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Digital transformation, globalization, the information age and generational change - what will make up the workplace of the future and how can managers shape it effectively for their employees?
"New Work is about allowing people to do, at least in part, something they really want to do and believe in."
(Frithjof Bergmann, philosopher and initiator of the New Work concept).
Bergmann came up with the idea of using the growing automation of processes in a positive way in the late 70s and early 80s as an incentive to rethink classic work models. And even 40 years later, this question is still relevant, especially in the context of digitalization and globalization.
Due to partially organic and disruptive changes (e.g. the global pandemic), our definition of what work means and how the ideal work place looks like have changed drastically. But what do these changes mean for companies and organizations? What is "New Work" in the year 2022?
(By the way, you can read an interesting interview with Bergmann on the topic here)
In addition to the major political-social concepts of New Work, companies need to pro-activelly ask their employees, but also partners and customers, what they need and require. In the day and age of digital information, there are enough suggestions, tools, and platforms available to shape a work life that is more flexible, innovative and collaborative.
In this post, I'd like to address three areas of New Work: Work place & time; technology; and culture.
To keep the topic within certain boundaries, I will concentrate on the classic office / computer work place which is particularly affected by the digital transformation.
Workplace & working life - Office or home office, open-plan, cubicle, or your own office? How does the work environment affect working? What influence do office furniture, space and air quality have? And how much time do you have to or are you allowed to spend at work?
Technology at work - Fax machine or Whatsapp, Digital Workplace or Excel sheet? What influence does technology have on work? Why aren't all employees happy with digital processes, and how mobile, individual and flexible does the work space have to be?
Purpose & Culture - Culture often affects the entire company, but can be perceived differently depending on location, team and hierarchy. What gives employees purpose at work? What does a corporate culture that is good for employees look like?
Given that people spend about 1/4 (and more) of their day at work, the work environment is an important factor in employee satisfaction. As important as this topic is, the actual variables of a good working place often get lost in the day-to-day business.
58% of all employees want good air at their workplace.
It turns out that employees aren't very demanding, but companies still fail to address their most basic needs. According to a survey by the Harvard Business Review, employees value:
As simple as these demands sound, companies rarely succeed in realizing them. The wrong lighting, an office that is too hot or too cold, or stuffy air can lead to fatigue, migraines and dizziness. Persistent problems can even cause chronic illnesses.
The Harvard Business Review also asked about so-called "perks" such as foosball, fitness rooms and other additions to employees' (work) lives. They found out that these are actually not that important. It seems, that the overall well-being is more relevant long-term than a nice round of ping pong during lunch breaks.
Acoustics also play a significant role, especially in open-plan offices. Shared workplaces might be a big trend celebrated by many large, innovative companies, but their supposed advantages contradict a multitude of scientific studies. For example, noise levels in an open-plan office can cause enormous stress, affect concentration and limit productivity.
Even more so, the biggest argument for open offices - the increase of collaboration - has been refuted by a 2018 Harvard Business School study that found that employees are less likely to converse in open-plan offices than in small office spaces. The reason: the constant noise makes employees more likely to shut themselves off, use headphones, and distance themselves from others to unwind.
Since a workplace also represents an individual (personalized) space, an open-plan office often crosses individual boundaries and restricts privacy. Incidentally, this does not mean that concepts for flexible workplaces have no future. Especially in companies where employees are frequently on the road or choose to work at home, freely selectable workstations are worthwhile.
However, these should ideally be offered in addition to fixed workstations so that employees who are in the office every day also feel "at home." Additional quiet and conference rooms help to accommodate different work styles and forms of communication.
According to Statista, an average of four out of ten companies offer remote work options.
Meanwhile, studies show that working from home is often more productive than working in the office. Employees can manage their own time and aren't disturbed as often as they would be in a regular office setting. Still, companies must be careful that the home office doesn't have a negative impact on the employee's work/life balance. The separation between work and private life is often more difficult when work is performed in a private space.
Additionally, companies need to make sure that employees who work from home still see themselves as part of the company and are socially included. Work chats, virtual meetings and other communication options are advanced enough to bring the home office out of isolation and into a more social setting.
Work/life balance currently plays a major role for many companies and employees. This also includes companies adapting their job descriptions to different life models. For more and more people it is important to have the option to pick their work hours more flexibly. Furthermore, the necessity of a 40-hour-week is being discussed a lot more often than only 10 or 20 years ago.
Companies must actively approach employees and ask how to support them in their work and how these measures can be implemented. And a little creativity doesn't hurt either. An app that points out traffic jams or otherwise makes it easier to consider whether someone wants to go to the office or stay home to avoid long commuting times can already change a lot in the everyday work life.
In a comprehensive study (PDF) that surveyed 12,000 workers from eight countries and across all hierarchical levels, PWC asked how technology can be planned, implemented and used in everyday work.
Probably one of the most important key messages reflects what has already been shown in other aspects of digital transformation: management often views technological development more positively than employees further down the hierarchy. 90% of all C-suite managers believe their company strongly incorporates employee needs when implementing new technologies. Only 53% of all employees surveyed share the same opinion. But what do employees want?
On average, employees would be willing to spend 15 hours a month learning new digital applications and skills. However, the time and the training resources need to be available. Companies need to create training material that are not adding to a workday but are integrated into it.
Additionally, including employees at the start of a technology project to make sure that the usability adheres to their needs, can decrease training efforts and increase motivation to learn more about the new tools and systems.
Human interaction is important not only for customers, but also for many employees. If people are too isolated through more and more digital channels and self-service options, their work can be negatively impacted. For example, nearly 45% of surveyed employees still want to communicate directly with colleagues, ask their HR team questions and hold their performance reviews in person.
Especially when it comes to sensitive or complex topics, face-to-face communication is preferred over digital channels.
For topics that are more administrative in nature (vacation requests, updating personnel information, IT support), digital assistants are preferred by nearly 50%. Additionally, traings are also quite popular on digital channels, probably because they often offer more flexibility.
Human contact is therefore necessary on a social level and for all topics that are sensitive and complex. Digital support is desired for many administrative (repetitive) tasks, but only if this support is actually helpful. Digital channels and processes are welcome when they optimize workflows and communicate information more clearly.
61% of all users feel they invest too much time in systems to complete simple tasks.
At DIGITALL, we help you find the right tools and platforms to enable your employees no matter where they work and with whom they collaborate.
Why do employees want to learn about new technologies? And why should they? These two questions should ideally have the same answer, but they don't always come together. PWC distinguishes between behaviors and work motivations here.
Now, it's not always up to employees to motivate themselves to learn. Companies must find ways to manage different levels of motivation, identify needs and start early with the onboarding and training. Change management plays an important role from the first steps to the operation. New technologies need to be implemented with a focus on user-centricity.
What advantage do employees have in the digital transformation? Which software, which apps and which devices are really necessary and desired to make everyday work easier? What pain points do your employees have and how can they be solved? The more the use of technology can optimize not only the customer experience but also the employee experience, the higher the acceptance will be.
I wrote about the need for "Purpose" in a previous article and how important it is to motivate employees and connect them to a company. Volumes can be written about the definition and background of the term and meaning of "purpose". It seems impossible to offer everyone exactly what they see as fulfilling.
But as software provider Slack has highlighted in a survey, it's less about fulfilling each employee's lifelong dream and more about laying the foundations for everyone in the company to recognize, develop and realize their potential.
Slack calls this the "aligned worker," an employee who is on the same page as their company.
"Those who feel connected to their company’s vision and strategy. Equipped with this insight into the bigger picture, they approach their work with optimistic purpose and feel empowered to take action."
Employees who are not aligned with their company have no connection to the company's goals and tend to be pessimistic about the future. They work in silos and feel little empowerment to seize opportunities.
But how do you achieve alignment?
Communication and transparency are key. Companies need to clearly communicate their goals, values, purpose and strategy to their employees (and other stakeholders) and be transparent about strategy changes. If employees recognize their own work in the big picture, then they can act more freely to achieve their and the company's goals.
In addition to alignment, interactions within the company, with customers and with partners also play a role. Corporate guidelines provide basic rules of conduct which give orientation.
There are now numerous corporate models in which the classic hierarchy is rethought, or in cases such as the Holacracy method, completely dissolved. Whether and how an organizational model fits often depends on the existing structure, culture, industry and business model.
Bill Gates once said that digitization can't save bad processes. The same goes for corporate culture. A new organizational model will not save a company if it has fundamental problems in keeping employees happy.
In the TED video "This is what makes employees happy at work", Michael C. Bush names four aspects that play a major role in corporate culture:
Trust and respect: Michael C. Bush quotes the motto of the Four Seasons hotel chain: "Do whatever you think is right when serving the customer". Employees need the confidence to make their own decisions and implement innovative ideas.
Fairness: Employees want to be treated fairly regardless of their role, salary, age, gender, etc.
Interest: Employees want to share in the company's success. This also means that supervisors in particular really listen and evaluate when employees present ideas to them. Listening therefore includes respecting and reflecting on what is heard as a valid opinion.
Change: The desire to change something should come from a motivation, only then will change succeed. If employees understand the reason for change - for themselves and for the company - then they are more likely to accept or even endorse it.
Strive for change to keep your company at the top of the digital transformation. With a subscription to our DIGITALL Galaxy blog, you'll receive our newest articles on digitalization, leadership and company culture regularly in your inbox.
Juliane Waack is Editor in Chief at DIGITALL and writes about the digital transformation, megatrends and why a healthy culture is essential for a successful business.
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