Cass expert considers the impact of the pandemic on the future of work.

Published (Updated )

The coronavirus has caused huge disruption to the workplace, with many of us forced to consider new ways of working and how we communicate with colleagues and clients.

Professor Feng Li, who is Chair of Information Management at Cass Business School, considers the impact of the pandemic on the future of work and offers advice for companies to ensure they can be as responsive, agile and flexible as possible when facing these challenges.

What impact will the pandemic have on the future of work?

“The pandemic has introduced radical changes on both the professional and personal level. It has forced tens of millions of people to adopt remote working almost overnight. From education and administration, banking, journalism and government, to yoga and gym classes, concerts and medical consultations, face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video conferencing, and daily commuting and business travel have stopped. This creates huge challenges for organisations and individuals who have been forced to adapt with very short notice.

“Although the pandemic introduced a new kind of disruption, in many ways it is simply accelerating changes that were already well under way. The shift to remote working has been going on for 50 years (the notion of telecommuting was conceived during the first oil crisis in the early 1970s) and even though the digital transformation of work in the last 10 years has been faster than ever before, it has just become even faster.

“Equally, the digital disruption across industries has been urgent, but it is now life and death for many organisations. Those who cannot manage the transition to new ways or working or new forms of product and service delivery will struggle, and many may never recover. People might look forward to the day when life returns to normal, but the changes we introduce now as emergency measures are likely to stay, and the ‘new normal’ will be significantly different from life before the pandemic. In other words, everything will become more digital – even physical activities will increasingly be facilitated, if not replaced – by digital.

“One particularly important change is the way teams work. Teamwork is fundamentally important for contemporary organisations, and every company is a team of teams. However, despite decades of research and practice, most organisations are still notoriously inconsistent in creating, sustaining and leading high performance teams. Yes, there are a large number of ‘how-to’ guides on team working, but the truth is that no consistent patterns have been identified between team characteristics and performance. We have seen, time and again, that teams with almost identical characteristics – some even with overlapping members – deliver drastically different performance.

“When people and organisations go digital, teams will be turned into virtual teams, which will create huge new challenges in managing technology, team cohesion, time-zone difference, and cultural diversity. My research in association with Slack Technologies introduced a new approach - Team to Market: Creating High Performance Teams in the Digital Age – to help business leaders and knowledge workers create and lead high performance teams in the digital age. It challenges the checklist approach that has been widely used, but instead introduces a new way of supporting teams and team work for the digital age.”

How can companies prepare for these changes?

“When faced with digital disruptions, the natural tendency for many business leaders is to make one big bet and hope for the best. This was the case even before the pandemic, and Covid-19 has forced nearly all businesses to find alternative ways to carry on. However, ‘betting the farm’ is not to be recommended when you could lose everything. There are alternative – and better – ways to tackle such changes.

“Although new start-ups are often able to introduce radically new ways of working, for incumbents, the cost of making the wrong bet is often far greater. My research in association with VMWare on Innovating in the Exponential Economy: Digital Disruption and Bridging the New Innovation-Execution Gap highlighted three emerging approaches that some global digital champions have adopted to manage the transition to new technologies, new business models and new organisational designs.

"They are innovating by experimenting; pursuing an evolving portfolio of emerging opportunities rather than making one big bet and introducing radical changes via successive incremental steps. In particular, the linear approach of developing a strategy and then spending years to execute it is no longer viable. New strategies are increasingly developed and recalibrated through execution.”

How can staff educate themselves and ensure that they are well-placed to respond to these new ways of working?

“The pandemic has created huge challenges for many people to adapt to digital, both with work and everyday life, but the silver lining is that it is forcing a mass upgrading of our digital literacy across different age and social groups around the world. We are not just talking about staff from different types of organisations - grandparents are increasingly resorting to Facetime or Skype to stay in touch with their grandchildren while Zoom and Houseparty are used to stay in touch with friends.

“Although physical products still need to be made and delivered and many service jobs will always have to be done in person, the mass transition to digital means productivity is likely to receive a major boost. When the pandemic is over, the world will return to face-to-face mingling, but remote working and living will become a permanent fixture for a significant proportion of the population.

“My advice to anyone is to learn, experiment with, and polish, your digital skills through work and play. Those who successfully experiment with new ways of working, leading and organising by finding the golden middle between digital and physical will be best positioned for the future.”

Professor Feng Li is Chair of Information Management at Cass Business School. Find out more about his work and research here.