The Way We Work is Antiquated. It Needs to be Future Ready.

By Will Hughs, Head of Fixed & UC, Vodafone Americas

Will Hughs, Head of Fixed & UC, Vodafone Americas

Artificial intelligence. The Internet of Things. Data-driven personalization. These technological hallmarks of the digital era are driving society and business into the future at breakneck speed, opening the door to a smarter, more efficient world. Yet, for all the digital innovation that exists today, one aspect of our lives is stuck squarely in the past: our approach to work.

"AI is already changing the way employees interact with technology, augmenting human employees’ skills by assisting them in everyday tasks to increase efficiency, forcing us to rethink the way we work"

Despite having the technology to disrupt the employee experience and create the working culture of the future, most companies operate under outdated, inefficient models that are rigid in both process and culture. As a result, businesses waste key resources, time and funds on legacy infrastructure and process. At the same time, employee expectations about work are higher than ever – today’s employees demand flexibility in when, where and how they will work, and what technologies they will use both in and out of the office to accomplish tasks. If their employers can’t meet those expectations, employees are likely to move on. And, as artificial intelligence continues to progress, it will lead to more workplace disruption. AI is already changing the way employees interact with technology, augmenting human employees’ skills by assisting them in everyday tasks to increase efficiency, forcing us to rethink the way we work.

As businesses move through their digital transformation journeys while contending with new employee expectations and setting a course for the years to come, how can they bring their tools, processes, and ways of working out of the past and into a digital future?

Breaking out of the cubicle

When we think of digital, terms like “agile,” “usage-based” and “any to any” come to mind – the promise of digital is really all about flexibility and empowering the end user. Picture a corporate office. What do you see? You might picture a classic office building with uninspiring blank walls, and rows and rows of siloed cubicles and computer monitors. While some companies are beginning to embrace more open, collaborative office environments, employees quickly feel the same old message from management – that “working” means “being at work,” only now they have to do it in a far noisier, more crowded environment.

In the past, office locations and layout were dictated by fixed production and communications infrastructure that’s been made irrelevant by today’s largely service-based economy and digital communications tools. These spaces can have negative effects on the workforce as physical office space plays a part in dictating culture. Often staff are part of global, virtual teams and have little to do with others sitting in the “cube farm” at the regional HQ. Inflexible workspaces create an inflexible, uncollaborative culture.

The newest generation of employees is made up of digital natives who expect to work in flexible, connected places with the latest technology. In order to satisfy employees and break out of rigid ways of working, workplaces cannot be purely functional – they will need to engage and inspire the workforce, intelligently using people, processes, technology, and space.

But a flexible workspace isn’t just about the office. Businesses also need to meet employee demand for flexibility in when and where they work, which includes creating policies that allow for remote work and adjustable hours. While some businesses have been hesitant to adopt flexible working policies because they believe they will limit productivity, the opposite is true. Through Vodafone’s own research, we’ve found that over 80 percent of companies that have adopted a flexible working policy has seen an increase in productivity. And, according to a Global Workplace Analytics, flexible working can contribute positively to the environment. One company reported that when its 24,000 U.S. employees participated in a flexible working program, they avoided producing over 30,000 metric tons of CO2, due to less frequent commuting.

Rigidity, both in the workspace and employee culture directly impacts the bottom line – unsatisfied employees are likely to take their talents to companies that will meet their needs. So, how can businesses rise to meet the challenge?

The New Tools of the Trade

For many companies, the challenge around digital transformation isn’t sourcing the latest and greatest collaboration tools, it’s determining which tools to use for what purpose, and how to use them to properly meet strategic goals and improve the employee experience. Within many organizations – especially larger corporations – there is little agreement on how various digital tools should be used, and for which processes or tasks. Employees are often overwhelmed with several channels for both internal and external communications, from email to multiple instant messaging platforms, to social media channels and more. An overwhelming number of tools creates confusion and frustration among employees, and it can even limit the possibility of remote work – despite having the capability to work from anywhere, many employees will still default to coming into the office every day because they are unsure of how they’ll connect with their colleagues.

Tools that simplify communication by bringing multiple platforms and people together via video conference are one option for leveraging digital tools in a way that supports employee needs. New communication technologies offer client-agnostic collaboration tools that allow users to dial into the same conference bridge from anywhere, easily and securely (at Vodafone, we offer a tool called Vodafone Meet Anywhere). These types of technologies, combined with tools like high-speed wireless and mobile, augmented reality, the Internet of Things and AI, will define the connected workplace of the future.

Follow the Leader: Setting an Example for Digital Culture

A smarter approach to work must start at the top. The organizations that will lead the way in creating a digital culture are those that truly embrace change and are willing to experiment with new tools and processes until they find solutions that suit their specific needs.

Executives and managers should also lead by example, especially when it comes to embracing digital tools. For example, if businesses are to fully adopt better methods of internal communication, such as instant messaging, social media or video communication, leaders need to experience these tools themselves and set the tone for how they should be used within the organization. They should also collaborate with IT teams in order to fully understand the breadth of communication platforms available, including the capabilities and limitations of each tool, and what potential security challenges exist. It’s also up to leadership to ensure compliance with each platform that’s introduced – fast-evolving data privacy laws and regulations mean businesses must stay ahead of changes and make sure they are communicated throughout the organization.

Finally, great leaders don’t create followers, they empower others. This is particularly true as companies embrace the new workplace paradigm – great leaders are those who give their employees clear objectives and deliverables as well as the autonomy to set their own course. If leaders allow their employees to be self-starters and manage their own working life, give them the tools they need to excel at work and create truly intelligent, collaborative workspaces, they can build the digital workplace of the future.

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