The Future Workplace
Dr. David Kohl, Professor Emeritus Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech University
The pandemic has accelerated change in the U.S. and global workforce that was already occurring in the U.S. and global workforce as a result of technology, demographics, worker and management demands and mindsets. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist magazine indicate that approximately 40% of jobs are not location dependent.
The workplace of the future will be comprised of three models. The first model will include location-dependent positions. The second will be a hybrid model, when an employee or worker will work remotely 20% to 80% of the time. This person will join others or become “location centric” the remainder of the time. How often depends upon responsibilities, tasks or the need for engagement and interaction with others, either inside or outside the organization. The third workplace model will be remote work, either as part of a larger organization or as contract workers.
Now, let's delve deeper into a remote-work culture designed for productivity, engagement and other components that human resource managers and management teams must assess. For my team, we’ve been working in a remote work environment for nearly two decades due to my extensive travel schedule. We are usually in different time zones 50% to 70% of the time, either in the United States or abroad. The pandemic has drastically shifted our mode of operations, too!
Tips for remote work effectiveness
For a work team, the critical physical attributes to be productive are an investment in technology and tools for office efficiency. Access to high-speed internet, which can be an issue in both rural and urban areas, is essential. However, as a futurist, I see this gap closing as legislative initiatives to expand internet access are a high priority at the local, state and national levels. It is highly suggested that a dedicated space or office location is reserved, which allows for focus, minimal distractions and enhanced productivity. Wilbur, a character on the old television show Mister Ed, would actually work from his office in the barn. Despite a talking horse, perhaps this show was ahead of its time?
Trust is another critical element for success in the employer-employee relationship. Clear communications regarding assignments, projects, responsibilities and periodic feedback are elements of an effective work culture, whether remote, hybrid or location centric. Ideally, some of the metrics for productivity and quality of output can be provided in the goals and objectives. Communication, whether it’s with staff, team interface or customer-vendor engagement, will vary depending on the situation.
Another article in The Economist magazine called for a 5-hour productive workday as quite appropriate for this type of work culture. The piece states that no one can effectively focus on a task or project for more than five hours a day without distractions or going on “unproductive bunny trails.” Those who schedule their most productive five hours per day for work will be ahead of almost 90% of the workforce. It’s imperative for both the employer and employee to know when the most productive time of day occurs so that they can focus.
In many instances, periodic engagement with team members, customers and stakeholders can energize the workplace environment. Of course, many workers are “zoomed out” and good old-fashioned face-to-face contact, following health guidelines, can be a best practice. Next, a learning environment is necessary to maintain a competitive edge. Finally, if the engagement is via text, email, video, face-to-face or another method, quickly align and mirror the mode of contact. Adaptability and flexibility are key for an effective work environment.
Character of the remote associate
Recruiting and retaining talent will be one of the top five challenges of any agribusiness over the next five years. The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate transition in the workforce as people retire, move, and change jobs. The workforce of the future may include up to five generations of employees, which can create tension and conflict. On the other hand, creativity could be the outcome if the energy is properly focused and channeled. The tasks and priorities will quickly accelerate creating new opportunities. With that being said, what are some of the characteristics of effective remote workers?
One characteristic is that they enjoy independence and have the ability to self-start and direct their own work with occasional team member and customer interaction. Self-discipline, focus and internal motivation are necessary attributes. Time management skills and knowing productivity zones or productive hours can be effective. Sometimes, the best results could occur at 3 a.m. or on a holiday weekend. Working remotely is often not an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. situation.
Remote work is often task or project oriented. This requires prioritizing tasks and working in short sprints that result in a long-term journey of success. These individuals usually enjoy high-tech, high-touch and are engaged learners.
Individuals who excel in a remote work environment have strong organizational skills and can work on projects independently. A successful remote worker has an entrepreneurial mindset with good written, verbal, listening and nonverbal skills. It’s amazing how video conferencing can expose someone’s lack of communication skills. As in the song, remember that a smile is a frown turned upside down.
Areas to avoid
Setting working hours is often required, but do not establish them arbitrarily. Be careful about micromanaging from afar. The “hall monitor” work culture, one that is very rigid and monitors everything, can quickly destroy and demotivate the most productive people.
Finally, be careful of overloading productive people with projects and tasks. This can create burnout, especially combined with the challenge of separating work from life while working remotely.
Whether it is a farm, ranch, agribusiness, classroom or lending institution, the future workplace has descended upon us in a fury. It will shift paradigms and methods of effective people management. The organizations and individuals that adapt will benefit from an energized work culture. Those that resist will create barriers and eventually succumb to some of the aforementioned changes.
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