We made it to December. Let the 2022 tech prophecies begin. ‘Tis the season for the slew of crystal-ball predictions about the new year: looks ahead, hot trends, must-haves, new buzzwords. But here’s my hypothesis: All you really need to know about 2022 you learned in 2021.

We’ve been at this whole global pandemic thing for 21 months now. We know the return to normalcy we yearned for back in the early days/months isn’t going to happen. The trick is reaching the point where that realization is actually freeing, even invigorating. I don’t want to get all Doc Brown on you, but your future of work is whatever you make it. To make it a good one, you need to accept 2021’s harsh realities and move forward accordingly.

Here are my three lessons from the old year and how to apply them in the new:

1. Bring Back Strategic Planning

Seriously. It’s time. Stop reacting and reconnect with your mission, vision and values to determine where you need to go and how to get there. Gartner has been preaching its R-word-filled reset method for at least a year now. You did the initial crisis response, followed by the recovery, and now it’s time for renewal. The renew phase requires you to take stock of the current business landscape and all the lessons you’ve learned in nearly 2 years of upheaval, and then apply a whole second tier of R-words. Which products and processes aren’t working for you anymore? Those get reduced and retired. Can you return to your pre-pandemic bread and butter, or do you need to reinvent and rescale?

I must admit I went looking for a study or statistic to substantiate what I’m seeing on the ground: lots of companies too shell-shocked by the relentless parade of 'new normals' to move out in any definitive direction. I didn’t find one. I’m guessing that may be a product of social desirability bias. Nobody wants to tell PwC or McKinsey, “Yeah, no innovation for us. We’re doing a whole treading water thing until all this pandemic staffing/supply chain/inflation stuff calms down.”

There is, however, plenty of evidence that the “wait-and-see” tactic is not the way to go. Deloitte applauds technology vanguards, companies more advanced than their peers, because they devote a higher percentage of their technology spend to growth and innovation than baseline organizations stuck in cost-cutting mode. But it’s important to note these market leaders are not indulging in the plodding, rigid strategic planning of a pre-2020 simpler time. Today’s strategic planning is agile, with rapid prototyping and iterative development. Long-range strategic thinking may look different than it used to, but it is just as important as it ever was. People crave meaningful direction, not mere survival. Speaking of ….

Related Article: Why Is the C-Suite Overlooking Digital Employee Experience as a Strategic Priority?

2. Focus on Employee Experience

The Great Resignation may be the story that swallowed 2021. Recently released September numbers beat August’s, setting yet another record for Americans quitting their jobs. Pandemic-traumatized workers are hungry for purpose, connection and self-actualization. You can’t recapture the ones you lost, but you can focus on retaining the people who stayed.

Talent retention starts with listening to what employees want and giving it to them. No shortcuts, no hacks. Fortunately, listening to your team is one of the easiest things you can do to strengthen your company. Every organization is different, and I don’t want to make any assumptions about what your people want, but remote and hybrid options are probably a safe bet. FlexJobs says a whopping 97% of workers want one or the other.

Meeting the demand for a hybrid office well requires thought, planning and investment. Your workers want — and deserve — the best of all words: uninterrupted focus time and connected collaboration. They want to know their contributions are heard and valued, no matter where they make them from. Luckily for you, my last column was all about presence equity and how to build hybrid smart offices that support it.

Learning Opportunities

Where and how people work is a big part of employee satisfaction, but it is just one part. My innovation team colleague Tally Aumiller recently did a deep dive into purpose, culture and professional development, three additional factors necessary for employees to thrive. Her research found the things that make workers happy and productive are the same things that increase your chances of tech project success. Investing in your people always pays off.

Related Article: An Inside Look at How Unilever Builds Award-Winning Employee Experiences

3. Automate to Augment People

McKinsey's Global Survey in October uncovered a significant shift. Business leaders are now less worried about the COVID-19 pandemic itself than the economic circumstances it has created: specifically, inflation, supply-chain disruption and labor shortages. CNBC points out the vicious cycle nature of labor shortages; workers who describe their companies as understaffed are almost twice as likely to consider quitting. Burnout is real, and it can have disastrous consequences for your workforce. You need to get these people help before they fly the coop too.

Our Mind Over Machines marketers love the phrase, “Automate to Liberate” (something about cadence and symmetry). Now that so many workers have liberated themselves by exiting the workforce, automation has become an even more critical tool for liberating your remaining employees. Hyper-automation is a buzzword that’s been topping trend-prediction listicles for three years now. It grows more relevant every year because it describes the ever-growing toolkit humans can use to delegate their time- and soul-sucking, repetitive work to machines. And as it gets increasingly intelligent, hyper-automation doesn’t just do the mindless work for you, it can actually assist humans with higher-level creative work, delivering relevant ideas and resources at the click of a button.

Automation and the human-machine collaboration it enables is getting more user-friendly all the time. Low code/no code tech enables business users to automate their personal workflows. Budding citizen developers can experiment with building automations that serve their whole team. That’s why Gartner says 80% of technology products and services will be built by non-technology professionals by 2024. If you haven’t already, now is the time to introduce your employees to the automation tools that will lighten their load, save their sanity, and grow their value in the AI economy.

Related Article: What's Behind the Explosion of No-Code and Low-Code Applications

Listen to This Warning Year

2021 wasn’t the easy post-pandemic bounce-back we were hoping for. It taught us some hard lessons. Heeding those lessons will position you for success in 2022. It’s time to make the move from short-term tactical maneuvers to new, more agile, strategic planning. Listen to, connect with and care for your employees. Give them the automation tools they need to get unbusy and be more human. If you can knock out that To Do List, 2022 holds a promising future.

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