The new face of the workplace

With digital transformation a key priority for all businesses, here’s how the trend is shaking up the modern workforce and transforming where and how we work.
Read time 9min 20sec

Black Mirror is a British science fiction TV series. First aired in 2011, the Netflix show explores how modern society is evolving alongside some unanticipated consequences of digital and tech innovation. Episodes are standalone, with each addressing a different theme or issue relating to our complex relationship with new technologies.

Out with the old

According to Citrix, organisations looking to get transformation right must change a few essential elements:

* Focus on ‘objectives’, not ‘supervision’
* Think ‘dynamic’, not ‘anchored’
* Enable ‘variety’, not ‘uniformity’
* Embrace ‘distributed’, not ‘centralised’
* Support ‘collaboration’, not ‘hierarchy’

This popular TV production may offer some futuristic, and controversial, perspectives, but many of the digital innovations portrayed in the show aren’t entirely improbable and some have already totally transformed all aspects of our lives. Including the way we work. For modern businesses, the pressure is on to rethink their traditional ideas about workplaces and employees. In addition to this, they need to up their game in order to satisfy advances in customer expectations. Failing to do so could see them losing out to the competition.

Keen to find out how local organisations are balancing tomorrow’s trends in today’s environment, we chatted to various businesses leaders and technology professionals. Inspired by Black Mirror, we’ve combined their insights into a miniseries, if you will, addressing six standalone ‘episodes’ or issues.

Episode #1: Power to the people

All the experts agree – workforce and workplace transformation is as much about people as it is about technology. In fact, they assert that without buy-in from people, your transformation efforts won’t make it past the opening credits.

“Unless you run a business with no staff at all, digital transformation is absolutely about people,” says Chris Buchanan, client solutions director at Dell South Africa.

Organisations must put their employees at the centre of the organisation, says Pieter Bensch, executive VP at Sage for Africa and the Middle East. These businesses treat people as the most valuable asset and they understand the needs and preferences of their employees as deeply as they understand their customers. In fact, people-focused businesses leverage technology to design better ways of working.

While a multigenerational workforce can pose challenges for companies, a useful approach is to focus on how people work, not when they were born.

Lionel Moyal, Microsoft

Bernadette Wightman, MD for banking and financial services for AMEA at BT, shares this sentiment. She believes that a successful digital transformation strategy is one that isn’t only focused on technology. Sure, technology is important, but successful digital transformation and workforce transformation puts people front and centre when it comes to the deployment of that technology. “Creating a great digital experience for employees comes from putting people first and technology second,” she says.

How people relate to and do their work is changing, notes Jacques van Wyk, CEO of Ricoh SA. And the result of all of this will be the emergence of two kinds of companies. “Those that have or create strong processes that empower employees by enabling them to do their best work, adapt and thrive. And those that steer clear of change and consequently set their employees up for failure.”

Episode #2: Catalysts for change

These workforce/workplace-related changes are in some ways akin to a dramatic shift in plot.

But what is driving this variation?

From changes in technology, demographics and business models to the evolution of the global economic landscape, client needs and data requirements, the experts agree that there are a number of factors motivating businesses to work in different ways. But echoing the previous episode, it all comes down to people.

Creating a great digital experience for employees comes from putting people first and technology second.

Bernadette Wightman, BT

What businesses mustn’t forget is that new technologies can help them gain a competitive edge only if your teams support its implementation. As far as is possible, strive to ensure that people punt technology rather than the other way around, stresses Nicol Myburgh, head of the HR business unit at CRS Technologies. Technology should be there to make employees’ lives easier in the workplace. The worst thing you can do is force people into a situation they don’t want to be in. Rather give them the freedom to use technology to resolve whatever it is that may be hampering their productivity.

Episode #3: Evolution across each generation

With various generations working alongside each other in the workplace, managing their different expectations can be tough. Tumelo Seaketso, director for human capital at Deloitte Consulting Africa, admits that the ‘cast’ is extensive, but stresses that no single character in this episode is more important than any other.

Seaketso says businesses shouldn’t have to choose which generation to focus their attention on. “What will make businesses successful is the ability to create a space where all generations feel they belong. For the first time, organisations will have more than three generations in the workplace. I think business needs to create an opportunity for all employees to learn about each other and from each other, then find a way to work with each other.”

Lionel Moyal, commercial partners lead at Microsoft SA, agrees. “While a multigenerational workforce can pose challenges for companies, a useful approach is to focus on how people work, not when they were born.” This means concentrating on individual experience and expertise, regardless of demographics or background.

What will make businesses successful is the ability to create a space where all generations feel they belong.

Tumelo Seaketso, Deloitte Consulting Africa

For Mandla Mbonambi, CEO of Africonology, encouraging different generations is all about getting everyone involved and making sure they understand the benefits of learning skills and embracing technologies that align with the broader business strategy. This, in turn, makes them more employable.

Millennials, Generation X and Generation Z are all buzzwords, says Buchanan. Anyone thinking too stoically along those lines is missing the point. It’s not about a generational divide. “The benefits of modern and connected workplace technologies serve everyone.”

Episode #4: The workplace, evolved

Workplace transformation doesn’t only mean changing up the set; it’s about evolving business culture and rethinking how your teams operate.

Driven by the rise of connectivity and growth in online services and mobile devices, true workplace transformation entails doing more and doing better. According to Moyal, a key source of employee satisfaction is the workplace itself. This is especially true as buildings become ‘smarter’. Today, office spaces can be designed to support collaborative activities and flexible working environments. Innovative technologies help organisations respond to new workplace trends, he adds.

Workplace transformation is not a choice; it’s inevitable. It should be undertaken periodically and it requires action at all levels in the business, continues Mervyn George, a business architect at SAP. As macroeconomic pressures force businesses to adapt in other areas, the workplace needs to follow suit.

With the world of business evolving so rapidly, those that don’t move with the change will slowly see their staff move off to companies that are more progressive and provide tools to enrich their working life, says Jonathan Kropf, Velocity Group CEO. “Salary is no longer the only metric or reward for work.”

By creating dynamic environments, companies can incentivise and empower the next generation of employees. However, embracing workplace transformation goes beyond the boundaries of the traditional office, Laurence Hillman, CEO of 1Life, says. Work-from-home opportunities and automated processes provide staff with the flexibility to work in ways that suit them and to work even when they’re not in the office.

Episode #5: Staying on your toes

Employees are demanding the same level of agility at work as they enjoy in their personal lives, notes Kropf. It’s hard to even think back to a time when we had to wait a whole week before we could catch the next episode of our favourite TV show. Now we can just log onto a streaming service and watch whatever we want, whenever we want to watch it, he adds. “The same is being expected in a business context. Don’t make me wait a week for a report. I want access to information now and I want to be able to decide how and when to view it.”

“Speed is the key currency in the modern-day business world,” says Mbonambi. Today, and into the future, it’s important to be able to deliver quickly and to be agile enough to accommodate changing client needs.

Agility is an important factor in dealing with the pace of change, which is accelerating in the digital age, adds Van Wyk. Many small to medium business leaders understand the link between technology and greater agility and efficiency. And yet, dealing with change is still a problem for a lot of businesses.

Describing the world as ‘inherently unpredictable’, Jake Shepherd, a director at Synthesis, acknowledges that it’s almost impossible to address new trends early on, especially when there are so many other, equally important trends out there. With many things happening simultaneously, it’s understandable that an organisation may struggle to pivot quickly when a new threat or opportunity emerges.

Change can be daunting, especially for large, established companies, says Moyal. But if businesses want to transform, they need to leverage new technologies to optimise operations, improve their offerings and empower employees at the same time.

Episode #6: Searching for value

The purpose of workplace and workforce transformation, regardless of the industry, is to find new ways to generate value, says Moyal. Is there any value in shooting a TV show if no one is going to watch it or learn anything from it?

A few years ago, had you asked, ‘Should workforce transformation be a key topic of conversation in business?’, Buchanan probably would have answered `no’. “This is no longer true,” he says. Today, modern workforce habits are focused on quality output and not on time spent sitting in front of a computer. Modern technologies make these new styles of working possible.

But it’s not enough to challenge the status quo just because others are doing so, notes Mbonambi. Deriving real value from your transformation efforts demands that business leaders take a close look at their products and services in an attempt to understand where improvements can be made and where potential opportunities to create value lie.

As technology becomes more advanced and complex, keeping up with it requires continuous learning, notes Cherzaan Perumal, Nebula Group’s HR manager at the Nebula Group. “If the people aren’t groomed and prepared for transformation, your efforts will fail.” Deriving real value when implementing large-scale digital transformation starts with knowing what you’re trying to achieve and putting everything in place to make these goals a reality.

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