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When people talk about the future of work, it’s often some glossy vision – a world where flexible teams are working seamlessly across geographies using technology designed with humans in mind. But getting to that ideal state can be a messy process if not done right.

At a recent North/Northwest Suburban Area Interest Group event hosted by HRMAC, a panel of business leaders talked about their journeys toward a brighter future of work. They also shared the often-humbling experience of getting there and offered advice for others who are going down the same road.

Here’s what they had to say:

The future of work is urgent for every department to address now.

Suz O’Donnell, Strategic Initiatives Leader at Point B, opened the session, clarifying that “The future of work is all about driving enterprise effectiveness and gaining market share. It’s not an HR thing; it’s an everyone thing.” She went on to describe two ways everyone is involved. “First, every department head should be actively addressing the future of work, either as part of an enterprise strategy or, at least, for their own team. Second, when you start addressing the future of work, it’s important to bring in partners from several departments. It’s rare that a workplace change doesn’t involve facilities, IT, organizational development, and process improvement simultaneously. However, in many cases companies start down the path of working with only one of these departments and then, several weeks or months into the project, they realize they need to backtrack and work with another group in their organization. Another few weeks or months later, they realize they also should have involved another department. To avoid wasting time and money, you need to take a comprehensive look at all the efficiencies you can gain and everything that goes into optimizing your team’s performance from the start. You may address them a little bit at a time, but having a roadmap that includes a comprehensive solution will make your team perform better, faster.”

Killer robots are scary. Unless they’re killing time-wasting tasks.

Todd Blevins knew there would be some pushback when his firm set out to build a Robotic Process Automation Center of Excellence. “I try not to use the term robotics. I feel like that’s a four-letter word and probably not accurate in most of the things we do. It’s just automation,” said Blevins, VP of Global Shared Services at UL LLC.

One of his first big automation projects involved a mass update of the customer master data system. To do it manually would have required multiple temps to complete the work over 3-4 weeks. Instead, they spent less than 10% of the estimated temp labor costs on a bot that finished the project in a day, with complete data accuracy. “When we talk about robotics in terms of automation, people’s perception changes completely,” Blevins said.

Since then, we’ve been asking employees for simple ways we could help them automate everyday activities. Some of them save minutes and some save hours but, at the end of the day, everyone is more efficient and gets to focus on more important tasks.

Optimize your workspace, but don’t overengineer it.

Not long ago, Walgreens underwent a huge transformation that changed both its physical spaces and policies. Naturally, the company wanted to be prepared.

Before revamping the office, they made a detailed plan to communicate with, train and engage stakeholders before and during the process. While all of those things helped prevent fear and open minds, “It took getting into the space to truly grasp what it was and what it meant to them,” said Brian Kedzior, Senior Director of Organizational Development and Change Management at Walgreens. He recommends letting folks experience the new way and adjusting as needed.

With the change from old to new in the workspace, they also thought this was a good time to adjust the dress policy. They found themselves spending an extraordinary amount of time trying to gain executive alignment before taking a simpler approach. “We reached the point where we said, ‘Can we just acknowledge that we’re all adults here?'” Kedzior said. Once they did, the shift from old-school conservative to “dress for your day” became simple, and employees began to adjust their apparel based on the type of meetings they have each day.

A data-driven approach to leadership shouldn’t be at the expense of soft skills.

Erin Joslin, Senior Director of Talent Management at US Foods, developed a robust analytical framework for identifying successors to key leadership roles. That data helped identify and develop top leaders, but Joslin knew that their emotional intelligence was every bit as important as any success metric.

Remembering people’s names, communicating often and easing employees into new roles are critical skills to retaining workers, Joslin said. “We’re looking holistically to optimize our leaders to retain and engage the frontline workforce that our whole business relies on. It’s a little bit back to basics.” Balancing trends in analytics with timeless managerial skills are essential in any environment.

Manage remote workers with standardized metrics.

When iRhythm Technologies needed to quickly scale up its workforce, the company knew that hiring talent near its high-cost downtown headquarters would be costly and forcing people to commute several hours a day to a job they could do from home would be disengaging.

To solve those challenges, Ann Fantuzzi, Manager of Talent Acquisition Operations at iRhythm Technologies, said they hired employees from lower-cost suburbs and established standard measuring tools that helped leaders objectively manage these remote workers

The company holds daily and weekly check-ins to review performance. “Everybody knows where they stand and are making changes along the way,” Fantuzzi said. As an added bonus, the new system now helps managers get the most out of people who work in the main office as well.

You may use Agile, but are you agile?

Walgreens’ Brian Kedzior found that building an agile organization went beyond a tech methodology and into looking for ways to work better every day. The company surveyed employees to find answers to a simple question: “What are the barriers for making you feel productive and efficient every single day?”

One of the most universally applicable suggestions had to do with better meeting policies: schedule meetings for 25 or 50 minutes to enable everyone to be on time for their next meeting. Kedzior said it’s pointless to talk about high-level concepts until you’ve mastered basic better-working habits.

The future is now.

Suz O’Donnell closed the session, saying, “The biggest myth about the future of work is that it’s about the future and you don’t need to deal with it now. In fact, the future of work will always be now. It’s enabling your company to meet market demands today and to prepare for changes so that you can compete for the best talent and gain market share tomorrow. If you aren’t constantly thinking forward, you are falling behind.”