Workforce management: the key to unlocking pandemic productivity

The office has been dethroned as the central organising principle of work. Organising and connecting the workforce digitally is the new monarch of the efficient post-pandemic company.

Your alarm pings relentlessly. You eventually roll out of bed, savouring the slight chill in the air that autumn brings, and the sunlight that streams through the curtains when you open them. While you brush your teeth, you look at the weather. A decent day. Some sun and not (yet) too cold. Not a bad day for heading to the office.

Ah, but which office? You open your company’s workforce app, and look at the couple of offices within easy drive of your house. One of them — what used to be your main office in the pre-COVID times — is looking pretty busy. If it’s edging towards capacity under social distancing, you don’t want to be there, really. However, one of the small offices, on the outskirts of town, is looking fine.

You ping a colleague a message, asking if they fancy joining you today, and then book the space for the pair of you. Job done. After a week of home working, it’ll be nice to spend some time in the same physical space as your colleagues.

Welcome to the fluid office

Car parking isn’t a problem. With far fewer people routinely in the office — and several of those now cycling — you find a space easily, and make your way into the building, pausing for a temperature check as you go in. Everything’s fine with that, and you check your app to find your assigned desk. The lift senses your presence via your security badge, and opens obligingly on your approach. No need to touch buttons any more. Happily, now everyone isn’t trying to cram into the building at 9am, there’s no pressure on the lifts either, and you have the ride to yourself.

Your colleague is already at an adjacent desk, greeting you while their laptop connects to the network. They head off for a quick shower after their cycle in.

You get the laptop on the network, have a quick video catch-up with first your boss, who’s at home, enjoying the autumn sun on his deck, and with your team, who are scattered around the city — and the country.

And then you settle down to some serious work, leavened by occasional banter with your colleagues, and a few other folks on the same floor, some of whom you know, one of whom you don’t. You feel invigorated by the social contact. You’ve missed it. Not enough to commute in every day, of course, even if you were allowed to. But enough that it feels like a treat when you are in.

Collaboration in the Covid-19 age

A chance remark mid-morning allows you and the colleague you’ve never met before to start building a joint pitch for business that will be much stronger than if you’d done it alone. Your team provide the necessary details swiftly enough via the team chat channel in your workforce app.

A good morning’s work. Time for lunch. Again, you open the app, and pull up the day’s menu. You order a warm chicken salad, and schedule it for pickup at the garden entrance at just after 1pm. Your colleague passes on joining you — she’s brought a packed lunch today, and is planning on eating al desko.

You keep your eye on the lift activity tab in your app, and head to collect your lunch when it looks quiet. You find a spot in the garden to eat it, away from your screen for a little while. Enjoying the fresh air, the play of light on the leaves and on your face (vitamin D being good for the immune system…), and some light conversation with other colleagues.

This is the new normal.

While it was born of a global tragedy, you wouldn’t go back. The daily commute seems like a bad memory, of a more primitive time.

***

A pandemic age design fiction

That was, of course, a fiction. But it’s not an implausible one: all the technology to deliver everything above exists right now. It’s a design fiction of implementation, of a way of working that meshes the best of office work, with the best of remote work, while acknowledging the restrictions we face with Covid-19. More detailed, technical visions already exist. But people buy into visions of a lifestyle, even in the workplace. And we’re going to need that because the last six months have proved, unquestionably, that remote work does work. And we need to adapt to that reality.

We’re at an interesting balance point in our pandemic journey. People are returning to work, but at varying rates. The number of people “back in the office” varies from country to country, with the UK being a particular laggard, and from profession to profession. For some, physical presence is a necessity. For others, it’s not a necessity, but a benefit, but one to be taken in moderation.

Very few businesses have the space to return everyone to the office, in the way they were in the Before Times. And so, a number of assumptions about the way we work, and the way we manage that work, collapse.

Rejecting the false dichotomy

First, as our little design fiction above shows, we reject the false dichotomy of office work or home work. Instead, let’s take fluid work as our central tenet. Most information workers can work anywhere they have power and internet access, so the key challenge is managing and facilitating that work, without relying on physical presence as a key tool.

If the office itself is no longer your central organisational principle, what is it? Your phone, of course. It’s the one information and communication device that is with you all the time, and which can replace constant physical presence as the tool that keeps us connected.

The need for workforce management systems

An office worked in the pandemic age.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

For decades now, companies have run property management systems, to make the most of their office space. And they often use workforce management tools for discrete subsets of their staff, especially people on the sales side. These ideas need to evolve and combine, to create a workforce management system. We replace the physical office as the tool we organise around, and substitute it with people and teams.

How do we bring them together, both productively and safely?

Be it one system or many, talking together fluidly through APIs, we need tools that allow us to:

  • monitor building capacity in real time, and allow space booking
  • facilitate chance encounters outside the team silos that home working tools trap us in
  • facilitate communication and data exchange securely wherever you are
  • allow you to access vital services like, say, lunch, without putting undue pressure on lifts (or little Covid-exchange cubicles, as they’d become, if we’re not careful)
  • some basic biosecurity features, like entrance temperature checks and UV sterilisation

Nothing we’ve outlined above needs any technical innovation. The technology is already there to do it all. The skill — and the opportunity — all comes in blending them together in a seamless experience for your staff. Make the organisation invisible, and they can concentrate on, well, working.

The virtue of workforce management

There’s a wonderful English cliché for times like this:

Make a virtue of a necessity.

For as long as we’re living with Covid-19 without a robust, dependable vaccine, we’re going to have to find ways of rethinking how we work together. That closes down a full return to the office. But few people want to work entirely from home, without the opportunity of a change of scenery, and social interaction in physical proximity (but not too close…) with their colleagues.

We could treat this as a moment to begrudgingly accept temporary measures, or one to dream a better vision for the way your company works. If you’re an employer, dream a dream now of a better way of managing your people, and use this Covid-19 moment to start putting the pieces of software and hardware in place that will make it happen. If you're a supplier, see what this moment is: an opportunity to sell a new product range into businesses, on a vision of a better working life, not merely a more efficient one.

Fortunes are made and lost in moments of transition. The winners will be those who use this transition to create a better working culture, rather than just an enforced different one.


Lead photo by Habib Dadkhah on Unsplash