A New Work Environment

Technology is so much more prevalent in the workplace today than it was 20 years ago, even in those sectors not traditionally associated with new technology, and it will be even more so in another 10 years’ time. Employees are used to working with multiple devices, using software to support their communications, business development, internal business management, budgeting and resourcing, CRM and so much more.

Technology has enabled people to work differently and be more flexible in where, how and when they work, although some organisations haven’t yet caught up with these new opportunities and may still work in traditional ways. As well as technology supporting flexible working for employees, it has also enabled virtual customer, supplier, and employee communications and engagement (e.g. the ‘Can I help you’ pop-ups with live chat functionality when you are online shopping), innovation and delivery of business processes.

In particular, technology is seen to be driving productivity and new business models in the creative and digital sector. But, nevertheless, workplaces in all sectors are finding themselves under pressure to increase flexibility and to adapt to business volatility. Outsourcing and the increasing internationalisation of business are leading to a rise in project and teamwork with external collaborators, which cannot happen without effective technology to allow collaboration across locations and time zones. Forward-thinking organisations will operate from a slimmed-down pool of employees, backed up by colleagues from branches in other countries and external consultants for specific projects, allowing them to be more flexible and responsive to demand.

For the employee, they will need to be able to keep up with new technology, particularly that which is used in their organisation. Naturally there will be early adopters and there will be laggards. These rapid advances in technology will provide opportunities for some employees to shine, and these people will find themselves succeeding and in great demand, but will cause a great deal of stress for others. The introduction of smart phones and other technology to allow more flexible working has also created an ‘always on’ culture and higher expectations in terms of speed of response expected, both of which can create additional stress for employees. Organisations have a responsibility to continually train and support their people to use new technology and to be techno-resilient.

Employees will also find that there is increased competition for jobs as virtualisation and technology allows workers to be location- and time-independent, encouraging applicants from farther afield, even internationally, to compete for jobs. Whilst a benefit for organisations who are flexible and open to more virtual working, this creates more pressure for the job-hunter in furthering their career. There may be an increase in self-employment or people developing a portfolio career, as they work on project-based contracts with multiple employers rather than a single permanent job with one employer. There will be less loyalty from employees, and they will need to be more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial.

  • Employers will need to provide opportunities for flexible working hours to the majority of UK knowledge workers, i.e. those working with information rather than in manual production of goods (Peter Drucker). All employees with 26 week’s service will have this right to request flexible working; how will employers cope with a rush of requests from workers eager to improve their work-life balance? And what impact will this have on those not working flexibly? For example, lawyers claim an increase of law claims from workers asked to make up the work of colleagues working flexibly.
  • Around 50% of the workforce in 2020 are expected to be Generation Y or ’millennials (birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s), and these employees will be social media savvy. What must organisations do to ensure they are able to easily and effectively adapt to rapid social and technological change to meet the expectations of their Generation Y employees, whilst ensuring other generations see the benefits of these changes too?
  • Policies to manage more mobile workers will become necessary, particularly around management, scheduling and technology guidance. Policies tend to focus on how to protect/secure devices, but need to go much further than this to set clear expectations for employee and employer. How will organisations manage the challenge to embed a new mind-set and cultural shift where managers feel they can trust employees to work out of their sight?
  • Changes in technology will drive productivity and new business operating models (e.g. supporting flexible working, virtual customer, supplier, and employee communications and engagement, innovation and delivery of business processes); increased use of contractors, virtual teams and homeworking, portfolio career and project-based contracts with multiple employers rather than a single permanent job with one employer. These changes will require the employee to be more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial, and this raises questions around resilience. How can organisations support virtual workers so they do not suffer from psychological health issues relating to isolation and lack of connectedness?
  • Virtualisation and communications tools (such as video conferencing, document sharing and virtual meeting systems) will increase competition for jobs as they allow workers to be location- and time-independent, increasing international competition for jobs and an increase in self-employment, and helping with inclusiveness for those who are unable to travel for health or other reasons. There will be more opportunities, but also more competition. What is the impact of a large scale self-employed workforce? Will this mean over time employees have less rights (e.g. self-employed workers do not get a redundancy payment when the work/role is no longer required)? Already there are issues with employers taking advantage of employees through zero hours contracts; will such practices have a negative impact for workers over time?
  • With their teams working in a more flexible and virtual way, managers will have to work harder to develop effective virtual teams and provide support to those employees. Virtual teams are known to experience more conflict. How will organisations ensure that managers are able to effectively manage their people in these new environments, especially if there is an increased chance of conflict? And how will organisations ensure that managers are resilient, supported and don’t suffer work-related stress?

Organisations are responding to the opportunities and risks that technology enables in the workplace, in a variety of ways.

  • Using technology to enable virtual call centres

Co-operative’s Future Travel subsidiary is the largest virtual contact centre in the UK, with 630 ABTA-certified home-based operatives. Industry experts estimate that by eliminating office-costs and associated administrative overheads, the home-based contact centre operates at around half the operating costs of a traditional site-based contact-centre. Other benefits include: a considerable reduction in agent churn, home-based agents enjoying a net benefit equivalent to a 15% increase in salary – as a result of travel-to-work time being eliminated, greater flexibility and associated work-life-balance benefits, and quality of customer service is improved.

The AA have 250 home-based staff handling emergency breakdown calls. They have been able to improve their management of peaks and troughs of demand throughout the day, have reduced attrition and increased productivity as a result.

  • Creating a culture of flexible working

Unsurprisingly, new businesses and those involved in the tech industries are often early adopters of flexible working, utilising technology. Here are some examples:

  • Automattic offer flexible schedules and staffers can set their own hours so they can work when they’re most productive.
  • Buffer’s job page advertises that staffers can “move or live anywhere” and its values explicitly say, “You choose to be at the single place on Earth where you are the happiest, and most productive, and you are not afraid to find out where that is.”
  • Clevertech has “a global team solving global challenges.” Many of those team members work remotely, and in hiring for those positions, the company looks for people who fit this bill: “You understand the advantages of working remotely, have a good Internet connection, and some quiet space to video chat or share your screen.”
  • Fire Engine Red offers perks like a virtual walking group, a virtual book club, and bring-your-pet-to-work day everyday, because everyone works from home!
  • Upworthy doesn’t have a virtual workforce. Instead, it says it has a “distributed team” and allows people to work from anywhere. “Work from home, from a coffee shop, from a co-working space—anywhere with good enough Internet to do a Google Hangout.
  • Zapier is open to job candidates from any location as long as they’re based in the U.S.
  • Lullabot described some of the “highly effective habits of our intercontinental team,” as including getting dressed for work (even when you work from home), drawing boundaries between work and home life, taking time to be active every day, and taking advantage of the comforts of working from home.

Some more traditional firms are also embracing these opportunities.

  • Cloisters Barrister Chambers wanted to be more efficient, reduce absenteeism, ensure they remained a competitive employer, and improve morale. They developed a flexible hours scheme in full consultation with the staff, which enabled employees to choose how they worked their contracted hours over a four-week period, booking hours and ensuring adequate cover using a weekly rota system. Since launch, all staff have joined this optional scheme, with the overwhelming majority saying that it had had a positive impact on their lives; many said they had used it as an opportunity to join gyms or adjust their childcare arrangements.
  • Balfour Beatty Construction now offer flexitime, compressed hours, and cross-skilling development. They have seen “better interdependence and communication between teams, time recording is better, health and safety cover has increased – not decreased – with more flexibility”.
  • Develop the technology solutions, and supporting training and business policies, that will enable your employees to work more flexibly. Remember that your use of technology and work environment will become more important to potential employees so you need to remain competitive.
  • Make sure you know which roles/jobs do not require a specific location. Have you developed a business case on the benefits and cost savings of flexible working i.e. investment in technology vs cost benefits in facilities?
  • Make sure your employees have the required soft skills for the technology to work successfully i.e. team building, collaboration and decision making. Provide training for them on conflict management and resilience. Are you ensuring these skills are a key part of your recruitment and promotion decisions?
  • Are you training your managers to lead virtual teams? Consider how you can help people build a varied portfolio of skills, so they have the currency they need for employability in the future?
  • A rise in project based skill requirements and will people change jobs more frequently and thus organisations need to develop new methods of cross-crediting, accumulation and transfer of skill units
  • Find ways to enable your employees to communicate and socialise at work as they do at home. For example, do you offer an instant chat or internal online networking forum, do you have blogs and online discussion forums for employees to ask questions, swap ideas and share knowledge in ways that they would outside of work?
  • Consider whether you could allow your people to access work email and systems on their personal devices, or whether you could provide them with smartphones, tablets and/or laptops to enable them to work more flexibly.

Other Sources:

Future Work Skills 2020 – IFTF

FTSE 100 public reporting: Employee engagement and wellbeing – BITC, BUPA and Towers Watson