Executive need to listen

COLUMN | Auguest 10, 2021 | 5 min read

Productivity and the good life

How digital workflows can help companies and workers thrive

By Bernard Salt, executive director, The Demographics Group

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the greatest social and cultural disruption to the Australian people since WWII. Its legacies, including a greater attention to hygiene and sanitation, will continue for a generation into the future.

But amid the sadness of lives lost there have been responses that I think will shape the way forward. And nowhere is this better evidenced than in the world of work.

New arrangements like work from home have been revolutionary and tap into the deep-seated Australian penchant for lifestyle.

But it has also triggered the need for new technology (Zoom call, anyone?) and new processes where workers will continue to adapt, to learn how to collaborate in any environment, to demonstrate compliance, and perhaps even celebrate team successes, online.


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I don’t think work from home would have been as successful had the pandemic arrived a decade earlier as, say, “COVID09”—prior to the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

It was access to broadband that made work from home possible to the extent that workers resolved to learn whatever they needed to learn in order to retain the freedom of not having to commute every day. Hybrid work models are helping employees adapt faster and nurture growth mindsets.

But working from home carries its own risks. Sure, there’s no commute, but that burden may be replaced by obsessive work habits where at-home workers see themselves as being on-call 24/7.

I don’t think work from home would have been as successful had the pandemic arrived a decade earlier.

Perhaps unions, industry associations, and government will socially and/or legislatively regulate online working hours in the 2020s when access to work is omnipresent.

And sometimes a shakeup like WFH is precisely what is required to test whether the old way of doing things is the best way forward. Maybe CBDs and city office buildings will adapt to new ways of working, for the better.

Out with open plan cubicles; in with collaboration spaces, where teams come together to learn, to ideate, to create solutions, to meet clients.

In this new world of work, tasks will divide into home and office activities. The CBD will become a place for dealmaking, learning, socialising, and celebrating.In short, the city centre will transform into a fun place that hybrid workers look forward to visiting.

When I started work at a consulting firm in 1985, we used Express Post to send reports to clients in other states. Within a year the fax machine had arrived; it transformed our business model. Clients wanted their reports faxed instantly.

We speculated that this surely spelt the end of the courier business. Three decades later, the fax machine has died, but the courier business is stronger than ever thanks to online shopping!

This was always going to happen because online shopping is simply more convenient, right? True, but my story speaks to an even bigger shift that has been amplified by the pandemic. Australians are in hot pursuit of seamlessness in pretty much everything they do.

The rise of ride-share apps enables frictionless movement. When there’s a task to do at home, there’s an app for that—booking a cinema ticket, a restaurant, an airline ticket can be done, instantly.

In work, we’ll see a mentality shift toward “there’s an app for that” tasks, dividing everyday process-driven work into seamless digital work that flows and more focus toward experiential engagements.

A process-driven task like getting from A to B (for a person or a report) is being outsourced to a digital world that tracks, traces, and then delivers a seamless and predictable outcome. The experiential world requires a personal interaction like, say, the process of buying a fashion item.

I will point out that it was the rise of email that killed off the fax machine because, well, pressing the Send button is easier than feeding a report into a fax machine.

Sitting behind all this isn’t so much a conspiracy of machines to take over our lives. Rather, it’s a deep-seated yearning by humanity to be ever more productive, to outsource the mundane, to free up time for purpose-filled pursuits deemed far more important.

And it is achieved by digitising and/or by automating a series of tasks known as a workflow, a term first used in a railway journal a century ago.

In the early days, simple workflow improvement came about via innovations like the assembly line and the specialisation of labour. Today, assembly line work is increasingly done by robots programmed to complete a sequence of tasks delivering a known outcome.

Workflow improvement never stops. And in the process it frees humanity from the drudgery of repetitive work.

In the post-COVID world, the great challenge isn’t so much managing and learning to navigate the digital world (although that is part of the future). Rather, it’s the issue of building trust in a very different world.

And here again is where the lessons of the pandemic will come to the fore. Trust is a sensitive issue to Australians whose faith—literally—has been shaken by the revelations of royal commissions over the last decade.

And yet amid the pandemic there was a strengthening of community trust as neighbourhoods connected, and we relied upon each other to do the right thing, in order to get to the other side.

We learnt the importance of QR codes, of authentication processes, of digital payment systems. We placed our faith in processes like scheduled delivery times. Employers trusted workers to be productive when working from anywhere.

There is plenty to leave behind when the COVID tide finally recedes, but there are some fragments, some improvements, that promise to deliver a better future version of Australia.

Maybe there will be an appetite for QR codes that show the provenance of restaurant or supermarket food or the ethical supply chain of fashion goods.

Workflow improvement never stops.

Part of this better version of our future lives involves shedding the bits that weren’t working and that rebuild trust, that deliver seamlessness, that give back time into our busy lives.

At the very core of this process of continuous improvement there lies the concept of workflow working away diligently, digitally, doing the mundane, the repetitive, the stuff that reassures us, that supports us, that delivers efficiencies. In turn, this enables humanity to do what humanity does best and that is to create, to care, to interact, to lead meaningful lives.

When the dust finally settles from this pandemic, that’s not such a bad place to be.


Are You Prepared for the Hybrid Workplace? 

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Bernard Salt is widely regarded as one of Australia's leading social commentators by business, the media, and the wider community. He is executive director of The Demographics Group and a former partner in a global advisory firm where he founded a demographics advisory service.

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