The future of work in the age of digital transformation

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The last few years have seen dramatic changes to the way we work, with new research from flexible working experts Timewise suggesting that nearly nine in ten (87 per cent) of the UK’s full-time workforce either currently work flexibly or would like to do so. Driven by advances in automation, cloud computing, and collaboration and communication tools, these changes to our working day have meant that employers are able to create flexible, agile and remote teams and employees are able to choose where they work and how they interact with colleagues to manage their time more effectively.

Having the ability to structure your workforce to fit different people’s preferences can sound like a great idea to improve productivity. Research from HSBC suggests that as many 89 per cent of UK employees consider flexible working to be the biggest motivator to their productivity levels within the workplace. In addition, 81 per cent of workers believe the opportunity to work remotely would help them to improve their productivity, reiterating the clear advantages of flexible working cultures. Interestingly, financial incentives ranked further down in the list of key motivators, with 77 per cent citing this as their biggest influence on motivation at work.

In practice flexible working can leave employers with multiple preferences to cater for and issues creating an office culture that fits everyone from baby boomers to millennials. 

Recently, Unify pioneered research to shed light on the way we work, and in particular help understand the trends, elements and tools that contribute to productive and satisfying work lifestyles. So, we set out to seek new answers and insights in our latest ‘The Way We Work 2.0’ research study.

Fundamentally, our research found that workplace demands are constantly evolving and the idea of work is changing for all of us. The binary notion of ‘work-life balance’ morphed into ‘work-life integration’ (always on, all the time) – and now more toward what we have coined ‘work-life harmony’. This new idea of harmony shows that we collectively have established a higher level of contentment and productivity. 

Specifically, two-thirds of respondents expressed a significantly higher level of satisfaction with their overall work lifestyle situation than they experienced five years ago.

So, let’s take a closer look at our five key trends:

1. Knowledge workers continue to embrace flexible working in large numbers.

About half of our respondents work at least 50 per cent of the time away from a traditional office setting and/or on virtual teams, while only 10 per cent are strictly ‘office-bound’ workers. On the whole, three out of four said their work-life balance is now at least ‘good’, and reported the greatest benefit of working on distributed or virtual teams was the ability to bring together people with the right skills quickly and easily.

2. The traditional office still has a role in the mix – there is an ideal balance emerging.

We found that those who worked in a traditional office space up to 25 per cent of the time, express the highest levels of satisfaction with their work lifestyles. On the other hand, those who were 100 per cent remote working or 100 per cent office-bound had lower satisfaction levels. Millennials, in particular, expressed more interest in spending up to half (51 per cent) of their time in a traditional office setting. These findings indicate that the virtues of face-to-face interaction and human social contact are still seen as valuable and desirable.

3. Improved collaboration tools have shown strong adoption and help virtual teams thrive.

The new generation of cloud-based team collaboration tools is now quite prevalent in all sectors and business sizes, with about 90 per cent of respondents reporting either trying or fully adopting these tools. These new solutions appear to provide a richer user experience (audio, video, text, content and screen sharing) that more closely approximates face-to-face team interactions. However, challenges still exist – the most frequent issue reported being a lack of integration with other applications and tools used in the work setting (e.g. calendaring, email, line of business applications).

4. Smaller businesses are seeking speed and agility, while larger businesses place the most value on bringing skills together.

While smaller businesses are somewhat less likely to embrace flexible and remote working compared to larger enterprises, they reported benefits centred on faster decision making. Large enterprises reported being able to bring together virtual teams with the right skills quickly and easily as the biggest benefit. Both small and larger organisations said they also enjoy and prefer the benefit of reduced need for formal “sit down” meetings that virtual teaming allows.

5. Generation Y (millennials) are much less likely to prefer 100 per cent fully remote working.

Given the relatively early stages in their careers, younger workers expressed more interest in spending at least some of their time working in a traditional office environment. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but might be explained by our findings that show access to information and syncing up with others in their work lifestyles as being primary obstacles to embracing more remote working. In fact, it would stand to reason that millennials’ education training (in person), and desire for visibility in the organisation (to be ‘seen’) could explain why younger workers want to ideally spend up to 50 per cent of their working time in a traditional office setting, according to our study.

So, what do we take away from these findings? Clearly, flexible working is still alive and well – although the ‘ideal’ balance varies in a mix of remote, mobile and traditional office work settings.

It also shows that cloud-based collaboration tools driven by organisational-wide digital transformation are seeing increasing adoption to enable teams to work in a way that suits them. But, there are distinct differences in the practices, attitudes, and preferences of different organisation sizes and employee demographics. From GPs using technology to see more patients to retailers using collaboration tools to form closer relationships with their customers, or marketers using cloud-based tools to create stand-out creative campaigns, the applications of collaboration are immense, but only if executed correctly and in a way that works for your teams.

Paul Cunningham, Chief Marketing Officer, Unify
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy