Adapted from Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone by Lynda Gratton, published on 17 March 2022 by Penguin Business. Copyright © 2022. This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Our collective experience of the pandemic has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what we want from work and our working lives. We had a chance to question many fundamental assumptions, adopt new habits and form new narratives of how work gets done. The experience also confronted corporate leadership teams with the challenge of how they would respond. Would they stay with their ways of working or would they use this as an opportunity to be bold and redesign work to make working a more purposeful, productive, agile and flexible activity? How best to redesign work?
I’ve seen leaders and executive teams approaching this redesign in a top-down, hierarchical way; others have decided to leave the process entirely in the hands of individual managers. My experience is that neither works satisfactorily. Here’s why: your business is a complex system with many moving parts. Top-down works only when leaders know exactly how to do this—and most don’t. Yet leaving decisions to be made by individual managers can result in feelings of mistrust and unfairness across employee groups. The way you work and the way your business works is in need of a structural overhaul; your task is to guide that overhaul and develop a process of redesigning work that prepares everyone in the business for action.
Also on the OECD Forum Network: The Changing Geography of Work: Priorities for policy makers, by Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor, Harvard Business School
To support you on this journey I have created a four-step process that I discuss in my book Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone. The foundation of these four steps is my experience as a researcher fascinated by networks, co-creation, fairness and the shifts (demographic, technological and societal) that shape work. Yet your journey has to be more than a research study, and to bring real insight and momentum I have studied, and in some cases advised, many executive teams. It is this combination of research frameworks and executive insights that will ensure that you and your team design work that is just right for you.
The four-step process for redesigning work
- Understand what matters. Which skills, networks and jobs are crucial for productivity? How does knowledge flow within and across your business and what do these flows look like? What do your people want from work and from the company? How do people experience work across the whole of their employee life cycle?
- Reimagine the future. From this foundation of rich understanding, you can start to devise optimal work designs. Imagine making the office a place of co-operation where conversation flows and people bump into each other in a serendipitous way. Or, imagine the home as a real source of healthy living and energy. Or imagine how focus and co-ordination can be supported by the ways that working time is structured.
- Model and test ideas. Now these ideas can be modelled and tested against a number of factors that could be sources of risk. Is the model future-proofed? Will it still be relevant and purposeful in the short, medium and long term? Will the model of work both enable the technological transitions that are in play and, importantly, provide the support for employees to make the necessary skill transitions? And will the model be experienced as equitable and fair by employees across the company?
- Act on your model and create new ways of working. This ensures the model of work will be embedded into the practices and culture of the company. To do that requires emphasizing the role of leaders and of the narratives and stories they tell. It means acknowledging and supporting the pivotal role of managers. And implementing widely a process of co-creation that engages people with the design choices and brings them along in the process of change.
Whilst I’ve ordered these steps 1 to 4 in a logical sequence, in reality any of the four-step cycle can be a point of entry. For example, some teams have jumped straight into reimagining work and then had to cycle back to understanding jobs, people and networks more deeply before progressing.
I’ve spent a significant proportion of my adult life as a researcher—working closely with colleagues from my own and other academic institutions, and building models that help my students and the executives I advise to understand the world. I hope these frameworks will help you and your design team to understand your own company in terms of the way that work gets done and to collectively imagine what is possible for the future. Let’s get started!
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I'm seeing a need for Step 0, before your four steps.
Let go of the past. Leaders must stop their quest for a 'return-to-normal' status quo environment that's similar to the typical work life before the pandemic. Instead, start now to aspire for an environment that is exponentially better than before. Raise the bar of expectations and imagine the upside possibilities. Don't merely slip back into the old familiar ways. Be bold and brave.