The hybrid work model might be here to stay, even for frontline workers. A Gartner survey of supply chain leaders found 61% of them believe that the acceleration of remote work due to the pandemic will create a permanent hybrid work model at the frontline.

“In an environment of talent and labor shortage, supply chain leaders anticipate employee expectations to become more demanding and feel that they must prepare to meet those expectations—or lose to competitors that do,” says Suzie Petrusic, director of research with the Gartner Supply Chain practice. “Fifty-seven percent of respondents believe that those intensified employee expectations will also increase the costs of attracting, hiring and retaining talent.”

Drawing on the findings of its annual Gartner Future of Supply Chain survey, Gartner recommends that to remain competitive, supply chain leaders transform their organizations from location-centric to human-centric work designs. One strategic change to support this transition is to provide flexible work experiences for frontline workers. While organizations have learned a lot about hybrid work throughout the pandemic, those lessons rarely apply to operational and frontline staff—employees whose tasks require them to show up physically. The supply chain has a deep dependency on the stability of the schedules of these frontline workers. This stems from a history of finding talent willing to adjust to the supply chain’s scheduling needs. This is not the case anymore, and the supply chains that achieve flexibility at the frontline will win the talent competition of the future.

“Supply chain leaders have two levers here,” Petrusic says. “They can invest in technology to reduce their reliance on humans for frontline operational execution, where work is most inflexible, and they can find ways to increase frontline worker flexibility. Only a small number of survey respondents are currently taking the technology route. However, 56% say that they are investing to design work primarily for flexibility.”

Gartner suggests that these investments can lead to a supply chain of the future marked by flexible workspaces and work schedules, such as part-time shifts and the possibility for employees to schedule and trade their own shifts. A smaller portion of that future supply chain will enable flexibility through technology, for example, through augmented and virtual reality or industrial exoskeletons to assist in the moving of heavy objects.

Another strategic change is the enablement of more intentional collaboration. This is something, Gartner notes, supply chain leaders are already doing. Sixty-two percent of respondents are currently investing in providing policy and communication tools for seamless in-person and remote work relationships. It expects the supply chain of the future to be characterized by agile workspaces, collaboration between remote and in-person employees, and collaboration-based training and upskilling programs.

Gartner’s survey found that supply chain leaders have realized that they must hold themselves—and their managers—accountable for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and employee well-being, including protection against discrimination. Around three-quarters of respondents are investing to enforce equitable employment practices and provide employees with meaningful, purpose-driven initiatives in their work.

Petrusic says, “With shifting employment models already being explored, supply chain leaders will want to ensure they can drive empathy for these nontraditional employees. They’ll need the proper organizational structure to do so, including focused leadership roles, such as directors of remote work or robotics.”