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The workplace in flux


Technological disruption has always existed, radically reshaping the status quo and creating whole new industries in its wake. However, the pace of change in modern enterprise technology has a different character. Where once major changes would occur every few years, today’s change is almost constant. New technologies arrive at a blistering pace, upsetting existing industries as diverse as Healthcare, Education, Financial Services and even immersing itself in our own homes.

For incumbent industries and their employees, this change can be a cause of enormous anxiety. Hardly a day goes by without a new story about employees’ fears of automation and the consequential impact to their jobs. And for businesses, the possibility of an as-yet, unheard-of competitor turning their industry upside down can feel very real.

The workplace seems to be in a state of constant flux. To learn more about how businesses are adapting to this state, we conducted an intensive survey of 850 business leaders from across the globe about technology and change in their organisations. The resulting report – The Digital Workplace Report: Transforming Your Business, revealed among other insightful findings, that 60% of organisations still haven’t developed a formal or comprehensive strategy for how they deploy or plan to benefit from new workplace technologies. Given the unpredictability of the modern workplace, this lack of strategy is understandable, yet also worrying.

A strategy for an unpredictable era

If there’s any doubt about the pace and significance of this disruptive change, results from a study at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University should give pause for thought. It predicts that within the next 10 years, 40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be gone due to their inability to adapt to digital. Battered by an era of disruptive technology, it can seem almost impossible to make sense of all the new technology being introduced, let alone develop a strategy that will fit. Yet this is the essence of the challenge.

If we compare the pace of technological change in the past 15 years with what we expect to see in the coming 15 years, the difference will be enormous. Although new technologies such as the internet and mobile have rapidly ingrained themselves into the workplace, the speed at which the next generation of tools arrive will be even faster. From cryptocurrencies to drones and the IoT, new technology will become ‘the norm’ much sooner. But why is this the case?

Besides the exponential rate in innovation, a major factor is that today’s workforce has been raised on high-tech, or has been using it long enough to feel comfortable adapting—our research found that embracing consumerization of IT for collaboration was the most important tech trend influencing strategy. Nonetheless, for both workers and businesses, knowing how to make sense of all this change, and deciding which technologies they should be focusing on, is enormously challenging. Prioritising the wrong tech could be as damaging as failing to adapt at all. Our research also highlighted that simply having tools such as web-conferencing in place isn’t enough—to succeed, the technology needs to be intuitive, easy to use and fully integrated into a wider digital strategy.

Comfort in discomfort

To understand how people and organisations can adapt to this new era of unpredictability, we may have to question some of our basic assumptions about our relationship with technology in the workplace. Essentially, we will need to learn to be comfortable with discomfort, or at least learn to live with the inherent unpredictability of life and work in the digital era:

  • Where once a job was for life, it may now be replaced by a machine within months
  • Where once a five-year business plan could be followed, today we will have to live by constantly adapting plans
  • Where once employees could depend on their existing skills and education, they may now need to retrain multiple times throughout their careers
  • Where once a business could make confident predictions about the market and its customers, that will now be much harder

While there has always been unpredictability in business, in the coming years this will become ever more pervasive. The key to success in this scenario is to first understand the causes of this relentless change, and develop strategies to become more adaptable.  We’re already seeing people changing jobs, on average, 12 times during a normal career, and our survey showed that in 21% of businesses more than a third of employees work from home at least some of the time.

In many ways, this ‘comfort in discomfort’ is exciting for businesses and workers, allowing them to explore whole new ways of working, using ground-breaking new tools like VR and being able to change the whole purpose of the business in a matter of months. Some may see the changing workplace as an opportunity for constant reinvention and the promise of an exciting life. For others, the constant stress of change and uncertainty will be a challenge. Either way, the writing is on the wall for traditional notions of the workplace.

What kind of strategy will work?

While the changes introduced by technology will make business less predictable, this does not mean firms cannot begin to develop a strategy. One of the most important ways that businesses can adapt to the workplace in flux is to begin introducing change management models. Change management in this context will involve having a deep understanding of your own business while being open to the possibility that its whole purpose can change fast. This will involve constantly looking at how you can restructure and re-orientate as the rules of the game change.

Another solution here is to explore the value of partnerships. Our research found that a full  74% of organisations recognise that they need external support in the planning and design of their digital workplace projects. And more than two-thirds  use third-party services for the implementation of digital workforce technology within their companies. Being ready to collaborate with others will likely become an ever more common way of adapting to change.

The companies—and the employees—that succeed in this digital era will be those that can manage themselves in a way that will allow them to adapt most flexibly to new opportunities, new rules and new technologies. Because ‘the rate of change’ will constantly increase, those businesses who recognize this, and discover ways of being comfortable in this new uncomfortable world, will be most capable of succeeding.

To learn more about the findings quoted in this post, download your copy of the report here.


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