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The new age of innovation

How COVID is redefining the future of work

In evolutionary biology, the theory of punctuated equilibrium depicts evolution as comprising long stretches of stability spliced with rapid, intense periods of change.

For thousands of years, a species trudges along—living, breeding, and dying all without any significant mutation. Then, the sea level drops, and it’s forced to adapt, becoming in the blink of an evolutionary eye something fundamentally different than its ancestors just a short time ago.

This phenomenon exists within social systems as well, and we’re experiencing it right now in the world of work as the “how” of work is decoupled from the “where” of it. To better understand what’s unfolding, ServiceNow commissioned a comprehensive study of the impact of COVID-19 on business and the future of work.

Our findings, culled from a survey of 900 executives and 8,100 rank-and-file employees across 11 countries, depict a business world fundamentally reshaped by pandemic yet unsure what that will ultimately mean.

Tellingly, both executives and employees are split on whether the early days of COVID-19 were the hardest or if the real test is yet to come. And while that’s a surprise considering the scale and shock of the COVID disruption, a deeper dive into the data shows competing expectations in real need of resolution.

One thing, however, is clear: The future of work is now, and it is being built in real-time in offices, worksites, and homes around the world.

Employees and executives disagree

This future arrived sooner than anyone expected. Ninety-two percent of executives said COVID-19 forced their company to rethink how work gets done, and 91%, in addition to 87% of employees, admitted the change happened faster than they thought possible.

Employees overwhelmingly like these innovations, with their day-to-day characterized by distributed, flexible work. Their leaders are not so sure; nearly half want to return to pre-COVID business procedures and arrangements.

That’s unsurprising after decades in which organizations relied on face-to-face interactions to manage the mess of modern-day knowledge work. Under this system, presence was a proxy for performance, and tasks were assigned haphazardly with no means to track who was working on what and how that work was progressing.

Employees overwhelmingly like these innovations, with their day-to-day characterized by distributed, flexible work.

Proximity helped leaders feel secure about the work being done and allowed employees to collaborate through informal chats that bridged departmental silos. When a question arose, the answer was rarely more than a few cubicles away, and as a result, location (and to a lesser extent, time) became the connective tissue of the enterprise. Then, the proximity upon which work depended vanished, and although we initially pulled together, our survey shows trust and coordination issues rapidly beginning to emerge.

Notably, 93% of executives and 83% of employees are concerned about the impact remote work will have on their companies, with the former most worried about delays in product or service delivery and the latter about challenges in collaboration.

I understand these concerns, and in fact, I share them. But I also believe the problems we are experiencing are not inherent to remote work but instead the result of how we are working while remote.

To maintain our present pace of innovation and retain the best parts of distributed work, we need a new path forward—one that deploys workflows to bridge the gap between employees who have embraced new ways of working and executives who worry about its long-term sustainability.

Workflows are the new enterprise boundary

In this new path, workflows replace location as the boundary of the enterprise and offer a middle ground that balances the flexibility employees want with the visibility executives and managers need.

Already, workflows are used in information technology, human resources, and customer service to track incidents and automate repetitive tasks. That creates clear visibility into a department’s operating environment while eliminating the friction that manual, offline processes bring.

Workflows that automate processes like employee onboarding or password reset are important to a distributed workforce, but alone, they are not enough. The future of work will instead be defined by what I call operational workflows—those that sit close to the customer and drive the product or service at the core of a business.

These workflows exist in every industry. In finance, they push loan applications through pre-approval to underwriting and closing. In manufacturing, they bring product from the factory floor through to shipping and distribution.

By connecting every corner of an organization through workflows, we create a new way of collaborating—one that eschews informal, inefficient face-to-face interactions for structured workflows and automation.

That leaves executives with the control they need to feel comfortable and employees with the tools and information they need to do their jobs well.

In this world, workflows connect the enterprise, and location ceases to matter at all.

Companies are falling behind

Our data shows this is the future employees want, but currently 90% of executives admit their business relies on offline, manual processes. Meanwhile, three out of five companies lack a fully integrated workflow system.

For companies without such a system, the future of work will not arrive, and soon they’ll fall behind—the victim of inefficient manual processes and a talent gap that is sure to arrive. In contrast, companies run on a foundation of workflows will not only witness productivity gains that grow their top and bottom lines but will also attract top talent and a greater diversity of thought.

Ultimately, the future of work is not a binary choice between the office or the home. Instead, it’s a new paradigm entirely.

That paradigm is still being built, but I’m confident we will eventually reach a new equilibrium defined by flexibility and agility—at least until our next period of punctuation arrives.