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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

Last week, we launched our latest piece of breakthrough research, examining how work culture, environment and practices could change over the next five years. The research is one of the most challenging and wide-ranging we have ever tackled at the Institute. The pandemic shifted nearly every element of how we work: with far-reaching implications for how businesses organise themselves, staff working patterns, and how we communicate with customers. As we navigate a range of complex and interconnected challenges, it is evident the way we work is still very much in flux.

One of the most obvious, and much discussed, challenges facing organisations is how we manage an era of hybrid working. Whilst most organisations are now, rightly, offering flexible working arrangements – the truth is, very few have effectively ‘cracked’ how to deliver a hybrid system that works for all. Most organisations are still in a ‘test and learn’ phase – and many are finding it harder than anticipated to get it right. One of the key lessons of the pandemic has been that work is not about place – it is about activity. Some tasks require the collaborative environment provided by gathering in an office space – whilst others are more effectively conducted remotely. The challenge lies in reaching a consensus on which working styles match which tasks. In reality, there is no right or wrong answer. Organisations need to consider the needs of their customers and employees, as well as their existing infrastructure, make decisions, and put in place a clear plan to deliver against them.

To deliver meaningful work in a new and ever-shifting environment, the traditional principles of leadership are as important as ever. Demonstrating honesty, fairness and integrity will be crucial to maintaining a positive and productive working environment in a hybrid world. However, issues around employee engagement and wellbeing have also risen ever-more to the fore over the past 18 months. Taking proactive steps to support employee mental health and diversity and inclusion will become increasing markers by which organisations are judged by employees and customers – and leaders will be required to demonstrate greater levels of empathy and personal connection with employees. This all requires a deeper connection with, and understanding of, organisational purpose across every layer of the business.

The shift to hybrid working also brings with it the need for a new set of skills for employees across all levels. An increased number of complex customer issues places skills such as empathy, problem-solving and customer relationships higher on the agenda than ever before.

Equally, as more and more transactions move to digital channels, greater focus will be required to ensure employees are skilled in areas such as customer experience design, data and technology. There is no denying the future of customer experience will involve a woven blend of technology and human contact – and organisations should ensure their staff are sufficiently prepared to embrace both.

For me, the key to successfully delivering meaningful work in a new world requires a greater emphasis from us all – as organisations, as employees and as customers – on shifting our expectations and working together for the greater good.

Organisations will need to think more about the diverse needs of employees, whilst employees will need to consider their role in supporting the wider organisational goals, culture and purpose. Customers, too, will increasingly need to reflect on what matters most to them – from price to ethical standards – and the implications of their choices for the future of customer service.

Effectively managing the evolving ‘world of work’ will be a large and difficult challenge – and it is clear we have a long way to go. Those organisations that focus on challenging themselves to find new and innovative working practices that work for the needs of the business, employees and customers, will be best placed to succeed.

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