5 Trends for the Future of Work: SAPPHIRE NOW 2021

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I’ve admired Jon Reed and Josh Greenbaum for many years and since joining SuccessFactors, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with both of them more. So, when I had the opportunity to sit down with them for a keynote in SAP’s annual SAPPHIRE NOW user event, I knew we’d have a [podcast worthy] great time.  


Knowing that Jon is on record about virtual events should have made the preparation stressful, but I quickly learned that we all had a similar approach: find topics we want to talk about, embrace the chaos, ditch the script, and have a conversation


With any digital conference, brevity is the key, and we were held to a 7-minute limit (if you missed it, you can see it here: A Conversation on How Business Transformation is Driving the Future of Work). But, we chatted for more than 30 minutes and covered a variety of topics ranging from what going back into the office looks like, to best practices for learning new skills. Here are my top takeaways on future of work trends from both what you can see in the keynote replay and what was cut for time.  


1. The need for work life freedoms 


Top-of-mind for so many of us right now is going back into offices to work. We have changed this year and as a result, returning to the office will be different both in physical lay-out and in our working norms. 


Today marks 298 working days from home for me (but who’s counting). There were some obstacles at first (raise your hand if you feel personally victimized by your children, pets, or leaf blowers), but also a lot of benefits.  Skipping a commute and having flexibility and autonomy to build a schedule for the way I work best has helped me do my best work. SAP calls it Flex(ability), Josh calls it work life freedoms, and any way you put it, there needs to be a place for it in the future of work.  


What this will look like: flexible work environments, more diverse teams, deskless workforces, and an increased fluidity about the structure of work inclusive of gig and freelance. 

“I think we need to really focus on how we make sure that our employees feel connected, feel engaged in this new experience, if you will, of this return to normal, that's not necessarily normal and certainly going to be very different than the last year or the previous years.” – Josh   


2. The increasing role of humanization 


If you had asked me in 2019 what humanization looks like in work, I don’t think power finger snappingdog championships, and Zoom cat lawyer would be the words that came to mind. But in 2020 and 2021, working from home brought a new level of humanization and connection in our workforce – we shared workspaces with our family members, we adopted therapy pets, we grieved losses of friends and family, we navigated a few natural disasters, and we learned to leverage noise cancelling headphones and various backup plans for life's unexpected interruptions.  


It wasn’t perfect, but work life and personal life mixed, and it made our work relationships more human. Turns out, building culture and engagement doesn’t rely on an office location, it’s possible (and sometimes even strengthened) through virtual work. The future of work is about people, bringing innovation and a human approach to what we do. Making it safe for each of us to bring our whole self to work seems more possible today than ever before. 


What this will look like: Human Experience Management (HXM): prioritizing employee experience, feedback loops between employees and leadership, adaptive work policies, and better work-life-integration. 

“It's okay to occasionally have your personal life blend a little bit with your work life. It's not the end of the world. In fact, it's the beginning of something I hope even better.” – Josh 
 3. Learning as a continuous cycle 


Turning our view toward the practical, Jon, Josh, and I shared our perspectives on how organizations can prepare for the future. By no means are we the first people to discuss reskilling and upskilling, but we did take it beyond discussion to land on four actionable tips.  

  1. Learning needs to be about your people.  The words “reskilling” and “upskilling” can have a negative connotation for employees. Learning needs to be framed as an opportunity to grow and as an investment in employees, as opposed to your employees not having the skills your business requires.  
  2.  Conduct a gap analysis. You can’t know what learning to invest in until you analyze what skills your organization currently has vs the skills you expect will be necessary to succeed in the future. This is a place where data and machine learning can help.  
  3. Invest in continuous learning. For learning to be a success, you need to have employees who want to learn. Start by creating a culture of learning and cultivating a growth mindset. Investing in learning opportunities and empowering employees to invest time to learn skills, not just in the classroom, but also providing opportunities to practice.   


What this will look like: hands-on or experience-based learning, mentoring and coaching, temporary growth opportunities like projects and fellowships, and peer-based and in-the-flow-of-work training tailored to the unique needs of the individual.  

“The one thing we can be clear about is that just putting people into a classroom every year or two is not going to work anymore.” – Jon 
4. Business transformation is not possible without people transformation 


On the topic of transformation, Jon mused, “it's one of those words that has been so overused at this point.” But we all agreed that the need is real, so we focused on the important tips to remember when engaging in business transformation. 

  1. It's about people… people first, second, and third” and the need to have people engaged.  
  2. Decide what kind of company you want to be to drive a transformation to a productive outcome.  
  3. Focus on outcomes. Embrace powerful, modern (HR) tools to help (e.g., enable things like skills tracking, learning opportunities, employee feedback, and flexible work policies), but make sure you use technology in service of a business outcome, not for its own sake. 
  4. Measurements matter. As you progress, check in with your progress against both hard and soft outcomes. Remember that the more you start with people, the better you will serve your customers and ultimately deliver for all your stakeholders (partners, shareholders, etc.).  


“…if we do this right, are going to be about happier employees and therefore happier customers.” – Jon  


5. The necessary skillset for the future of work: adaptability 


Bringing the last takeaway back to skills, last year, I wrote about how curiosity was the necessary skill for 2020. In predicting for the future of work, we already see a need for another type of power skill: adaptability. In essence, build a hypothesis, test with action, assess the outcomes, and evolve based on what you learn. An agile mindset and structured set of behaviors are critical drivers of an outstanding human experience.  


We’ve seen the need for adaptability come into play over the past year in addressing the pandemic, and much like transformation, I think we’ll see this stick around for years to come.  


What this will look like: innovative thinking, data driven decisions, growth mindsets, and quantified outcomes.  

HR’s seat at the table  
In each of these trends for the future of work, HR has the charter, vision, and expertise to bring them to life. As we’re navigating this new world of work, HR departments are even more indispensable to an organization’s success. At the end of the day, people power business – if your people win, your business wins.