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Remote work is just one part of the future of work and learning

Simon Chan, the Vice President of Talent, Academy & Future of Work at Communitech, introduces the Future of Work concept and what it means for businesses.

Work is changing and it isn’t just due to COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic, the norms that governed the workplace for 50+ years were beginning to break down. Expectations had begun to change. Global demographics – including changes in lifespan – were changing the lengths and types of careers. The pace of change was leading to continuous retraining and artificial intelligence was threatening to disrupt industries and careers alike. Remote work and freelancing was becoming more popular and precarious work more common.

COVID-19 just sped many of these changes up. For example, 76% of CFOs now intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently.

With the future of work arriving in fast-forward, now is the perfect time to expand the scope of our series on remote work to look at the bigger picture. That’s why we spoke with Simon Chan, the Vice President of Talent, Academy & Future of Work at Communitech.

This is the fourth edition in a new Waterloo EDC series on remote work. Stay tuned for posts featuring a variety of perspectives on the subject, including our Q&As with SkyWatch, OpenText, and a recruitment expert.

Q: Most people know what remote work is, but “Future of Work” isn’t (yet) a common concept. Could you tell us what falls under the “Future of Work” umbrella? Why is this important for companies and communities alike?

CHAN: It’s a wide range of topics under one huge umbrella and there isn’t a common definition. However, based on our research we are able to break it out into three buckets of disruption: workforce, learning and workplace.

Under workforce, we’re seeing career expectations changing, more career transitions, different types of non-traditional work are emerging – freelance, for example – and the increased focus on mental health. The change in learning is a move away from “one and done” education – where you’re trained for a specific job – to continuous learning where you’re always upskilling and reskilling to keep pace. Most of the attention around the future of work is on the workplace – our offices, technology and culture are facing disruption, including the movement to more remote and distributed teams, as well as more diversity and a more open or informal culture.

Companies and communities are both going to experience challenges as the future of work disrupts traditional career models. The way to counter this is to embrace adaptability and join forces to find solutions that work for everyone.

Q: How and why has COVID-19 shifted the timetable for these changes?

CHAN: What COVID has done is propel us into a virtual/digital way of working and a dispersed working environment. We had no real alternative, which is a unique circumstance.

We’ve had to adopt new technology and new approaches to communication, learn to work remotely and find the right way to integrate work and life. COVID has broken through the traditional ways of thinking. For example, leaders need to adapt to managing teams remotely, putting greater emphasis on outputs and deliverables, ensuring employee safety in a challenging environment and increasing flexibility beyond the usual comfort zone. Necessity has broken through traditional ways of thinking and managing – the assumption that remote work is impossible or that you have to see your staff to manage them is now being challenged.

This global pandemic has made changes that would have happened over a 5-10 year period a necessity.

Q: Are the changes – or the shifts set in motion by COVID-19 – permanent? Or, are there things that will stick and other changes that will revert once restrictions are limited?

CHAN: I think it’s a question of degrees, rather than whether some changes will stick and others will disappear.

Remote work will continue to be a thing. We’re going to see a demand for more flexibility – decreased commute time, personalized work schedule, increased productivity, etc. – from the workforce. As we move forward, organizations will also look to reduce or reimagine their real estate footprint. All of this will force managers and leaders to assess how they attract, manage and develop talent, provide access to a global talent pool and change the management mindset to value output over attendance. In-person work will focus on high-value collaborative work.

We’ve heard a lot about organizations going full-remote, but I think many will end up in more of a hybrid model where you see more remote work but in-person gatherings for collaborative work and relationship building.

We’ll see a greater focus on employee well-being, too. Right now, a human-centred approach to health, safety and wellness is front-and-centre and this will become an integral part of the employee experience and will play a central role in talent attraction and retention.

Last, but not least, rapid learning and reskilling is a permanent change. The environment is ambiguous and uncertain – with potentially significant workforce consequences – so individuals and organizations will need to adapt to new opportunities and realities.

Q: Moving from the pre-COVID work to a “future of work” is going to include lots of challenges. It’s a paradigm shift. Is there anything companies/communities can do to proactively overcome these challenges?

CHAN: The future of work will require proactive adaptation and learning on the part of companies and communities.

Companies will have to pivot to a more employee-centred philosophy if they want to attract and retain talent that has new-found access to remote career opportunities. This philosophy includes continuous learning, flexibility and an increased focus on safety and culture. Communities have a leadership role to play, ensuring that all organizations and individuals are brought along during the transition to the future of work.

We believe the best way to keep pace with change is to make this transition together. We need to collaborate across sectors.

Q: The idea of significant changes to the way we work seems a bit pie-in-the-sky without buy-in from all types of employers – are you seeing engagement from public and private sectors? What do businesses get out of adapting to a future concept of work and learning?

CHAN: In the Waterloo Future of Work coalition, we have active participation from academia, public and private sectors. The level of engagement is dependent on a number of factors like culture of the organization, size and maturity of the organization and even the degree to which they’re being affected by COVID-19.

In our experience, buy-in comes from aligning on common priorities. We all have our own priorities, but there’s plenty that we can work on together. Each organization brings its own perspective and all perspectives bring value to this discussion. There’s a ton of shared value if we work together.

That said, when I’m talking to organizations about why they should work with us I highlight three layers of value. First, being a mission-driven organization is good for talent attraction. That doesn’t mean the mission is the primary concern – you can still sell a product – but working toward the future health of the community demonstrates a commitment to something beyond shareholder value. Second, we’re developing best practices for becoming future ready and any progressive organization should want access to those best practices. Finally, as we transition to the future of work our existing business models are going to change, which means there will be an innovation opportunity for organizations looking to develop new products/solutions to meet the future needs.

Q: Last, but not least, you’re running a Future of Work coalition in Waterloo. How do can other communities and/or companies get involved? Do you have webinars or other materials people can check out?

CHAN: We’re hearing from communities that are interested in creating similar coalitions to address the future of work as it pertains to their own situation, including Halifax and Windsor.

As we’ve shifted to a virtual focus during COVID-19 we’ve shifted to offering webcast events on various aspects of the future of work, including talent attraction, upskilling and reskilling. The series is called The Future (of Work) is Now. You can learn more about the webinars, other resources and sign up for our newsletter on our dedicated Waterloo Region Future of Work and Learning Coalition page.

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