Ask the Right Questions to Reimagine the Future Workplace

By Jim DeLoach


Strategy Online Article

As the market recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and companies reflect on the unprecedented change they’ve experienced over the past 15 months, now is the time for boards to ask relevant questions about what their organizations’ workplaces might look like over the next two to five years.

The following questions offer some guidance for what boards can ask themselves and management, focusing on issues related to operational excellence, strategic alignment, and organizational culture and resiliency.

  1. As our people return to physical facilities, how can we ensure their safety and well-being, as well as the safety of customers and vendors? Organizations are competing for stakeholder trust, making health and safety paramount. Lessons learned by the company and its competitors in navigating lockdowns and changing employee views of the workplace offer a powerful context for developing actionable strategies.

  2. Rethinking workflow design, how should we consider the impact of the structure we’re creating on innovation, efficiency, and the speed and quality of decision-making? During the pandemic, many organizations survived and thrived by embracing a strongly innovative, empowering, and “get it done” company culture. In redesigning the workplace, it’s important to sustain this level of nimbleness and perpetuate the attributes of resiliency and decisiveness in the post-pandemic world.

  3. As artificial intelligence (AI) and automation become integral parts of our business, have we evaluated the need to upskill and reskill our people and reviewed relevant opportunities made possible by e-learning? Implementing new and emerging technologies necessitates addressing the ethics, fairness, transparency, and accountability around their deployment. It also means understanding the worker skills required, where and how to source those skills (hire, onboard, upskill, or reskill), related impacts on compensation and incentives, and how e-learning can help people adapt and become more resilient as they learn continuously at the speed of change.

  4. What do our people really think about working here? The operative question is, “How do we know?” Using confidential, anonymous surveys, committing to addressing employee feedback, openly sharing feedback results with the organization, and engaging employees in designing and implementing necessary improvements can only make the workplace better. There is a direct correlation between an engaged workforce and a positive customer experience.

  5. What is our assessment of remote work’s impact on our culture both during the pandemic and in our planned post-pandemic workplace? A virtual environment creates significant challenges to sustaining corporate culture. Shifting to a hybrid work environment poses similar challenges. Boards should encourage leaders to communicate often in an authentic manner and with empathy, and focus on the resiliency of the company’s culture going forward.

  6. As our physical facilities reopen, what is our plan to ensure the hygiene and security of the technologies enabling our workplace? Transitioning to a completely virtual workplace last year created fresh stresses on cybersecurity. It follows that transitioning to a hybrid workplace will create additional new vulnerabilities. Boards should inquire how management is adjusting to new threats, particularly in light of recent, high-profile ransomware attacks.

  7. Is our organization making progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)? The board should have a line of sight into the metrics, measures, and monitoring of DE&I, including the recruitment and acquisition of new and diverse talent. One of the unfortunate effects of the COVID-19 crisis has been its disproportionate impact on women and people of color in the job market. The board’s focus and actions should set a tone of management accountability for delivering a diverse and inclusive workforce.

  8. How are we collecting data from our customer base that will help us anticipate their changing preferences and needs? Winners and losers will likely be defined by how much is known about customers and the agility with which an organization can align itself with changing expectations. Advanced data analytics on the customer experience can improve decision-making and prove to be a vital differentiator for competing in rapidly changing markets.

  9. How are we evolving our use of contractors, outsourcing, and the flexible workforce in the post-pandemic workplace? Given current plans to implement AI and automate processes, boards should inquire as to the expected mix of permanent employees, contractual fringe, and contingent workers and how each group will be integrated into the company’s culture once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

  10. How are we adjusting our enterprise risk management (ERM) structure and oversight based on market data and our own experience and learning? While ERM is typically not directly associated with the general workforce, it can contribute to making the organization and its people more anticipatory of events that could affect the business by informing decision-making around increasing organizational and worker preparedness and agility in response to changing markets and extreme but plausible risk scenarios.

It’s never too early for directors to use these questions to drive focused discussions in the boardroom with company leaders about the evolving workplace.

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Jim DeLoach
Jim DeLoach is managing director of Protiviti. DeLoach is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to NACD Directorship Online.