For most organizations, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a digital acceleration that few could have foreseen.

For most organizations, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a digital acceleration that few could have foreseen. Future of work scenarios are being fast-forwarded into real time business transactions. To ensure operational continuity, companies are finding new ways of blending people and technology, even as some of the most dynamic and unpredictable events in living history play out.

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a convergence of advances in digital, biological and physical innovations that include artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, virtual reality (VR), quantum computing, and other technologies that are transforming the way we live and work.

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Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the crisis response is that , with very little change management planning and implementation in place, and despite widespread concerns about adaptability and digital readiness, worker productivity is being largely maintained and, in some cases, even improved.1 Remote workers are learning to use new or previously underutilized tools and are adjusting to novel working cadences as technology becomes the glue that holds a distributed workforce together.

Even as organizations consider next steps relative to physical workspace and ways of working, leaders are seeing that workers are resilient and can adapt quickly to remote, technology-enabled work practices. Digital leadership is making a real difference in the effectiveness of decentralized teams and in modelling outstanding collaborative practices. We are also learning that strategically speaking, companies without clear Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) agendas are struggling when compared to those that capitalize on the opportunity to accelerate their digital plans across multiple horizons and leapfrog worker adoption accordingly.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that trajectory and continues to challenge organizations to reinvent ways of doing business. Even while the current situation remains highly undesirable, leaders today have the opportunity to remedy ingrained and counterproductive cultural norms and create an outstanding employee experience. The following are five key perspectives to consider as we go back to the future of work:

1. Set a bold agenda for moving forward.

A responsive agenda based on business continuity needs to be replaced with a proactive, holistic business transformation strategy based on long-term viability.

The strategy will drive a critical redesign of the business operating model based on digital age factors of disruption and reinvention, which will create a North Star for organizational transformation. Beyond remote working at scale, organizational change will embrace cultural adaptation and plan for iterative waves of new work design and digitally altered work practices. Leaders will need to identify and assess strategic workforce gaps and plan for remediation aligned with their most important organizational capabilities.

The organization transformation plan will provide the business context required to operationalize the strategy and the basis on which leaders will:


and align a long-term technology strategy and related initiatives


and contextualize a human-centric approach to the evolution of work and the employee experience needed to get there


the workforce and plan for remediation that includes new learning strategies and practices such as on-demand and immersive learning


the methods and tools of an agile manifesto for sustainable organizational and developmental velocity


new management systems and structures such as governance, risk and compliance are ready to support new models.

2. Assess your organizational agility response.

Key learnings arise from the current situation that form a foundation for future planning. For example, what did you learn about your organization’s ability to function when unforeseen external factors disrupted day-to-day operations? Were you able to both deploy and reskill your workers at scale without significant detriment to productivity? Were your systems accessible, your bandwidth viable, and remote asset monitoring and data insights helpful? Did you adjust long-standing governance structures and processes to allow the business to make decisions faster and with greater agility?

You can assess your response to the crisis and determine which digital enablers had a profoundly positive impact and identify those that failed to meet expectations. Answers to these questions will be useful as you transition towards the ‘next normal’ and longer-term priorities.

3. Know your workers (as well as you know your customers).

As 2020 dawned, most organizations had a flimsy set of worker profiles, personas, and to-be worker journeys. Now, as we prepare to embrace a new reality, one of the most salient lessons is the realization that it will be our workforce and its performance, resilience, curiosity, and attitudes that ultimately determine our customer experiences. The hyper-focus that we’ve had on understanding our customers in the context of our marketplace goals - their interests, pain points and behaviors – needs to be laser-focused on our workers and their experiences in the context of our business strategies, operating models and organizational designs.

To achieve this goal, it’s important that we anticipate our worker personas in this future state of work. In this state, work will be automated. Work practices will be driven by culture and differentiated by our purpose, and by combined human-machine capabilities that enable the organization to learn and work on multiple timescales.

4. Create the digital ecosystem needed to support a decentralized workforce.

It is abundantly clear that we will not be returning to “normal” working conditions…or that “returning” is even the primary goal anymore. Virtual work is now a reality for almost every company and distributed workforce planning is a permanent part of new workforce strategies. In the near-term, you’ll want a solid plan to assess and optimize current state working models to address pain points and remove obstacles to remote worker productivity. In the longer term, regardless of when and how people might leverage physical office space, the entire organization and its assets must be designed to flourish in a digital-first, virtual model. This is a big change for most organizations. Prior to COVID-19, even companies with high percentages of non-office worker populations failed to provide them services and support, engagement, connectivity and inclusion on par with their office worker colleagues.

With undeniable forces of digital transformation already in motion, as we create the COVID-induced decentralized work model, we can accelerate the digital-first business ecosystems that are necessary for winning in the digital age. We can engage our workers in shaping a mutual digital future that realizes the goal of becoming digital companies at our core, not at our corporate offices. And, we can prioritize the worker experiences (not the digital tools) and ready the organization ahead of other disruptions and waves of change – predictable or otherwise – that threaten our viability.

5. Establish meaningful knowledge flows.

The successful transition to a virtual workforce depends largely on a company’s ability to rapidly tap into diverse flows of knowledge and share these in learning loops that continuously gather information from data ecosystems. As we have seen, simply digitizing assets does not allow people to work in a decentralized environment. In other words, the enterprise needs to become both portable and contextual, or risk workers “drowning” in a sea of indecipherable digital information. Existing knowledge stocks must allow advanced technologies such as machine learning to quickly derive insights and share these learnings “on demand” with isolated workers. External and diverse knowledge sources must be tapped to ensure depleted stocks of information are constantly refreshed and applied to strengthen organizational connectivity at this time of unprecedented disruption.