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By Sarah B. Hood

Don’t look now, but the days of the nine-to-five office workplace may already be over. A succession of technological innovations – email, social networking, cloud storage, smartphone innovations, e-readers – has brought about drastic changes in the ways traditional offices work.

The recent Digital Workplace Global Study by Avanade finds that 72 per cent of people in Canadian workplace believe the traditional office will be obsolete within four years. In its place, workers will inhabit a digital workplace made up of a network of devices and platforms, with personal mobile devices taking on an increasingly important share of the communications burden.

“Simply put,” the study said, “[the digital workplace means] employees can access the information and resources they need anytime and from wherever they are, in order to do their jobs more effectively…The key question that remains is: Are organizations ready? Based on research findings, the short answer is no.”

A digital workplace is more than just a traditional workplace with a website that can be accessed via smartphone. It comprises a broad and sweeping re-examination of the way work is done, beginning with process and policies, then moving into the hardware and software (devices such as phones, e-readers and laptops, the phone and data systems that support them and the security systems that keep them safe).

Forward-looking companies are giving employees virtual access to all their work tools and designing proprietary communications portals to make the connections seamless, and the payoff can be significant. The Deloitte report titled The Digital Workplace: Think, share, do says that employers stand to benefit greatly by embracing this change, through gains in attracting talent and improvements in employee productivity, satisfaction, retention and satisfaction in communications tools.

Most Canadian companies are only beginning to move into the digital workplace; the Avanade study says “employees at only one in four companies can access software and applications seamlessly outside of a physical office location today.”

And there are challenges, like maintaining privacy for the employee and security for the corporation. This risk can largely be addressed through existing tools, like good password habits; a more complicated matter, and one that has particular relevance for HR professionals, concerns the new definition of the working day.

While the ability to work from remote locations at any hour of the day provides enormous scope for accommodation of staff with caregiving responsibilities, for example, it also opens up a host of questions regarding how to account for hours worked outside the normal schedule, and whether or to what extent staff will be held responsible to be “on call” during what was once considered purely personal time.

These considerations have a very different feel at different levels of an organization. A senior legal counsel may find it normal and reasonable to respond to urgent queries at odd times of the day, but is the same true of a casual labourer earning minimum wage? Who pays for the phone, or maintains the data plan? Are smartphone ownership or skills part of the job description, like car ownership and a driver’s license?

“There’s a lot of discussion and debate on this topic; there’s risk, but there’s also a tremendous amount of opportunity,” said Kaytek Przybylski, Avanade Canada Inc.’s vice president, Canada Service Lines.

For companies looking to take the first step into the digital workplace, he says, there is no single tool or function that wins out over all the others in every case. There will be shopping decisions to be made (like whether to adopt a Microsoft or Apple suite), but each innovation and every purchase should flow out of a thoughtful analysis of corporate processes and policies.

“If I were an organization wanting a better digital workplace environment, that’s the first step I’d take,” said Przybylski. “It starts with having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and why.”

HR professionals will most likely play a key role in the discussions around digital workplace innovation. On the one hand, it can be a major driver of employee satisfaction, since workers tend to respond with enthusiasm to systems that streamline their workplace communications. It also makes HR’s job easier, since the smartphone or tablet can become a primary way to connect people to company policies, payroll records and safety information, among many other items, and it opens up far-reaching new possibilities for accommodating employees with caregiving responsibilities. But these tools also pose challenges relating to privacy and data security, and may end up redefining the shape of the work week for some types of workers.

“HR plays a critical role,” said Przybylski. “Let’s say you want to digitize the workplace of a courier company or law office; the HR team needs to help make sure that the people who are ultimately the stakeholders in the systems are well represented in the process of designing and implementing these systems.”

Many companies will turn to consultants to implement the new systems.

“[But] HR needs to wave the flag to say, ‘Hey, let’s not forget about the couriers.’ And ‘Let’s also consider the policy implications of what we want to do,’” said Przybylski. “It’s an exciting time, and a lot of change is happening. The expectations of customers and employees are changing. We all need to figure out what that means and help organizations respond.”

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