Perspectives

Hyper-connected workplace: Will productivity reign?

Future of Work insights

In this podcast Lucy Matthews, an analyst within our Human Capital Practice, speaks to Richard Coombes, leader of our UK HR Transformation Practice and UK Future of Work Lead, about the hyper-connected workplace.

In this podcast we discuss:

  • The concept of the hyper-connected workplace and why it’s important for organisations
  • How a hyper-connected workplace can be achieved 
  • Challenges around this increased use of technology 
  • Balancing the connectivity of technology and employee wellbeing 
  • Data and security risks 
  • The impact of hyper-connectivity on employee productivity

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below.

Listen to the podcast

Hello, thank you for joining us. I’m Lucy Matthews, an analyst within our Human Capital Practice, and I’m delighted to be joined today by Richard Coombes, leader of our UK HR Transformation Practice and UK Future of Work Lead.

So, Richard, I’d like to start by talking about the theme “Hyper-connected workplace: Will productivity rein?”. It was ranked as the third most important trend in the 2018 Human Capital Trends report by UK respondents. And for those who might not be familiar with this concept, can you summarise what this means and why you believe organisations should consider it?

I’ll try! So, what it is, it’s organisations employing new communication tools and work practices with the aim of increasing productivity – the basic idea of “greater connectivity leads to greater productivity”. And why people should consider it? I actually don’t even think it’s a “nice to have”, I think it’s an absolute imperative for people to consider it. Why? As we look at how work is changing, we are seeing organisations made up of fundamentally different workforces: so, people who work remotely, organisations employing a broader mix of workforce – permanent, part-gig, part-crowd. And the question is, how do we connect those workers, and how do we make them more productive? Secondly, I think we are seeing – we’ve talked about Millennials and Generation Z for a long time, but they are now a significant part of our workforce. And they’re taking leadership positions: they’re team leaders, they’re project managers and they absolutely expect to work the way they live, with consumer-grade technology simplifying the work and making life easy for them. I think, thirdly, we’re seeing organisations structured differently – so, organised around a network of teams, with cross-functional teams coming together to solve business problems. Again, collaboration is the key in that work construct. So what tools can we deploy to make those organisations successful? And if you still don’t believe me, productivity in the UK is rising at a phenomenally slow rate at the moment, so we’re doing something wrong, and something fundamentally needs to change. So, I think organisations typically come at this looking at it as a technology solution, so applying technology, but I don’t think it’s just about a technology implication, I think it’s about looking at productivity more broadly and how technology can be part of the answer to solve that solution.

Thank you, that was really helpful. So, leading on from that, then, it appears that there’s now a variety of ways that we can connect our workforce within today’s society. How do you think that can be achieved, and where have you seen that done effectively?

Yes, I think I touched on it in the previous question. The mistake is to think about pure technology. It’s absolutely part of the answer, but you also have to think: office space design, employee working arrangements, org. design, how you lead, how you set expectations, how you project manage. So, I’ll come back to the consistent theme that it isn’t just about technology. Having said that, there are some great technologies out there, and technology certainly is a large part of the answer. So, solutions like Workplace by Facebook, Instant Messenger, Skype, Slack, Office 365 – they are certainly part of the solution, but the trick is to work out how to deploy them to make a difference. Many organisations throw technology at the problem and actually make peoples’ lives more difficult, more complicated and give them multiple channels to work with, so that just doesn’t work. Example of where it’s done well? I’ll look quite close to home: I’ll look at Deloitte. So, we have recently just moved into 1 New Street Square, our new office building that obviously has spaces for collaboration, it has team floors, it has videoconferencing technology built into all the meeting rooms, so you can have remote meetings, but more importantly a meeting where you can see the face of the person you’re talking to, which is absolutely vital for kind of face-to-face communication. I would say that it has fundamentally changed the culture of the organisation already. There is definitely more collaboration. I think it has changed the way people feel about the experience of working for Deloitte and I think it’s been a phenomenal transformation, but it has involved workplace technology changing expectations of how we work, removing presenteeism from the kind of Deloitte culture. Are we perfect? No. Have we made a significant difference? Yes, we have.

So this year’s survey highlighted that while 71% of survey respondents felt new tools improved their personal productivity, at the same time 47% were concerned about whether the tools are driving productivity overall. How can organisations ensure that this is addressed and that any potential challenges around this increased use of technology can be alleviated?

I think the use of “tools” in the question probably highlights some of the problem. This isn’t just a technology problem. Organisations need to take a broad approach to solving this, so, involving organisational design, technology, physical workplace design, leadership approaches… I absolutely think the way to crack this is to think about employee experience and productivity not from technology. Also, ask employees what they want, recognise that “want” and “need” might be different by segment, so one size absolutely cannot fit all. I think, implementation approach: you have to pilot, you have to measure the success of the pilot. If it works, scale it; if it doesn’t work, try something else. You know, we have five generations in the workforce at the moment, so an apprentice or a new graduate absolutely cannot want to communicate in the same way as someone who is working into their 70s. So, we just have to think completely differently. And I think also we can’t just think productivity at any cost. I think we have to take quite a balanced view to it and say, are we overcomplicating peoples’ working lives, are we starting to impact their wellbeing and mental health by some of these working practices and some of this technology? And so, I think we have to design solutions broadly that allow people to be off sometimes – so not always on, always connected. But we have to give people space to work in different ways and be able to get away from their technology. For example, you know, we have a culture in Deloitte of sending emails at the weekend. Do we really need to do that? Answer: probably no, we don’t.

And I guess on the point around people having time to switch off: with the workforce becoming increasingly connected through the use of technology and the growing value that’s now placed on wellbeing by employees themselves, how do you think organisations can balance those two priorities?

I think it’s interesting. Wellbeing is definitely something that we are seeing come front and centre in how people are redesigning the workplace. And I think technology definitely has a way or an opportunity to help drive greater wellness at work. I think if you look at the TUC report published this year, one in seven workers felt that technology has increased their working hours, and yet the flipside of that is the TUC are also saying that AI and robotics has the opportunity to drive a four-day week in organisations. So, I think it’s interesting that technology can be a bit of a blessing or a curse, and it really depends how we implement it. I think organisations need to think of wellbeing way more broadly than they do at the moment and weave it into the fabric of their organisation. And so, we obviously think of wellbeing as the mind – so, mental and emotional wellbeing; the body – physical wellbeing; we also think that purpose is important, so how do you feel connected to the organisation you work for and how do you see a purpose in what you do so you achieve fulfilment in your job – hugely important. And then finally, we think wellness involves the workplace. And that’s quite a broad definition, but that is the office environment, the technology you deploy, HR policies, leadership. And once you weave those four elements into your organisation, I think then you’re addressing wellbeing in the right way.

So, in terms of the new technologies that organisations can employ and the variety of them that are out there today, what do you think are some of the key challenges that organisations will face in becoming more connected and utilising these new technologies?

There are definitely a few: let’s pick on a couple. So, leadership buy-in. I think organisations are pushing this question. Say it’s an HR project or an IT project, this is absolutely a collaboration between HR, IT and the business: it’s about how work gets done, how businesses are organised and how people experience work. And that’s a board-level issue, so the C-suite have to be engaged in it. And, interestingly, the C-suite have to start role-modelling some of those behaviours. In many respects – and I say this from my own perspective as a middle-aged white male – in many respects the norms and behaviours that we have grown up with in the workplace just aren’t relevant anymore and certainly are not relevant to some of the segments that we have at work. So, we have to fundamentally rewire ourselves so that we can become leaders in this new way of working. I think, next challenge, I’ve said already, is one size cannot fit all. If you’ve got five different generations at work, different cultures, different demographics, then you absolutely need to have to segment your workforce. You have to create experiences that are different for those segments and even personalised by individual in the workplace. I think in order to do that, organisations need to start human-centred design and think design thinking. And I think those skills just don’t exist in organisations, particularly not in HR functions. And finally, there are definitely challenges around data security, GDPR and how we share information across some of these platforms.

This trend is obviously extremely important in the UK: our respondents ranked it as third most important. What response have clients you’ve spoken to had to this theme?

Yes, it’s not number three in the Trends report for nothing! I think a lot of people are talking about it, a lot of people are looking to address it but from multiple different angles – so some are focusing on technology, some are asking how do they become a more agile organisation, some are asking from the angle of leadership development to drive collaboration, or what are our work practices that will drive greater collaboration, connectivity… I think when we start talking to clients, a common theme emerges that people recognise: it’s all of the above. And back to the point in the previous answer: it is a cross-organisation board-level response that is required. So, people are responding well but people are recognising it’s quite a big problem to solve. But we always say to them, you know: act fast – so make a difference, start small – so pilot it, and then scale where you can. And remember that it’s people that are at the heart of this.

Definitely. So, just touching on a point that you raised previously: with the kind of growth of all these technologies within the workplace, what challenges do you see foresee around kind of data security and risk?

Quite a few. I mean, ideally, we’d want free and open sharing of all information, self-policing within organisations… but guess what, we don’t live in an ideal world, so I think having a workforce that utilises these technologies, you have to set clear boundaries. You have to look at the risks, make sure they’re managed effectively, clearly establish the types of information that can be shared and cannot be shared. And then you obviously have to have the ability to – maybe “police” is the wrong word, but enforce those rules and regulations within your organisation. That has to be a collaboration between HR, IT, Legal, Risk, in order to come up with those polices. And I think as technology moves very quickly, those policies have to constantly be refreshed and be agile enough to meet the new technologies that are being applied. But I think, again, back to my point of, this is still all about people: you’ve got to keep employees in the loop and make sure they are informed and understand why these policies are in place.

Lastly, with the range of technologies that are now making their way into the workplace, this year’s survey revealed that 44% of respondents believe that face-to-face meetings will decrease in the future. What do you make of this, and is the face-to-face meeting soon to be a thing of the past?

That would be a dramatic headline, wouldn’t it: “Face-to-face meetings are officially over!” I don’t think they are, but I think they are definitely declining, and I think the expectation for face-to-face meetings is declining. There will always be value for face-to-face meetings for certain situations, and I think it’s about identifying the situations where face-to-face is appropriate. And that might just not be from an organisation point of view but also from an individual point of view, so are you considering how the individual feels about that interaction if it’s not face-to-face? So, let’s take an example – performance management feedback, for example: would you feel like I wasn’t giving you the time if we weren’t face-to-face? Is that appropriate in a videoconference – at least then I can see your reaction? So, again, I think we have to say different employee segments may react differently to different interactions, but there will definitely be a chance or a need for face-to-face meetings. I think it’s interesting, because I think as technology improves then you still get the chance to see peoples’ emotions, peoples’ response – whether it’s through videoconferencing, whether it’s through telepresence or, you know, the emerging technology of virtual reality, virtual boardrooms, whatever it may be, where I think you will feel face-to-face when you’re not actually face-to-face. So, it’s interesting, but it’s about finding the right interaction for the right activity. Sometimes an instant message, just pinging it, is absolutely the right answer, and sometimes face-to-face would be the right answer. I think as I’ve said throughout the whole thing, it’s finding the right balance between employee experience and how the employee feels, and the impact that can have on productivity.

Wonderful – thank you, Richard. It was really great to talk to you today.

Absolute pleasure.

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