We are closer and more connected than we have ever been, it feels as though the world is shrinking and yet it contains more information than ever before. Over the last century, our ability to communicate progressed from letters taking days or weeks to reach distant parts of our own country to the ability to hold a real-time, face-to-face conversation with a person on the other side of the globe at the literal touch of a button. The past 100 years have taken us from a place where manufacturing was predominately hand powered and handmade, to a place where humans are not even present on the factory floor. We’ve gone from staring at the moon to landing on it, to seriously discussing how we’re going to colonise Mars.
The Work of Tomorrow
In the last few decades, we have seen the rise of the knowledge worker and a subsequent cultural shift as more people enter the workplace. Waterstons are exploring this cultural shift in our look at The Work of Tomorrow. The other articles in this series look at the cultural benefits and challenges, but what part does technology play in Tomorrow’s Work? How do we equip our workforce with the tools they need to succeed in this new world? We certainly wouldn’t equip a factory worker with just a hammer and chisel and expect them to produce a car, so are we effectively doing the same with people who work in an office environment?
Using today's tools for TomorrowsWork
Before we look to the future, we think it is important to consider what tools we are equipping the workforce with now. Many of the tools knowledge workers use haven’t really changed in years. To illustrate this, consider two programs that most of us use each and every day: a word processor and email. I personally use Word and Outlook 2016 and, while they certainly have changed their look and feel, these tools are fundamentally no different from Word 97 and Outlook 97. That’s a gap of 20 years and yet, in that time, we have seen the meteoric rise in the Web, social networks and mobile devices to name a few. Clearly Word is still doing its job, but are we making full use of the tools we have at our disposal?
Let’s take a closer look at the staple of modern business: email. Email has been around for several decades, although it really took off in its current form in the early 1990s. Since then, in most parts of the world, email has all but replaced the sending of faxes, which had in turn displaced the sending of letters – at least between businesses. While email is a valuable means of communication, it is increasingly being pressed into roles it is not suited and, in many ways, this incredibly powerful tool has become more of a hindrance to business than a help. We talk about ‘drowning in email’ and for many of us the little badge on our mail application is constantly reminding us that we have 4,954 unread messages. This has led to initiatives like 'Inbox Zero', which while helpful, feel like more of a sticking plaster than a long term fix.
Email clearly isn’t going anywhere but we’re using it for so much more than it was originally intended. Could we use other readily available technology, to reduce the load? Below are a few ideas for jobs that we currently do with email that we could easily split off to other channels. I’ve included Office 365 products to give an example (other products are available).
By offloading some of this work we can immediately see how we could reduce the number of emails sent around an organisation, thereby increasing the value return we get from actual email.
Breaking down the communications into these different channels gives us flexibility on how to accomplish work and we can more easily fit these tools into our work patterns. For example, by working on a file with a colleague in OneDrive I can simply open the file on my computer, work on it and save it, with my colleague able to see the changes as I make them. We no longer need to keep emailing 'Important File version 5aFinalCopy(1).docx' with an increasingly unintelligible file name between the two of us. If we think bigger then we can offload even more; we can invite people outside our organisation to some of the platforms too. We could, for example, share a SharePoint site with an external partner to collaborate on documents. This collaboration mechanism then fits into the heart of my working day, rather than being an inconvenience – documents are tracked, collaboration is seamless and I’m not even having to think about where the latest version of any file is.
This is just the tip of the iceberg too, there’s lots more you could look at, such as increasing the use of mobile devices (using either off-the-shelf products or bespoke applications) to enable your workforce to work away from a desk. You could make greater use of instant messaging or video conferencing to reduce the amount of travelling between sites. You could virtualise desktops and allow people to get the same corporate desktop experience wherever they are working, be that at home or in the office.
While this shift is worth the effort, it is not effortless. It is important that deliberate thought and effort be put into implementing a new platform and that there is a subsequent commitment to the new way of working. If only 50% of a business moves to using a file sharing platform and the other 50% keep using email, then the work to stay on top of this is almost doubled. Similarly, it is important to ensure the infrastructure in place is up to the task, otherwise frustrations will drive people back to old habits.
To help illustrate this, we'll look at our own working practice at Waterstons – flexible and remote working. This means we can work from our own devices from home at any time should we so wish. However, to achieve this, we need to consider:
What tools do we need access to?
- Line of business applications
- Communication platforms
- Network resources
How will they connect to these tools?
- On our own devices?
- Through web portals?
- On a VPN?
- What connection is required?
What security measures need to be in place?
- Two factor authentication?
- Confidentiality of data?
What support mechanisms are in place?
- IT support
- Internal governance
These are just some of the considerations we need to bear in mind for enabling remote working. And, as we’ve discussed in our other articles, even with all this in place, it requires a culture that accepts, trusts and values flexible and remote working to make this worthwhile.
By now you have hopefully seen that many of the principals for the Work of Tomorrow can be achieved with tools we have today. Indeed, adopting these technologies and principles will set you in good stead for further innovation down the line. For example, a nurse performing a home visit could now use a mobile application on their phone to get relevant and timely information, whereas previously they may have had to visit the office to print this off and take with them. A few years on this may have shifted to using augmented reality to present the nurse with this information automatically as they arrive at the house.
Many sectors are constantly striving to make the best use of technology and new principles yet this kind of continuous improvement seems to be neglected in the knowledge sector. While manufacturing has jumped from cottage industry to mass production to just-in-time and onwards many desk workers are still working around decades old technology despite all the tools required for the Work of Tomorrow being available today.