Take a step back and let’s big-picture the term “work.” Have our needs changed? Circumstantially, it may look different, from multigenerational workforces to globalization to the skills we need. But thematically, we still need to get our work done. Another given: Regardless of size, shape, product or service, an organization is still only as good as its people. And those people can only function as well as their employer’s work processes allow them to.
At this point in time, the most critical factor in the radical transformation of the workplace is the digitization of the entire work experience. The cloud has enabled this shift, but how we approach it pushes us into the future. A recent report by MIT Sloan found that 78% of the workforce believe it’s critical to be in a workplace that supports digital transformation.
That means optimizing the workforce’s ability to perform, thrive, and innovate requires an optimized digital environment. Yet some workplaces are at a crossroads as they look for the best way to bridge that digital divide.
Here’s a powerful suggestion: Look for the answer in how we view the digital work environment. To fully leverage the change requires a shift in how we define working. Work can’t be seen as merely an exchange of a person’s time and energy for compensation. We’re already in an entirely different universe as far as that goes. Work is a collaboration. And the relationship between employer and employees now must be seen as collaborative.
That doesn’t mean we’re not working. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a hierarchy or a workflow. But the new world of work involves far more variation in every facet, from time to personnel to location to tools to measurements, than ever before. And the best way to leverage this multifaceted environment is to think in terms of collaboration.
Stefan Ries (CHRO of SAP) dives deep into this transformation as part of the SAP Web Salon, The Future Factor series. In one conversation, Ries and leadership author Kevin Kruse describe the new workplace as “offering unlimited technical opportunities for connection.” And it’s an environment in which “performance is independent of place and time,” as Ries says. This means that the traditional norms and boundaries of the time/work exchange — you work here for us from 9 to 5 — all but evaporate. Even if the workplace has a physical space and a schedule, and even if you are confined to your colleagues, the digital environment has no limits.
A mandate for HR
On every level — from C-Suite through management to every level and strata of employee — work now happens digitally. Every dimension and every function, from specific task to stretch goal, happens in a digital environment. We are already well past the key digital inflection point where work has been altered by innovations such as Big Data, the cloud, the Internet, mobile, and social — whether or not an organization has caught up. Work now takes place within an environment with no limit to information or options. Work also requires a constant acquisition and application of new skills. Just when we’ve mastered one skill, a new one is needed, as Kruse notes, as we try to keep pace with changing technologies.
Limiting access in order to get the work done doesn’t work, in part because it sets up a barrier to necessary learning and growth. It also creates boundaries that may hamper processes they’re designed to protect, as organizations add higher percentages of contingent and consulting workers to their ranks.
In terms of design, if the digital work process is designed to engage people as they work, you won’t lose their focus. But if your people are not engaged, you’re going to lose their focus anyway, as all HR departments know. The talent shortage is scary enough; add to that a talent drain in a less-than-ideal environment, and your organization will fall behind.
A digital workplace thrives if it’s based in a culture that celebrates collaboration. What are the key components in a collaboration culture?
- Every stage, from recruiting candidates to onboarding, from learning and engagement to measuring performance, is viewed as part of the collaboration between organization and its people and reflects a culture that values transparency, communication, and above all, inclusiveness.
- All functionalities exist with the same quality and ease of use regardless of platform, from social to mobile to web to intranet. Access is open (as appropriate) to all workers, whether contingent and freelance or payroll, and from entry-level to C-suite, to enable fluid and open interchange and networking. There are a number of third-party offerings that do this powerfully and effectively, and that interact seamlessly with an organization’s existing online presence to enhance existing systems without reinventing every wheel.
- Education and development are included as a core facet of the workplace experience. This is advantageous for both an organization and its workforce: the World Economic Forum reports that 35% of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020, and with them, a long list of the skills a job requires, from cognitive and technical abilities to social skills. In a collaborative culture, the organization recognizes the need to provide learning platforms to enable employees to adjust their skill sets.
- Measurable results can be gleaned for all aspects of working, from hourly tasks to stretch goals, from informal peer feedback to more structured reviews — and analytics are available not just for the organization itself but to each individual on the workforce. Analytics are not just for HR, in other words. They can be personalized for use by employees who want meaningful, data-based feedback in order to track her own growth and engagement.
Done right, this creates a business culture that’s both more human and more technologically centered. And even as we get our bearings, putting new systems and software in place, the next profound shift is coming up fast: We’ll be looking for ways to collaborate with AI and robotics.
Tech doesn’t wait — that we know. If the question is whether we have the tools we need to fully embrace and enable a collaborative digital workplace, the answer is yes.
For more insight on the future of work, see What Does The Modern Workplace Look Like?
This post is sponsored by SAP. All thoughts and opinions are my own.