Business leaders are at an inflection point. We have a decision to make regarding what we want the future of work to look like — specifically, what we want our people to spend their time doing, and what we want our technology to accomplish.
In one direction, we have the future we’ve been building for some time, wherein the only thing that matters is data, and all problems are best solved by applications that collect data, or automate tasks related to it. People are generally disregarded.
In the other direction, we have a kinder, happier, more empathetic future, where the needs, preferences, and unique abilities of people — our most valuable asset — are lent proper credence.
It’s imperative we choose the latter. Why? because the status quo is failing both companies and our employees. It’s doing so in three primary ways.
First, our deification of tech has perpetuated the “Last Mile” problem, in which processes strung across an ever-increasing number of siloed, functionally limited applications and work environments prove incapable of running end-to-end. The resulting inefficiencies cost companies in the ballpark of 20–30% of their revenue each year.
Second, our deification of tech has drained us of our happiness. Because employees spend more time filling in gaps created by the limitations of technology than they do benefitting from its functionality, people increasingly feel underutilized, dispirited, and disengaged.
Finally, as has been illuminated starkly by the COVID-19 pandemic, the processes and systems we create today are not nearly flexible enough. This is because the apps we’re subservient to aren’t holistic in scope. They’re typically designed only to do one thing. Our processes in turn typically only work under specific circumstances. When those circumstances abruptly change (by way of a market disruption that forces employees to work from home), our processes break down.
We need a future that instead prioritizes people. Employees shouldn’t be forced to spend such meaningful amounts of time completing mind-numbing clerical work. Rather, they should feel empowered to do what they do best — the high-leverage knowledge work they were hired to do. Research shows that employees who feel so supported also feel happier and more motivated.
Engaged employees, meanwhile, positively impact companies’ bottom lines. According to Gallup, companies that report higher employee engagement see 21% higher profitability.
Likewise, the best tool business leaders have at our disposal to ensure our companies remain agile — able to adapt in the face of disruption — is our people. Mission-critical processes and workflows built only atop tech live and die with that tech; when the apps go down, or begin not to work, so do our companies. However, when we strategize our systems around the guiding question of what our people need to flourish, and in turn build those systems so as to allow people to continue flourishing even when conditions change, that’s when we can begin to say our companies are adaptive. When employees have to work from home, we don’t panic, because we’ve accounted for that in our tech, operational strategies, and business continuity plans.
Here’s the truth: technology alone can never be your most valuable asset. Instead, technology must be used to empower people. People are the most important thing — equipped with irreplaceable soft skills, like the ability to think on the fly, problem-solve innovatively, and collaborate to create progress. People are what facilitate growth, and allow us as business leaders to meaningfully differentiate our offerings and ethos. The companies who’ve done the best have always by and large appreciated this fact, typically by using technology to augment their people, rather than encumber or replace them.
We may not know what the future of work will actually look like, but we do know this: the world will continue to change. We shouldn’t presume that the ground beneath our feet is stable enough to rely on. We must optimize for adaptability.
There’s one sure-fire way to do that. So, as we design the infrastructure of our companies — the processes and systems that inform how they run and grow — we should no longer ask ourselves, “Hmm, what technology solution do we need to achieve this or that outcome?”
Rather, we should ask ourselves, “What do our people need to thrive?”