Business Resilience and the Future of Work

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“Business resilience” is the ability of an organisation to adapt to changing conditions; in particular, adverse conditions. The conditions may be:

  • Economic, like The Great Recession of 2008/2009,
  • Political, like Britain’s exit from the European Union or the “Black Lives Matter” movement,
  • Environmental, like Climate Change-intensified hurricanes and wildfires,
  • Medical, like the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • Technological, like the advent of the Internet, e-commerce, cloud computing, and smartphones, and
  • Cultural, like employee demands for flexible working arrangements.
  • As a business governance discipline, business resilience is aimed at:
  • Anticipating changes, whenever possible,
  • Assessing the impact of such changes, both positive and negative, and
  • Implementing measures designed, according to a popular lyric by songwriter Johnny Mercer, to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

As analysts Martin Reeves and Kevin Whitaker observed in the Harvard Business Review, business resilience reflects “a company’s capacity to absorb stress, recovery critical functionality, and thrive in altered circumstances.”

The Future of Work

One of the more highly anticipated – yet on-going – changes (or stresses) challenging business resilience planners is the rapid evolution of workplace practices, a field of study often referred to as the “Future of Work” (FoW).

The Bloor Future of Work Framework sees the future in terms of five connected dimensions (financial, physical, social, emotional and digital) and three viewpoints (individual, leader/manager, and organisational). Together, these encompass all aspects of the employer-employee business and social contract, including:

  • Job creation,
  • Job destruction,
  • Labour force composition,
  • Worker compensation and benefits, and
  • Worker training – and re-training.

The FoW is typically viewed through a technological lens (although the other dimensions of the Bloor FoW Framework should not be ignored), with future job forecasts based on innovations and trends in areas such as:

  • Teleconferencing and other telework applications,
  • Artificial intelligence, especially machine learning,
  • Robots and robotic process automation (RPA),
  • High-speed, high-bandwidth telecommunications,
  • Hybrid cloud and edge computing,
  • Internet of Things (IoT) device proliferation, and
  • Drones and other surveillance systems.

Although some FoW projects are planned, like the gradual introduction of autonomous vehicles to replace human operators, others emerge spontaneously, like the COVID-19-inspired shift to a total work-from-home business model in order to achieve “social distancing.”

The Intersection of FoW and Business Resilience

Since FoW initiatives are inherently disruptive, both to people and processes, they require constant oversight, with specific attention to:

  • Safety – ensuring the well-being of employees, business partners, and customers (as appropriate),
  • Security – ensuring the integrity of business property, both physical and intellectual,
  • Privacy – ensuring the confidentiality of employee and customer data, and
  • Resilience – ensuring the continuity – or rapid recovery – of critical business operations in the event of an unexpected or adverse condition or circumstance.

These oversight functions should be in place and active before, during, and after any efforts aimed at automating business processes, or otherwise modifying the employer-employee work relationship.

As a model, consider the systems development lifecycle and the recent embrace of security as an essential element, transforming the DevOps scheme into DevSecOps.

The Future Is Now

To illustrate the integration of business resilience into FoW planning, consider the COVID-19 pandemic which spurred many companies to implement an immediate, full-time work-from-home capability for all eligible employees, i.e., all knowledge workers.

While enabling telework has been a FoW objective since the advent of the Internet, COVID-19 acted as an accelerant. With little or no advance planning, employees were asked to convert their home office, which might have consisted of a desk and PC, into their regular business office.  With the support of company IT staff, this transformation was, in most cases, successful, and ensured the continuity of critical business operations.

From a business resilience perspective, however, this makeshift arrangement exhibits several key vulnerabilities. Among the potential exposures are:

  • The loss of vital human resources – What if a home worker contracts COVID-19, or is otherwise incapacitated? Who will perform her duties?
  • The loss of home Internet services – Can a home worker conduct business over a personal smartphone, at least on a temporary basis?
  • The absence of direct supervision – Many employees require regular in-person attention from their superiors or senior coworkers.
  • The effects of social isolation – Some employees develop depression or other anxiety disorders without face-to-face human interactions.
  • The reality of permanent telework – Unless and until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and widely administered, the prospect of returning to a “normal” work environment is remote. Some home workers may seek other employment as a result.

These are just a few of the issues that business resilience planners should be – hopefully, are – addressing relative to COVID-19 and telework.

Business Resilience Strategies

For those new to business resilience, there are several business continuity planning strategies that apply to business resilience planning.  Principal among these are:

  • Redundancy – In the case of future work planning, cross train employees to perform multiple jobs, thus reducing an organisation’s reliance on specific individuals.
  • Diversification – Engage employees with varied educational backgrounds and work experiences. This fosters creativity and permits a broader and more nuanced approach to problem solving.
  • Decentralization – Where skilled employees are in short supply, distribute those individuals – either physically or virtually – across the organisation. Avoid headquarters hoarding.
  • Repurposing – Where employees are displaced by automation, consider re-training and repurposing those individuals, rather than resorting to layoffs.
  • Retention – Skilled workers are in high demand, especially in cutting-edge technical specialities like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. After recruiting a talented and versatile employee, expend equal energy on retaining that individual through bonuses, training opportunities, and chances for advancement.

If FoW in your organisation doesn’t adopt Business Resilience Strategies, such as those listed, there is a risk that FoW initiatives that are successful in the short term, will fall apart in the longer term. The status quo has probably evolved a degree of resilience (if, possibly, informal and poorly documented); if you make disruptive changes, you probably have to remember to explicitly include Business Resilience in your FoW initiatives.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post, the next post, or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.