How Boston Consulting Group’s vision of a ‘bionic workplace’ can help companies build a seamless and resilient hybrid model

microsoft middle east remote work
The “bionic company” combines tech with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

  • BCG’s “The Bionic Company” envisions a workplace where tech combines with human adaptability.
  • It’s one model for the future of the post-pandemic company considering going hybrid or fully remote.
  • It involves tech being a main focus, bucking traditional leadership, and giving employees autonomy.
  • This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.

With the Biden administration setting a goal of 70% of US adults having at least one vaccine shot by July 4, business owners and employers are now anticipating a return to the workplace in some form.

As much as dealing with the pandemic itself was a completely new challenge, envisioning the shape of the workplace in its aftermath has become a discipline all its own.

Brandy Aven, associate professor of organizational theory, strategy, and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told Insider that companies are not going to be able to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Brandy Aven
Brandy Aven.

“Leadership should consider each worker’s situation and circumstances in as nuanced a way as possible rather than try to generate a uniform or blanket policy,” she said. “Similarly, the motivation and rationale for bringing workers back to the office should also be carefully considered and discussed with your workforce.”

Aven’s recommendation for companies includes a “collective dialogue” to generate solutions.

“In general, I would first aim to get individual feelings in a manner that will allow as many people to share their concerns and situations – for example, a survey or one-on-ones,” Aven said. An online forum or discussion board are other options.

This is one path forward in what consultant Paula Rizzo, author of two books on organization, labels as “an opportunity to not go back to the way things were.”

Paula Rizzo
Paula Rizzo.

“None of us are the same. Now people have this new sort of freedom from working remotely, and now everything is changing again,” she told Insider. How companies handle this change, Rizzo added, will determine how successful they are at retaining their employees.

“We’ve got a challenge where when we come back into the world of mixing virtual and physical interaction again, companies really need to think about how they make it the best of both of those experiences,” Rich Hutchinson, managing director and senior partner and social impact practice leader at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), said. “I really believe that people thrive on engagement and seeing other people, but the flip side is that there are huge benefits in being more productive in what you’re doing, but also spending more time with your family or being more flexible with where you are.”

Rich Hutchinson
Rich Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was one of the authors of a recent BCG report envisioning the future of the workplace entitled “The Bionic Company.” In it, the consulting group envisions a workplace where technology combines with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

This breaks down into several actionable steps that all businesses should keep in mind.

Make technology a priority

First, companies must work to integrate the technology they’ve leveraged during the pandemic into their regular workflow, and evaluate how those processes can be further deployed as workers return to the workplace.

“How will the core processes of the business evolve?” and “How will humans and technology create a more efficient process?” are the key questions leaders should be asking, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson gave an example of outcomes he’s seen these questions produce in action at a leading retailer. The company “built an algorithm to choose fashions for the next season. The algorithm improved on human choices alone,” he said. “But the best results were achieved when human recommendations were both inputs to an improved algorithm and also experts audited the outcomes. It’s an example of leveraging the power of humans and technology together.”

Becoming a “bionic company” isn’t just for large enterprises, either.

“The trick for small companies and entrepreneurs is to think about their processes in this bionic or digital mindset from the beginning, or adopt them in order of the ones where they think they’ll get the biggest bang for the buck,” Hutchinson said. “But because you’re small, I actually think you can build in a lot of the agile organizational mindset or the technology mindset pretty easily,” he added.

Buck the traditional leadership model and remain transparent

The next consideration is how leadership functions as you come back to work after the pandemic.

In the bionic workplace, it differs from the traditional top-down model, Hutchinson said. In traditional leadership, direction comes from the top and flows down to employees without much input or room for questioning, whereas in bionic leadership, it’s team-based, where the teams build products or drive outcomes and are charged with accomplishing their missions on their own.

“Leadership becomes much more about how I structure my teams, what are they working on, what’s the mission, do I have the right composition of talent on those teams, can I help remove roadblocks from them along the way, and if the project just isn’t working, do I shut it down and redeploy that talent onto other teams that have better uses?” Hutchinson said. “It’s basically how do you set up the teams, charge them with the mission, remove the roadblocks, and let them go, rather than managing a team and sort of orchestrating its activities in a very controlled manner.”

Keeping workers motivated throughout the changes that encompass a return to the workplace is another critical consideration, Hutchinson said. He said that taking the time to explain how the changes are going to be beneficial not just for the company, not just for the customer, but also for the workers, is key to their success. Having reached an unprecedented level of transparency during the pandemic, there’s no going backward.

For example, many companies that are digital natives use agile staffing processes to supplement their core employee base. Hutchinson said that handled properly, employees don’t see this as a threat.

“Employees are restaffed to other work that is now higher value. They see that making the company efficient through technology helps it win,” he said. “Growth creates opportunities for the employee. And agile staffing makes work more interesting rather than stagnant.”

That type of communication is common among companies that originated during the digital age, Hutchinson said.

“One of the things the digital natives have done really well is helping people understand that if we can grow and become more efficient and leverage these techniques into a more bionic operating model, that actually creates more opportunity for all of us, and our sincere goal is to help people find new roles and grow,” he said. “So I think there’s a large part of it that’s down to how the company executes it and helps people see the positives in their journey.”

Give employees an opportunity to structure their days

As business owners start pondering how to move forward, employees’ views will be central to considerations, Hutchinson said. He predicts that more autonomy in the workplace is almost unavoidable.

Employees “sharing what worked and what didn’t – and what they are looking for in a job moving forward – both will shape how employers structure jobs post-pandemic,” Hutchinson said. “For some, the pandemic has meant they needed to and could work in a more independent manner. Where this worked, I think employees will push hard for it to stick.”

Rizzo also believes that employees should get a head start on showing employers what they want and need by planning out what they’d like their work model to look like.

“We have an advantage because we know it’s coming,” she said. “We were all blindsided when remote work became full time, now you have some perspective – use it! Make a list of what you’re better suited to do at home and what works better in the office as you design your hybrid work model. It’s a good time to craft your days in a particular way that will make you more efficient, no matter where you are.”

Hutchinson identified less management, or the feeling of less management, as a benefit of the bionic workplace as well.

“They find that they’re operating more agile, which can be really energizing because it doesn’t feel as managed, it feels much more self-directed and they’re much more empowered,” he said.

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Inside Unilever’s program that allows employees to try out new jobs and gig working opportunities at the company

alan jope unilever
Unilever CEO Alan Jope mentioned their approach to the future of work in a recent earnings call.

  • Unilever is investing in full-time jobs for project-based work and flexible part-time opportunities.
  • Using an internal platform, employees can help out on different projects across the organization.
  • The company is rethinking roles, structures, and departments as a result.
  • This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.

Vanessa Otake started working at Unilever in 2003. She is an engineer by training, and worked in technically-focused research and development (R&D) roles before making a sharp turn into HR, as a diversity and inclusion lead overseeing gender equity.

While that kind of move may seem uncommon for an engineer, Otake was well-prepared for this mid-career shift. She knew the D&I team well and felt she had a good understanding of their day-to-day responsibilities. The team already understood what she brought to the table and was eager to have her on board, and it wasn’t because they were happy hour buddies.

This happened because Otake took advantage of Unilever’s flex-work program to pursue a D&I project while still in her full-time R&D role. Otake told Insider the flex experience opened doors and gave her the confidence to pursue this new job, which she said has reinvigorated her.

Offering opportunities such as this benefits companies in many ways, as leaders at places like Spotify, Deloitte, and Unilever are learning. People can explore new parts of the business, contribute in different ways, and develop new skills and passions.

“Now that I’m in this role, I feel like a kid in a sweet shop,” she said. “I’m back into learning again, growing again, and being able to grow with something that I’m really passionate about.”

Vanessa Otake_Unilever (2)
Vanessa Otake, the equity, diversity and inclusion manager for gender.

The benefits of a well-developed talent mobility strategy

Using an internal system, managers at Unilever can solicit help for projects from anyone in the company. After writing it up and posting the project on the platform, they field applications from colleagues who are empowered to dedicate approximately 15-20% of their time to support this kind of work.

“Not only do they find a resource who’s keen and excited to do it but then often they also find that they get someone who’s bringing a wonderful different perspective that they wouldn’t have had from their normal team,” Patrick Hull, vice president, future of work, at Unilever, told Insider.

Hull added that the company has been doing this for about 10 years, and recently invested in a platform provided by software company Gloat to bring more speed and efficiency to this internal talent marketplace. Since they launched their pilot in early-2018, they’ve had over 4,000 projects completed.

Unilever benefits from this strategy on many fronts: productivity, engagement, career path-enablement, and skill development. This initiative is part of a few major efforts Hull is undertaking to develop new employment models for the global, 155,000-person company. Flex-work is a centerpiece of the company’s talent mobility strategy, and it’s also helping Unilever better understand the capabilities of its employees.

“There’s a huge benefit that we can unlock capacity in the organization by having people from different functions and departments, even different countries, working on critical projects in the organization,” Hull said. Flex-work can also be helpful for retraining those whose jobs may be eliminated due to automation. During the pandemic, flex opportunities helped the company redeploy people to help meet the rising demand for hygienic goods.

Hull himself recently took on a flex role coaching managers in China.

“I previously worked in China, a few years ago, and when that opportunity came up I just thought, for me it was a wonderful way I could give back,” he said, adding that the Chinese team was happy to have a senior leader from company headquarters on their manager training initiative. “They were getting more than what they bargained for.”

Institutionally, promoting flex opportunities and talent mobility aligns with Unilever’s commitment to helping employees find their passion and purpose. Otake said the company’s purpose workshop helped her identify her passion for gender equity, which led her to pursue the D&I flex job. Hull said around 60,000 employees have taken that workshop since 2018.

Unilever has also introduced U-work, which Hull calls a “responsible alternative to the gig economy.” It’s a full-time employment contract where the workers’ entire job consists of project work across the company and is expected to be available in 10 countries by the end of this year after being launched in the UK in 2019.

Hull said that while he initially thought working parents and others with caregiving responsibilities would be the ones most interested in this flexible model, other takers have emerged such as part-time students, people with side-businesses, and those easing into retirement.

Woman with Desktop View
An employee using the platform to find people for a project.

Focusing on skills helps break down silos

Flex opportunities and U-work allow employees to find new career interests or enjoy newfound flexibility. It’s a model that acknowledges many trending changes in the employment climate including peoples’ demands for more flexibility.

Ben Rueveni, founder of Gloat, the platform used by Unilever, Deloitte, and ADP to support employers’ internal mobility efforts, started his company because he received a flex opportunity the old-fashioned way. He asked for the opportunity and had to get multiple managers to carve out time from his primary job.

“All of these hierarchies, that corporations are used to, create silos,” Rueveni told Insider. “It creates people that are not aligning with business goals, with the top line. That’s I think what is broken right now, that’s what we are trying to fix.”

Rueveni was later working at IBM, and found it unusual that it was easier for him to pursue jobs at other companies rather than internal opportunities if he wanted to take his career in a slightly different direction. This time, he found a way to get his own flex opportunity. But ultimately he set out to fix the problem.

“When everyone is really focused and has this structure of doing what they should do and only that, that that creates less utilization, a less productive environment that is not very agile,” he explained.

By looking at people with the skills they carry rather than the job titles they’ve held, it starts to make job titles and departments almost seem obsolete. Companies can be much more interconnected and also get more productivity out of their people by encouraging skill sharing and development.

“We just see that there’s all this opportunity that we can unlock for people that maybe we wouldn’t have been considering because, as with many organizations, we would have been more in our functional silos,” Hull explained. “Now we’re doing much more research into skill adjacencies,” and he said departmental work is increasingly “being divided up into projects and tasks and deliverables.”

Hull said he sees siloed departments breaking down in the future and a more granular method of viewing employees’ contributions to the company, focused on outputs and skills rather than years with a job title to understand what an employee brings. His job is to make sure the workforce inspires employees and benefits the company bottom line, and he sees the underlying strategy of cataloging employee skills and finding smarter ways to use them as key to the company’s future.

“When you can get to that level of detail, you can get much more targeted in your recruitment, in your internal mobility of talent, and applying the right talent to the right tasks and projects, and thereby also accelerate business performance,” he said.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope mentioned the success of these efforts in the company’s latest earnings call.

“Agile ways of working are allowing us to redeploy both temporary and permanent resource to support our strategic priorities,” he said. “By leveraging automation and by driving digital transformation, we can release capacity in areas of the business that focus on repeatable transactions.”

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Giving employees control over when, where, and how they work is key to attracting and retaining talent, says future of work expert

Arv Malhotra looking to side
“The next generation is looking for meaning in their work,” Arvind Malhotra said.

  • Arvind Malhotra, a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, studies the future of work.
  • He says people want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on.
  • The challenge for companies is to create jobs that reflect workers’ desire for autonomy.
  • This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.

What makes a job meaningful? Does the five-day workweek make sense? And is work-life balance even possible? These questions have consumed Arvind Malhotra for nearly two decades – long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.

Malhotra, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said the pandemic has sharpened his focus. The coronavirus has upended so many people’s work lives, and there is no returning to the old ways of doing things.

“I just don’t think you can go back to what was called ‘normal,’ in terms of how work is designed, how work is conducted, or how employees feel about what they do,” he said.

The desire for autonomy is quickly becoming a dominant force in the workplace – a trend that has big implications for both employers and workers themselves. “People want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on,” he said. “And the challenge for organizations will be to create jobs that not only reflect workers’ desire for autonomy but also match up with their interests.”

Insider recently spoke with Malhotra about how these trends may shape the employment landscape.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

You say that worker autonomy will become an organizing principle of the workforce of the future. Explain.

I see three trends related to [people wanting more] autonomy. The first is work autonomy. Do you get to do things that are interesting to you? And can you choose what you pursue and what you work on? The second is locational autonomy. Where are you going to do your work? You could want to be in Boston because that’s where your family is, or you could choose to be in Colorado because of a personal interest in hiking and mountain climbing.

And third, which is related to that, is what I call time autonomy. This is about choosing your hours of work and getting away from that old notion of the 9-to-5, five-day workweek. To me, that is a vestige of the old age of work.

What does the next generation of workers want from their jobs? And how are people thinking about how their jobs and organizations complement their skills, interests, and intrinsic motivations?

Individuals are really looking for interesting work that capitalizes on their skill sets. The reason they lose organizational identification is that the work just stops being interesting to them. It’s just boring. So then it becomes purely transactional: They’re paid an annual salary, and they do the work – that’s it.

Organizations in the past were only focused on what work they need to get accomplished. And they said: “Hey, we hired you. Do the job, whether it matches your interests or not.”

Now, there is a greater need to match individuals with the right work rather than make them do work that might not interest them. People are increasingly saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually gave me work that interests me. Or at the very least, let me choose from a menu of options of work that I could do, rather than rigidly forcing me to do the same work all the time.”

Research suggests that younger workers increasingly want their jobs to reflect their values and serve a purpose beyond just a paycheck. What are you seeing?

The next generation is looking for meaning in their work. It could be work that’s meaningful to them personally – where they can use their skills or get to learn new ones. Or it could be that their work is socially meaningful and has an impact on society. If they can’t get it in their corporate identities, they are looking for freedom and capacity to do it elsewhere.

In my own industry, for instance, I see a lot of people working pro bono with organizations to do socially relevant things. This could mean going to a high school and teaching a weekend course, or it could be going to places that are economically depressed and working with entrepreneurs there. I see people demanding flextime to go do these very things.

This has been a hard year for workers in so many industries and occupations, and many people feel burned out. Are you hopeful that things will get better?

I’m super hopeful. I’m hopeful that leaders make a considered effort to reflect on the capacity they’ve built over this year. They’ve built a huge resiliency in their organizations, which is an asset that’s worth mining. They’ve learned what it means to work remotely. They’ve seen what they did wrong and what they did right. And then they can continue working in this mode, whether the pandemic is still raging or not. Moving forward, hopefully, they will give people more autonomy in terms of their work.

But I also think there’s got to be a more systematic introspection toward better work-life balance. Organizations need to prioritize the health and mental health of their employees. They need human-resources people who are very diligent and proactive in thinking through these issues. There has to be more balance.

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