How Technology Is Defining The Future of Work

By Danny Voicu October 9, 2020
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Tech Defining the Future of Work – the latest panel in BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series – took place on October 8th and featured executives from League, Fiverr, Prudential, and Microsoft.

You can watch the full panel discussion here:

Technology was already transforming the ways we work, both as individuals and as companies, long before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. When offices emptied out earlier in the year, this process was greatly accelerated, which created daunting new challenges – and a few opportunities. The need to adapt the ways we work and the focus on digital continues to this day, and will persist well into the future – even long after the pandemic has ended.

We spoke with four experts – from Microsoft, League, Fiverr, and Prudential – about how they’re leading the monumental shift toward more dispersed ways of working, both for their employees and for the clients they serve.

Embracing Tech Is No Longer Optional

As the pandemic drives workforces to disperse physically, technology has stepped in to keep us connected. The demand for tools like teleconferencing and cloud storage may seem obvious in hindsight, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of rolling them out rapidly, and at scale.

As Jordan Sheridan, Modern Workplace Lead at Microsoft, explains, “Remote work isn’t exactly new in 2020, but this is the first time that everybody’s had to embrace it: … What tools do we need? What security considerations do we have? … How do we connect, collaborate? Helping our customers put the infrastructures in place that will allow them to [work remotely] was the biggest challenge about scaling that infrastructure. In April, our CEO said that we saw about two years of acceleration in two months.”

Gil Sheinfeld, CTO of freelancer marketplace Fiverr, agrees with Sheridan. “Since COVID started, the world has been forced to work differently. Remote work and digital transformation are not optional, but mandatory. We’ve seen increased demand for all sorts of business services, especially for e-commerce related services. And also from many businesses who need to transform their business from the offline world to the online world.”

Sheinfeld’s observation speaks to a less obvious demand for new digital tools – namely, ways to help deliver traditionally offline goods and services with the online customer service users have come to expect. 

“Every organization is now starting to shift into a technology organization,” says Shradha Prakash, VP Future of Work, Org Design and Talent Enablement at Prudential. “Customers want that one-click experience. And it’s very difficult to replicate that. Businesses that were previously based on relationships, now, suddenly, are more about convenience, more about bringing that same experience to a digital platform. And if we need to provide those kinds of technological enhancements, what are the processes we need to change, and what are the structural implications of it?”

Susan Van Klink, CRO of the health benefits hub League, sees the silver lining in the rush to move services online. “In the accelerated move to the cloud, companies are looking for consumer-centric, personalized, engaging solutions that employees will use.” 

In League’s field, virtual health care, the pandemic has accelerated that shift “by about a decade,” Van Klink says, “in terms of access to mental health care, access to physical health care, and access to third party solutions that will help people manage their health better. We see all of this as a great thing – but it’s really exposed the need for companies to have a digital footprint and an infrastructure.”

Technological Change Drives Organizational Change

A dispersed workforce, cloud-based tools, and online customer service affect not just the way individuals do their jobs, but also the ways entire organizations operate. One of the first demands this shift placed on businesses was for drastically improved agility.

Van Klink says, “COVID has revealed a lot of gaps in the current system, as it relates to accessibility, lack of data, direct correlation to business continuity, and having a healthy workforce to drive your business forward.” Each of those gaps represents an opportunity for businesses to embrace new ways of working.

Prakash concurs. “It opened up the world for us. Leadership sometimes didn’t have exposure to remote working or virtual environments, and that was constraining their thinking. And suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, now I can actually work in different time zones, I can work out of different cities, I can work out of different talent clusters.’”

That decentralization has translated into deeper changes to managerial structure. Whereas business strategy once came from the top down, a decentralized workforce armed with the correct collaboration tools can generate strategic insights at every level. The result is improved talent enablement, similar to the Japanese concept of kaizen, where business activities are continuously improved by all employees. 

“Talent enablement means helping your [people] lead and drive business strategy to produce outcomes,” Prakash explains. “It’s a collective, democratized way of ensuring your talent understands how the work is done and what it requires to get work done.” While this was often outsourced to consulting firms in the past, a more decentralized, democratized workforce means that “everybody in the organization should be responsible for doing it.”

Human Problems Require Human-Centered Solutions

Businesses are, after all, made up of people. But while the problems WFH poses for business are different from the ones we face as individuals, digital tools offer ways to help us adapt.

A major pitfall of working from home is the loss of community – those chance encounters that not only give rise to unexpected opportunities for collaboration, but are also integral to employee’s mental well-being. 

“There was an organic ability to connect the dots over water coolers and during restroom breaks and in corridors,” Prakash notes. “There was a time when people would meet in the cafeteria and talk about their kids and dogs. Suddenly, that’s losing out, because we don’t bump into each other on a digital platform.”

At League, Van Klink says, they’ve turned to digital tools like Donut to stimulate serendipitous conversation, replicating what happens organically in an office. “The tricky part is maintaining that social connection,” she says. This was especially true in the case of new hires. “We had to create a whole new process around virtual recruiting and onboarding that would help convey the culture of the company without the face-to-face component available to us.” Even social media platforms like Instagram are useful in maintaining visibility to employees and customers alike. 

When it comes to recruitment efforts at Microsoft, Sheridan says, “We’ve had good success with things like breakout rooms. Instead of a traditional hackathon that you’d do in person in a large room, we set up breakout rooms and send people into smaller group interactions to get that same feel of how they’re interacting together.”

Maintaining a sense of community online – a trend well underway even before the pandemic – is one thing. Addressing the mental strain unique to remote working is quite another. As Sheridan explains, “Your brain actually processes differently as you’re participating in a video call than it would if you were on a conference call or sitting in a meeting room. Technology overload is definitely taking its toll in different ways.” Microsoft Teams has responded by allowing people to sync their teleconferencing backgrounds, “to make the meeting a little bit more engaging, make it feel a little bit more natural, and try to bring down that fatigue.”

Another contributor to fatigue for the WFH set is the gradual blurring of work and home. Counterintuitively, doing away the morning and evening commute hasn’t improved mental well-being; it’s only allowed the stresses of work to bleed into home life. In response, Sheridan’s team has been toying with a virtual commute, “to create that demarcation between the work environment and the home environment” and allow people to shift gears, decompress, and compartmentalize.

Ultimately, our experts are optimistic that we will collectively learn how to regain the benefits of the physical office – the separation of work and home, the sense of community, the ability to collaborate and find spontaneous connections – without losing any of the advantages that remote working offers – like access to a broader talent pool, opportunities to relocate, improved agility, and more input from across a company’s org chart.

Interested in learning more about how to lead through disruption? Check out BrainStation’s new Digital Leadership & Innovation Certificate Course.