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The future of workflow

The world of work is changing rapidly. New platforms and fresh thinking can help people get work done the way they want

By Greg Petroff

  • Many organizations are trying to escape traditional models of organizational structure, project management, and service delivery
  • The gulf between easy‑to‑use consumer software and clunky enterprise tools is unacceptable to modern workers
  • New workflow software and process automation tools have the power to change behavior and unlock meaningful change, at scale

In 1958, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 61 years. By 2016, it was just 24 years, according to research by Innosight. At the current churn rate, half of the S&P 500 will be replaced over the next decade. Technological and cultural change continues to destabilize traditional business models and the way people work. The message has never been clearer: adapt or die.

In response, many organizations are searching for ways to escape bureaucracy—the traditional models of command‑and‑control hierarchy, waterfall project management, centralized services, and top‑down innovation. Businesses of all kinds are fascinated by the prospect of moving faster and disrupting themselves. They’re ready and eager for digital transformation. They just don’t know how to do it.

Some are trying, however. A highly successful Dutch nursing organization, Buurtzorg, has a headquarters of just 50 people that supports more than 14,000 people in the field. Chinese appliance giant Haier broke up its 60,000‑person workforce into 2,000 autonomous teams and has since become the fastest growing player in its market. Amazon deploys code once a second. Spotify is organized around “squads” built on autonomy and accountability that can deliver agility at scale.



From push to pull

The future of work is more agile, decentralized, autonomous, transparent, cross‑functional, integrated, and interoperable than most organizations can imagine. This changes everything, including workflow. That which is analog must be digitized. That which is manual must be automated. That which is isolated must be connected. That which is hidden must be made visible.

Organizations need partners to help them navigate this transformation. The question isn’t whether it will occur, but how. Who will drive it? Who will authorize it? And which players and platforms will be positioned to lead the charge?

The roles we fill at work are changing too. As organizations enable teams to make more decisions about their work and rely less on hierarchy for control, teams will trend toward a “pull‑based” workflow. Instead of waiting to be told what to do by a manager or a ticketing system, teams will seek out the most valuable work they can find—from their own backlog, a shared space, or simply by sensing and responding.

This transition will require different kinds of platforms and tools. The future will be less about controlling and organizing tasks for mass efficiency, and more about cross‑tool transparency supporting clarity of roles, accountability, and connection to purpose. It will be less about an actor and a reactor and more about an interconnected network of empowered agents using the same system to get their work done.

These role shifts are being accelerated by new generations of the workforce. Gen Z workers have shown themselves to be a “learn anything” generation. They’re eager to acquire new skills and try new things. Everything they’ve ever needed to know can be found on YouTube or Google. They’re also the first “no code” hacker generation. In their experience, technology can be customized, connected, and even created with little to no technical knowledge—just a willingness to dig in and get your hands dirty.

These younger workers want polished, best‑of‑breed tools that allow them the flexibility to work from anywhere, anytime. They have grown up with intuitive technology. As a result, the stark divide between highly usable consumer technology and awkward enterprise software tools is becoming less and less acceptable. Many have spent little time with desktop computing, instead defaulting to mobile and tablet devices throughout their lives. The future of workplace software is not only mobile‑first to them but, in many cases, mobile‑only.

Blessed are the toolmakers

The employee experience of the future will be shaped by and for these new roles and players. The quality (or lack thereof) of the employee experience will continue to be a primary differentiator for organizations trying to attract top talent.

Moments that matter in an employee’s work life are often shaped by their interaction with enterprise software. How frictionless is my onboarding experience? Am I able to quickly transition into and back from my family leave? Is giving and receiving feedback in real time easy to do in a way that supports my development? Software shows up in each of these moments, and the design of the software is inseparable from them.

Amidst all this cultural change, a rift is growing between IT and the workforce. Charged with efficiency, scale, compliance, and security, IT envisions a world where central control allows it to protect and enable the organization, in that order.

The teams at the edge have a different vision. They want the best, easiest, fastest, and most integrated tools at their disposal.

It’s often a race between the old guard and the new, and the legacy team is losing. For every WebEx there is a Zoom, and for every Zoom there is a talky.io. Groups are setting up their own Slack workspaces, Trello boards, WeChat, and dozens more ad hoc tools with little or no blessing from IT, often using their personal email addresses. The makers of these tools rely on their shadow adoption as a sales tactic—conquering the enterprise from within.

Built as lean, singular tools with a specific purpose, these applications are now interoperable and highly integrated with other tools outside enterprise platforms. That combination enables teams outside of IT to build and maintain automated workflows of their own.



Accordingly, major players are making decisions about consolidation, partnership, and integration to support end‑to‑end workstreams of all kinds. For example, ServiceNow and Slack have built a partnership so that users of our digital workflow platform can receive notifications directly in their Slack channels.

Software has the power to shape behavior. Every enterprise service embodies a set of opinions about how work should be done. If PowerPoint gives us bullet points, we’ll find ourselves communicating in bullet points. If email gives us a BCC function, we’ll secretly copy the people who aren’t supposed to know. These opinions matter more than ever.  Every feature, preset, and function is an opportunity to help users move in the right direction or encourage them to stay where they are.

If software continues to reflect a waterfall project‑management style that builds layers of bureaucratic approval and compliance checks into the completion of a task, we will perpetuate the status quo. If, on the other hand, software defaults to transparency, supports networks and fluid teams, and enables users do their work the way they want, we can unlock meaningful change at scale. It’s a balancing act—meeting users where they are today to help them step into the future.

Greg Petroff is the Global Head of Design at ServiceNow, where he leads the company’s efforts to define the human experience of work, connecting people to workflow and systems in meaningful ways.

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