The future of work is about thriving in unpredictability

By embracing agility as a differentiator and growth driver, we are able to prepare for future disruptions and build lasting companies in the "fragile planet" that we live in today.

SINGAPORE businesses are all set to go back to office after more than 18 months away. Economies are opening up; border restrictions are easing. It is time to get back to business growth and recovery.

Some have touted the new normal as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine work models for the future of work. But what does that mean in practice and reality?

From KPMG in Singapore's interactions with businesses globally, we are proposing that in a highly uncertain future and competitive world, one way to triumph from uncertainties is to build resilient organisations capable of being unpredictable themselves. By embracing agility as a differentiator and growth driver, we are able to prepare for future disruptions and build lasting companies in the "fragile planet" that we live in today, challenged by climate change.

Specifically, we recommend 3 pillars to consider in companies' future work strategies:

1. Creating a learning tribe

2. Fostering a hybrid work culture

3. Building a healthy and sustainable workplace

These pillars cut across the dimensions of employees, new work formats, learning and collaboration as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) change, while reinforcing the company's overall strategic objectives and business goals.

We know that we cannot go back to business as usual - what worked in the past may not apply in the future. Large corporate headquarters, the nine-to-five, 5-day-a-week routines, business travel, are among the vestiges of our traditional ways of working that may lose relevance.

As the race for global talent heats up, business leaders in Singapore are also increasingly aware that they need to foster people-first mindsets to position their organisations as great places to work. About 24 per cent of Singapore chief executive officers surveyed by KPMG view employee value proposition as their top operational priority over the next 3 years, as compared to just 13 per cent of their Asia-Pacific and 19 per cent of their global peers. Our business leaders are also increasingly prioritising how they reward and incentivise talent (38 per cent in 2021 versus 14 per cent in 2020).

PURPOSE AND FLEXIBILITY

The future workplace will need to be a place where people want to work because they are driven by a sense of purpose, where diverse perspectives lead to innovative solutions, and where everyone has the flexibility to set their own schedules.

In reality, keeping employees engaged and motivated will not be straightforward in the new world of work. Employees often find themselves frustrated by a complex web of micro events, interactions and touch points, while human connections are not always easy to develop in virtual work settings. Companies will need to find opportunities to create structures and initiatives that help break down silos and foster trusting relationships to create the foundations for an accountable workforce.

A possible approach is for businesses to create their own learning tribe, where they seek to drive innovation, provoke new thought and creatively pivot business models by engaging employees, building deep subject matter expertise and leading with purpose.

This will involve conscientious effort to gather experts across the firm and from outside to share knowledge and skills generously with employees to push people out from their comfort zones. Cross-country projects, multi-business interactions, on-the-job learning and interdepartmental immersion stints can also contribute to greater engagement while upping the ante. Developing future-relevant skills for jobs that may not even exist today, especially in emerging areas such as cybersecurity and tech, will also prove vital.

There should also be thought on how the use of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and augmented reality, can facilitate seamless physical and virtual collaboration and ideation - which may be needed to drive learning and accelerate workplace transformation.

Ultimately, establishing a learning tribe is about increasing touch points with teammates and knowledgeable others. This will help make employees feel motivated and cared for.

As businesses think about the future of work, they will be keen to evolve hybrid work models that combine physical and remote formats, with the goal of addressing their employees' changing preferences as well as the nuances of the sectors in which they operate. Yet, some companies still hold on to the belief that productivity can only be achieved if the employee is physically in the office.

Hence, a challenge is finding that sweet spot between allowing employees autonomy and flexibility without sacrificing team cohesion, productivity and inclusion. One way to empower employees and decrease the risk of burnout may be to let them set their own schedules, while giving thought to balancing remote and in-office workers' schedules.

Rethinking behaviours and protocols will be essential in cultivating a culture that supports future ways of work. This means employers will need to change existing mindsets to create an open company culture where there are frequent conversations and speaking up, even when meetings are largely virtual.

A CONCERTED EFFORT

Organisations can also tap into extensive scientific and psychological research on how people work, and how environmental factors influence productivity and effectiveness. Understanding these factors will help them design a successful hybrid operation.

A phased, calibrated approach should be considered, identifying the areas where businesses most need to enable hybrid working, and prioritising them based on feasibility, viability and desirability. These plans also need to be clearly articulated to employees, with the expectation that there could be some resistance to change along the way.

The third pillar enabling the future of work involves reorienting work environments towards wellness and sustainability, where spaces and settings are designed to promote healthy working habits and business resilience. ESG priorities will be at the heart of workplace transformation, especially as Singapore steps up efforts to rein in carbon emissions in the coming years.

Singapore CEOs are already feeling the heat from the climate change agenda. Around 40 per cent of Singapore business leaders surveyed by KPMG feel that disengaged employees or recruitment challenges are among the biggest downsides of failing to match expectations of stakeholders in terms of climate change, compared with just 28 per cent of Asia-Pacific and 31 per cent of global CEOs.

Beyond residing offices in green buildings, and constantly walking the talk on ESG, businesses will also need to design their policies to safeguard the physical and psychological well-being of employees, while involving them extensively in climate change.

For instance, KPMG is strengthening its global commitment to ESG, with its recent US$1.5 billion investment focused on driving the ESG change agenda, including training its global workforce, harnessing data, forging alliances and developing new technologies, among other aspects.

Even though the future is at our doorstep, crafting the future of work will take concerted effort and a much longer trajectory. Companies should continue to endeavour to create plugged-in, people-first and purpose-driven organisations that are able to make a positive impact on the world while propelling future growth.

  • The writer is head of people at KPMG in Singapore.

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