The 3 Attributes That All Work Innovator Companies Have

The 3 Attributes That All Work Innovator Companies Have

For this week’s Workplace Intelligence Newsletter, I interviewed Kelly Monahan, the Director of The Upwork Research Institute. In her role, Kelly is expanding Upwork’s existing body of research to study how scalable workforce models perform in unpredictable periods, adapt to new technologies like Generative AI, and ultimately how they can transform organizations and drive business growth. Previously, she worked at Meta, where she was a director of future of work research, and she held previous research roles at Accenture and Deloitte.

In our conversation, we discussed the genesis of Work Innovator Companies and why they are so effective. We also explored the three unique attributes of these companies, including leveraging Generative AI, flexible talent, and distributed teams.

Read on for Kelly’s insights about this important topic. And be sure to join us during our LinkedIn live event Today, November 13th at 2:30 PM EST, where we’ll continue our discussion.

Why did you focus on “Work Innovator Companies” for this new study and how would you describe these companies based on the findings?

Commonly held assumptions about where and how people work today are fiercely debated. Before the pandemic, only seven percent of the workforce reported full-time remote work arrangements. Today, over a third of people who hold jobs that can be done remotely choose to work full-time remotely. At the same time, we see a dramatic rise in generative AI and people working in alternative ways, such as through freelancing or gig work. The way we work is changing in real-time all around us.

These longer-term evolutions around how we work necessitate a massive redesign in how we organize and structure our workplaces today. But, many leaders are reverting to pre-pandemic norms of how they operate. Our research found that most leaders are focused on keeping the status quo or finding areas of efficiency within their operations.

Yet, our research also uncovered a bold group of leaders forging ahead in work innovation, taking risks, and finding new value chains. As a research team, we wanted to understand what this group, which we refer to as Work Innovators, is doing differently and whether they were reaping the benefits.

What are the three unique attributes of these companies, and how do they relate to our current economy and working conditions?

Our research identified three specific attributes that made a company a Work Innovator. These attributes partially explain why these companies can outperform their competitors today.

  1. Put new technology to work throughout their organization. Work Innovators are much more likely to use data for decision-making and democratize data throughout the organization.

    Why it matters: Those who embrace technology are two times more likely to have confidence in their organization’s ability to navigate the future over the next 12 months.
  2. Open their culture to flexible talent. Work Innovators think about freelancers as a way to leverage specialized skills and move with speed. As a result, they prioritize cultural practices that are inclusive to freelancers, enabling greater teamwork across worker types.

    Why it matters: When leaders create an environment where flexible talent models thrive, they are 111% more likely to believe their teams have the right skills mix to meet their goals effectively.
  3. Create distributed team best practices that set up their organization for success. Work Innovators operate with discipline and clarity, enabling distributed teams to work together asynchronously. Role clarity, operating norms, and respect for time zones make all the difference for productive distributed teamwork.

    Why it matters: Those who intentionally create distributed work practices are 83% more likely to report their organization as agile.

These three attributes are still not common today as only 23% of the companies we studied adopt all three of these practices.

You acknowledge that companies that leverage Generative AI outperform those that don’t, but can you give an example of how it has that impact?

There are two ways that gen AI is acting as an impact multiplier within organizations. The first has to do with embracing it alongside remote work and then its advantage towards less skilled and less tenured workers.

The data showed a correlation between those who had enabled remote work and those embracing new technologies like Generative AI. These organizations are already wired to work differently and have been using technology to leverage the best talent, regardless of where they may be located. Generative AI is another tool within their internal operating system that enables workers to try new things, work more efficiently, and continue to upskill that is agnostic to work location.

Another thing to consider is the productivity gains we see within lower-skilled and less-tenured workers when it comes to generative AI adoption. We see gen AI benefiting that group of workers the most, giving them a boost in productivity.

For example, organizations can rethink their onboarding processes and training with gen AI woven throughout to accelerate their people's development. Any tool that speeds up time to productivity within an organization will likely create a solid competitive advantage, and we see that right now with gen AI adoption.

There’s been a big focus on flexible working but not as much about flexible and distributed talent. What did you learn from your research about companies that embrace this approach, and how do leaders need to shift their mindsets to focus on it?

One of the reasons that remote work has been questioned has to deal with optimizing work rhythms and norms for a team that requires time together to complete project work. Many people’s workloads are highly interconnected with other groups across the organization. Thus, the further the individual team members are distributed, the harder it is to optimize for the team. While I am a proponent of individual flexibility, we can’t lose sight that it's the team that needs to be optimized.

So, our research focused on how leaders can remove the friction with distributed teamwork. We found that Work Innovators were doing a few things differently, resulting in higher performance.

The first was that they had actively rewritten many of the processes and playbooks for how work is done within the organization. It’s still so surprising to me how many companies lifted in-person work norms and rhythms and tried to make them work for distributed teams. As many organizations realized, it's not as simple as that, and getting distributed teamwork right requires a rewrite for nearly everything you do within the organization.

Second, these companies had explicit norms for roles, decision-making, and communication. In distributed environments, many companies leverage various digital tools, which can create misunderstandings about when and how to escalate work. Not so for the Work Innovators. They were clear on digital devices and norms for communicating and escalating needs in a distributed environment.

How do each of these three attributes work together to allow companies to sustain a competitive advantage?

Our research found that only 23% of the companies we studied were Work Innovators - meaning they had fully developed all three company-wide attributes. Yet, the benefits reaped when all three attributes were mature are profound. For example, Work Innovators are much more confident in recruiting and retaining today’s best talent. Their distributed work practices make them a destination of choice. This ability to quickly work alongside new technologies enables them to market faster with new products and continue to build strong data-driven decision-making throughout the company. Finally, their ability to create inclusive cultures allows them to work with the best talent and feel like they have the right skills mix within their organization to successfully navigate the future of work.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on the 2024 workplace trends!

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