What is the new workforce in the new workspace?

The pandemic has impacted how we work and who we work with. For many companies, looking at how, when and if they return to the office, they will also be looking to change their workflows and culture to support a digital workforce.

Who are today’s workers? Where are they based? What tools do they require? To what extent can remote working create opportunities to augment human workforces with digital automation?

Who are today’s workers?

With millions now working from home and likely to remain doing so at least some of the time, the nature of the workforce is transforming from clusters of office-based colleagues to networks of associates working together in asynchronous time.

Managing these new workforces effectively requires deep thought. “As CIOs think more strategically about how to lay the foundations to support a return to growth, it is clear that the move to digital and associated services will play a big role for organizations in the future,” says Gartner Analyst Sid Nag.

Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, a software company that has always worked remotely, observes that while traditional workplaces let leaders lead by presence alone, remote enterprises need a different approach. “You have to redesign how you manage your workforce from the ground up. That forces you to be a better leader and a better manager.”

What tools do they require?

Emerging technology trends to support increasingly agile workforces include data analytics, gamification, bring-your-own, collaborative work management tools, and cloud-based infrastructure.

These digital, collaborative and distributed workforces have new rules. Productivity relies on achieving defined objectives to agreed targets. Team members are drawn from across the business, its partners, contractors, sometimes even customers. The workforce is collaborative rather than collegiate; targets become the key metric to define success.

It’s within the context of supporting remote teams that enterprise-focused spending on desktop as a service (DaaS) increased by 95.4% in 2020, reaching a record $1.2 billion. Cloud, remote device management, and security spending will also increase this year, up 18%, 21%, 10% respectively. Year-on-year global PC spending climbed 55% in Q1 2021, driven in part by the need to equip these remote teams.

Where are workers based?

Digital tools allow enterprises to draw their workforces from across different pools of talent, including indirect hires, freelance workers and high-knowledge, low-cost professionals drawn from a global pool.

This makes it possible to scale workforces up or down in response to business needs, drawing talent from an international pool of contractors.

This also implies that employees will become increasingly flexible, while enterprises will pay a premium to access the very best skills and experience as workers will be able to choose clients who provide the best employee experiences.

Microsoft’s New Future of Work report found half of businesses surveyed intended to increase the use of freelancers post-pandemic, while the rest intended to maintain current levels.

“If these expectations prove true, society overall might end up moving many full-time employees to freelance roles,” Microsoft claims. Online skill supply services such as WeWork, Task Rabbit or Fiverr reflect this move toward the provision of curated access to experienced, internationally located human resources.

Why soft skills matter

As they manage financial losses generated during the pandemic, enterprises will seek to reduce business costs in terms of staff and office overheads, and the new digitally distributed workforce helps this.

Technologically, it becomes easy for enterprises to extend critical cloud-based service infrastructure on a short-term basis to support their ad hoc project-based teams, maintaining core permanent workforces for business-critical missions.

It’s likely those core workers will be tasked with managing and maintaining the most essential business output and processes, supplementing these responsibilities with project management as enterprises identify new business opportunities and build ad hoc teams to put these into place. This model sees soft skills, particularly around team motivation and project management, become increasingly critical.

Companies will want their growing number of temporary workers managed for success and capable of meeting objectives, which will require effective management of temporary, remotely based project teams.

What about business process automation?

Data is critical to the remote/hybrid enterprise. Project data, enterprise data, information about people and contextual insight into supply chains, project delays and how decisions are made across a remote company all feed into overall management insight.

This also extends into automated business processes, which should help reduce the need for remote workers to get lost in routine tasks, enabling them to focus on what’s required to achieve new business wins. Evolving a data-driven approach across the enterprise requires that employees adapt to a digital culture, which many have been forced to accept during the time of COVID-19. This should already include acceptance of digitized performance management tools and may extend to acceptance of digitization of relationship flows.

The cybersecurity threat

A move to digital workflows inherently transforms even mundane workplace practice into data, and where there’s data, there’s also cybercrime.

During the pandemic, a wave of smart, socially engineered cyberthreats emerged. Criminals realized that in a rush to enable remote working, many companies were unable to secure the new endpoints in the working-from-home world.

“The increased online dependency for people around the world is also creating new opportunities, with many businesses and individuals not ensuring their cyberdefenses are up to date,” warned Interpol Secretary General, Jürgen Stock.

Recent high-profile ransomware attacks highlight the risk business faces as it becomes primarily digital. Network and endpoint security and awareness training are becoming necessary supplements to traditional security models.

For more information, read our comprehensive guide to protecting remote workers and your networks. Listen again to this webinar looking at the technological impacts of hybrid working, and read Tom Gavin’s blog on the four steps to hybrid working success.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.