we are moving towards such hybrid human / machine business models, and that this is a development that is happening faster as a consequence of the pandemic. This first post deals with each of these statements.

By “hybrid human / machine business models”, we mean two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s an environment in which, to put it bluntly, people and technology are both resources that can be deployed in value-adding business activities. This has been true as long as there has been any form of mechanisation or power, of course, but what is now changing at a rate of knots is what machines can do. At first it was a case of using technology to perform tasks – in the factory or the office – more efficiently, more reliably and therefore more productively than humans. But over recent years, the scope of technology has, of course, grown dramatically and, as it does so, we have to change our definition of which tasks, roles and therefore jobs can be described as uniquely human. To me, this is a key definition to keep in mind. Today, there are roles that are not just performed faster, more cheaply and more reliably by machines. With the growth of machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data, there is a growing list of things that are possible now – absolutely or at a hitherto unimaginable scale – that quite simply were not before. Our working worlds are already far more hybrid than they were only a few years ago, and this is a development that is going to continue, pandemic or no pandemic. And as it does, the definition of what is uniquely human will change: not just in the form of a declining number of existing jobs that machines can’t do but also, more importantly, in new roles that become possible as a result of the ever-changing technology landscape. That has always happened and it will continue to do so.

In 1983, the US developmental psychologist Howard Gardner introduced his model of multiple human intelligences, a model that continues to be widely used today, including by Gardner himself, still active as a professor at Harvard. He identified nine categories of human intelligence, two of which we can downplay in a business context: the ability to read and understand nature (naturalist) and to tackle the questions of why we live and why we die (existential). Hence reference in some works to his seven categories of human intelligence. Over the last four decades, machines have increasingly penetrated five of Gardner’s categories (musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic and bodily-kinaesthetic).

The other two represent types of intelligence that remain uniquely human: the ability to sense people’s feelings and motives (interpersonal); and the ability to understand oneself – using self-awareness to guide your own behaviour with other people (intrapersonal). These two, together, comprise emotional intelligence, and it’s towards this that human intelligence is migrating as machines increasingly become better than us at many aspects of all the other types of intelligence.

To many, this migration will sound wonderful. Boring, tedious, repetitive work that we’ve never enjoyed will be gobbled up by a machine whilst we use our brains, creativity and emotional intelligence to achieve spectacular personal and / or business outcomes. For others, it’s a genuinely existential threat – a subject for another day, and a critically important one.

Hybrid business models aren’t just about the changing balance between humans and machines performing work. They’re also about the changing role of technology in making new and changed ways of working viable. As remote working grows and the role of the office and other physical workplaces changes, this becomes an increasingly important factor. I’ll return to this in my second post, on “Remote Working and the Future of the Office.”

Turning now to the pace at which hybrid business models are evolving. There are lots of reasons why covid-19 is accelerating this development. They’re shaping not only the fact that they’re changing but also the shape and direction that this change is taking.

Many organisations have surprised themselves by the pace at which they have been able to change when they had to. One quite typical example was a Chief Digital Officer in the food retail sector who reflected to me, as early as the first half of April, that his company had rolled out a single collaboration platform (Microsoft Teams) that was working “seamlessly” across all parts of the business, from people based in stores, depots, or at home. In the past, he pointed out, such a change would have involved a multi-quarter rollout with briefings, videos, train the trainers, change management and so on. But they had got up and running in three weeks. He added, “I’m not saying, ‘just roll out the tech, it’ll be fine,’ but it is an interesting case study in redefining what’s possible.” And it’s that redefinition of what’s possible that is so important in changing corporate and personal attitudes to change.

Indeed, I’ve spoken to people in many organisations over the past three months who have been able to conceive and execute transition plans at extraordinary speed. The plans, and their execution, weren’t perfect, but neither are most carefully planned multi-year transformation programs costing tens of millions of pounds. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the success rate for covid-19 emergency initiatives has been way higher than that for transformation programs over the years.

So in my book, there’s no doubt about the growth of the hybrid human / machine business model and it’s pretty clear that the pace of change has been stepped up over the past few months. In my subsequent posts I’ll explore how and why I think this increase in pace will be sustained, looking at changes to working practices by way of remote working and the future of the office; the acceleration of potential to gain from automation and other technological advances; and the challenges and opportunities facing technology professionals in this fast-changing environment.

How desire paths could change the way we work

31 March 2020

You’ve probably walked along a desire path, whether you realised it or not. They’re the walkways that get formed when pedestrians choose to ignore pre-determined routes laid out by planners in parks and other common areas across our towns, cities, university campuses and other spaces. The tarmac path, for example, takes you to a central point before turning left to lead on to your destination; you, and many of your fellow pedestrians, take a short cut across the hypotenuse of the triangle and, before long, you’ve created a desire path – the route that users choose to take, rather than the one they’ve been directed to.

I wonder whether we’re about to see desire paths take root in some of the many businesses who have had to leave behind the tarmac walkways of their organisation structure in the rush to go virtual over the past few weeks. It’s very clear, from conversations I have and media I read, that lots of people in lots of organisations are getting some very powerful insights about how to prepare for the future from how they’re dealing with the immediate present. A commonly expressed realisation is “we will not go back to operating the way we were.”

Consider the very typical example of a business that, over a period of just two or three weeks, has moved perhaps 80% of the staff who were previously office-based to home working. The technology has been reconfigured, security protocols updated, personal support mechanisms rethought, virtual communications put in place. It will not be perfect, but in most cases, one way or another, it will work. The biggest real-time business change experiment in history has taken another step.

As people settle into remote working, despite no doubt experiencing as many frustrations as when they were office-based, the lines of communication begin to change. Managers, supervisors, team leaders not only have to work differently, they’re also called upon by their staff in different ways. Less constrained by the conventions of the physical workplace, people look to different (even external) sources for support, ideas, guidance and inspiration. They begin to self-organise. Some groups, maybe even entire functions, gradually notice they’re not being asked to get involved in initiatives that they would expect to be. It turns out that they were only being consulted because they were there, not because there was any perception that they were needed. Somebody said to me recently, “we’ve managed this whole major change without even thinking of asking our internal change team for help.” Out of sight meant out of mind. That tells us something.

Whether by intent or not, leadership and management styles begin to change. Maybe you’ll select a new technology to try to monitor employee movements and actions very tightly. Be careful what you wish for if you go down this route and think about how such a move will influence staff behaviour – positively in some environments, less so in most. Maybe you’ll decide to allow more freedom than your staff are used to, perhaps more than they’re comfortable with. But in most cases, the reality is that more freedom is what they’ll get, and the leader’s job is to help them, and therefore the organisation, to make the most of the enforced change in circumstances.

… And to learn from the experience. Nothing will be quite the same again. In many businesses, the experience we’re going through now is letting the genie out of the bottle. The desire paths are being formed. Amidst the inevitable confusion, uncertainty and, indeed, failed experiments, we are all going to learn a great deal over the coming weeks and months about ways of working, collaborating, communicating and organising ourselves that we won’t – and shouldn’t – forget. There are no hard and fast right answers, although I’m sure we’ll see some common themes and trends emerging over the next few months. And I’ll certainly predict that there will be a growing appetite in many quarters for greater flexibility in how we work and organise ourselves. I’ve seen what I call cell structures work very well, where cells are formed by a group of people for a particular purpose (such as developing a new business idea, working on a client project, changing a set of business processes) and, over time, each person’s relationship to the organisation becomes defined not by department but by the portfolio of cells of which they are a member. Like all cells, over time they cease to have a useful purpose and they close down, or die, and new ones take their place. 

Such a structure is a natural environment for change-ready organisations, and it’s my belief that the desire paths being formed over the next few months will give many businesses the opportunity to adapt and embrace this development far more readily than we could have anticipated just a few weeks ago. Do look at what’s currently going on in your organisation through this lens. What is this unwanted and unplanned major change experiment showing you that you do not want to lose?

Coming out of this stronger: what can we be doing right now?

25 March 2020

I’ve been having some interesting conversations over the past week or so with senior people in a diverse range of organisations, all grappling with the challenges of continuing to run their business as society locks down and we all do our utmost to stop the economy going with it. I’ve noticed two very clear themes in these discussions.

The first is a firm and widely-expressed desire to use this strange period of our lives as an opportunity to come out stronger and better equipped for everything the future has in store - from the never-ending forces of change being driven by new technology, business models and customer expectations to the next Black Swan, be that a cyber attack, another human virus or something else we haven’t thought of. I’ll come back to that below.

The second theme emerges from the need that many, many organisations currently have, to take some very rapid decisions about how to keep operating in a situation that doesn’t quite fit with any of the business continuity or disaster scenario planning that they had done over the years. To start with, there’s often a lack of clarity, certainly at a senior level, about exactly how business processes and the underlying activities are actually performed. This doesn’t really matter too much when the people who do know are there, talking to one another, doing their workarounds, putting things right as they go. But it suddenly becomes very important when the need arises to, effectively, implement a new process predicated on:

  • Remote working – with people physically separated from one another and technology having to be reconfigured to support these new arrangements
  • The potential loss of key people to illness.

What’s emerging is that, as senior people rapidly and urgently do get some clarity, they’re obtaining a perspective on how their business operates that they haven’t had before – even though they have known for years that they should have. And that perspective begins to show up the potential to do things differently, in more joined-up and integrated ways, with fewer (and maybe different) people, achieving better outcomes. This not only presents opportunities to simplify and streamline, it’s also essential prework for seriously embracing automation, which is entirely reliant on total clarity about the processes and activities it is going to transform or replace.

These insights provide a golden example of the opportunity to use this enforced period of disruption to positive effect – to come out stronger and better equipped for the future. It may sound callous to be talking like this at a time when companies are laying people off and some jobs will never be restored, but no business is going to survive, and keep people employed, if it turns a blind eye to opportunities to improve the way it operates. Indeed, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, it’s making changes like this that will open up new work and career opportunities for people, playing to those changing skills and attributes that remain uniquely human. Look carefully at what you’re seeing as you reconfigure your business for the Covid-19 period; you may be uncovering insights that enable you to open up the potential for whole new business models, change-ready and fit for the age of automation.

Remote working: how strong is your trust culture?

16 March 2020

I said in my last post that I’d gladly add more about the risks and downsides of the enforced widespread adoption of “working from home” across much of the world.

The key, I’d suggest, is to come to terms with the new assumptions that need to be adopted as remote working on this scale comes into play. Most fundamentally, as an employer, you have to trust whilst, as an employee, you’re obliged to honour and respect the trust that is being placed in you, whatever the circumstances, even if you believe that, Covid-19 apart, never in a million years would your employer have allowed you to take your work home. It’s worth asking, therefore, how strong your organisation’s trust culture is.

If the honest answer is that it isn’t great, you need to be honest in accepting that you won’t be able to change it overnight. It’s better, and more realistic, to think of the enforced introduction – or extension – of home / remote working as a highly visible opportunity to start doing things differently. And how you start will have a big bearing on how you carry on.

People “work from home” in many different ways. Some genuinely fit the identikit image of not quite getting round to getting dressed all day and work quite happily in a super-relaxed state. Others go to the opposite extreme and get ready for work in all but the commute. There are variations of all shapes and sizes in between. I’d like to say that this is because each person is operating in the way that works best for them; I doubt that’s true, but as an employer you can help them to do so. They don’t need to follow the conventions of the workplace – not all of them, anyway – and employers can help their staff to discover what new-found flexibility they’ve got, and what duties and responsibilities sit alongside it. They can help remote / home workers to think through what working environment is going to fit best with their own personality, working style and socialisation needs, whilst also satisfying the requirements of their customers, their colleagues and their employer.

How to do this? That’s the question that brings us back to the trust culture. If trust is strong, it will come quite naturally to you, and your staff, to have conversations with them about how they, and you, will make remote working a success, possibly even an integral part of your business model in the future. If it is not, acknowledge it, put yourself in your employees’ shoes and ask yourself what fears and concerns they may have about being entrusted to manage themselves more than usual. In a low-trust culture, the fear of being criticised or sanctioned for doing something wrong is high. How well you succeed in alleviating this fear will probably be the main determinant of the success of a period of widescale remote working; more than this, it could give you the opportunity to start a fundamental, positive change in company culture. 

Out of adversity...

11 March 2020

This week’s Economist describes the next few, Covid-19 dominated, months as “a giant experiment in whether new technologies can allow successful mass remote working for employees, speeding up the reinvention of the office.”

Academics may shudder at how imperfect the conditions are for this experiment, but it has the enormous advantage of taking place in real world, albeit somewhat atypical, conditions. Companies will learn from the disruption to working patterns and practices that are already taking shape. What will we learn? More specifically, once the crisis has eased, how can we use the experience to better equip us for the world of work in the 2020s?

My view is that one of the most powerful lessons will be something for which there is already a lot of evidence. Indeed, it isn’t the evidence that will necessarily become stronger or more compelling over the coming months, but the experience: remote working will be forced on many organizations and individuals who might never have otherwise contemplated it. For some, it won’t work, but for others there will be new insights as to how they (as organizations) can improve both working conditions and business outcomes and (as individuals) how the personal world of work can offer previously unimaginable levels of flexibility and personal control.

That’s as far as I am going to go in the dangerous space of predictions. Studies, from Princeton, Harvard and Stanford through to marketing agencies and consulting firms provide a growing body of evidence that remote working can significantly improve productivity and employee wellbeing. No doubt it isn’t always true, but there’s enough to make it worth looking at very closely, from the 2015 study that found a 13% productivity increase for call centre workers at a Chinese travel website, who took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and cited a more comfortable working environment; through a 2016 survey by a US employee engagement firm in which 91% of full-time employees reported that they felt they were more productive when working externally; to patent examiners reported in Harvard Business Review in 2019, who not only increased their productivity but, in the case of older workers, often took advantage of a “work from anywhere” policy to move to popular retirement locations, probably extending their working lives as a result as they eased into old age.

It isn’t without its risks and downsides. Surveyed employees report difficulty in preserving their work-life balance when the work is down the corridor or at the end of the garden. Anxiety and stress levels can be higher in remote workers, fuelling a sense of isolation that drives some back to the familiar environment of the physical workplace. But every change, every new way of working has risks and downsides and it is up to employers to consider how to address these (although I’ll gladly help them in a future article). The reality is that the office – to use the Economist’s phrase – is in need of reinvention, and it’s a need that the next few months could throw into very sharp relief.

To repeat: remote working can significantly improve productivity and employee wellbeing. Will it for you, and for your organization? I cannot say, and quite likely you can’t yet, either. But there’s a strong possibility that many, organizations and individuals alike, will acquire far greater insights into new possibilities for how they work over the next few months than they have ever had before. Benjamin Franklin’s mantra has proved true many times before. I hope the opportunity that comes out of this adversity isn’t wasted.

Changing the definition of what is uniquely human: digital transformation in the chemical sector

Forbes published a fascinating article in January 2020 about digital transformation in the chemical industry. It traces how the safety concerns that deterred a risk-averse industry from embracing digital transformation became the very reasons why it did. “The chemical sector’s concern for safety now becomes a reason to accelerate digitalization, not to delay it.”

Machines take on activities that they can perform better than humans. Not just quicker, or with lower error rates, or more energy-efficiently, but at a more fundamental level. On a scale that would be economically impossible for humans. Earlier and more comprehensive problem detection and response. Better preventative maintenance. Transformed product development.

For companies seeking to keep ahead of the game these changes drive organizational redesign, new analytics and definitions of success and, perhaps most importantly of all, a rethink of their people strategy. How do they ensure that they remain competitive in engaging with the right people, suitably educated, qualified and experienced, to perform those roles that are, and will be, uniquely human? The most important insight for these organizations is to understand how this digital transformation is driving a requirement for different or enhanced human capabilities. In the case of the chemical sector, it’s things like the ability to operate digital software; data manipulation and analytics skills; the ability to interpret information and respond to issues and opportunities; continuous improvement; product design and redesign.

At a more macro level, we’ll shortly be taking a look at what the World Economic Forum has to say about emerging professions for the age of automation.

It needs to be on the agenda of every CEO and their executive team to be constantly asking how the demand for human and machine capabilities is changing, how it is expected to change in the near future and how well equipped the business is to develop these capabilities – in both categories. Today’s workforce is a hybrid of humans and machines: that is the reality of the future of work and it’s an essential lens through which to view modern business life.