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Originally published on People Matters.

While the days of swiping a keycard every morning to sit in the same cube may not be completely gone, most agree the current (and future) work environment will not resemble that of our past. While COVID sped this evolution, an Online First approach has been brewing for quite some time.

As with any unexpected change, great organisations find opportunity from chaos. Most already learned it’s important to structure work, assemble teams and manage organisations with an attitude of being able to work in an Online First environment (i.e. operating effectively regardless of whether we commute to an office, meet in person, connect to a local network). Understanding productivity and team dynamics at a fundamental level in a fully remote, secure and digital environment is the key to Online First success.  

Add 'online-first' to the list of historical business evolutions

The concept of Online First resembles the early days of offshoring. Frank D’Souza, co-founder of Recognize and former CEO of Cognizant, talks frequently about that pivotal workplace shift.

“I was graduating from business school in the early 90s when offshoring started to go mainstream; that’s when we launched Cognizant,” said D’Souza. “We faced similar challenges to the Online First movement: namely, convincing customers that work could get done securely outside their four walls, miles away.”

Cognizant’s approach was to replicate a company’s onshore campus (work environment) offshore with physical infrastructure to address issues like security and to optimize environments based on the physical spaces people collaborated in. Online First is similar in that the same concerns persist (security, quality, communication, productivity), but the world is no longer solving them with physical infrastructure. When cubicles, buildings and office parks don’t (or can’t) exist, creating a digital replica is a strategic, scalable option.

The offshoring era was focused on bringing people (via physical offices) to the work. By contrast, in the Online First world, the focus is to bring work to the people (wherever they are).

Why the impossible became possible

True migration to an Online First world would not have been possible a decade ago. Technical advances — reliable high-speed internet @home; BYOD; public clouds like AWS, GCP, Azure; collaboration tools like Teams, Google Meet, Zoom — ripened the market for an always-connected world. These achievements, and the versatility of organisations and humans who had zero transition training, perpetuated the “work from anywhere” migration.

Naturally, how work and people were measured also changed. It no longer mattered when people arrived/left the office, how long they spent at their desktop or whether they logged enough in-person time with colleagues. What became more important were the progress, results and outcomes of what was being done.

If we look historically at human resource management, this is a modern shift to making productivity and pay-for-performance again paramount. The ability to adapt and demonstrate metrics that capture workforce value separates those that thrive from those that don’t.  

Work didn’t change; how it gets done (and how we’re measured) did

Results and outcomes have always mattered, but most only had the tooling or discipline to monitor them on an aggregated basis. What if we could dissect an organisation and look at its parts like we do a sports team?

Sports analysis is structured, predictable and based on a closed set of rules that create the perfect environment for metrics and data. Why had work become any different, especially in fields where the outcome was easily measurable?

While productivity is not a new concept, the Online First mindset took the focus off traditional methods of performance measurement and placed greater emphasis on a system based on impact and output. Input metrics (time in a cubicle, length of hours worked) were not nearly as important as output metrics with impact (intellectual property created, quality of work, team progress). Productivity became the currency that buys career opportunity, and that proved mutually beneficial for the talent-worker and companies.  

Advancing the concept of how to quantify the value of human capital based on performance and productivity, workforce transformation consultancy Open Assembly supports a data-driven approach to capture the way work is structured and how people get it done regardless of geolocation, function, etc.

“The Online First mindset necessitates a more innovative focus on measuring workforce value based on contributions,” said Barry Matthews, CEO of Open Assembly. “Companies have been slow to adapt robust frameworks that articulate worker value and think about human capital measurement in a progressive, flexible way. This remains a top challenge for CHROs as companies strive to stay profitable and leverage open talent platforms in the future of work.”

So, it is not the work that changed, but how we look at (and get measured for) the work that did. Similar to how statistics enable us to measure and celebrate an athlete’s achievements, measuring productivity empowers us to do the same for knowledge workers and teams. The virtual freedoms of Online First take that capability to the masses by eradicating limitations on talent so they can collaborate on whatever, wherever, whenever.

Online First is, arguably, the most progressive workplace evolution of the past 30 years. It’s not the last major digital transformation companies will undergo, but it’s certainly the market de jour disrupting how talent excels and business gets done.

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