The digital dissolution of the workplace

July 08, 2015 by John Hatcher

Nicola Downing, Executive Vice President, Corporate Services, Ricoh Europe

“The debate has become overly apocalyptic. Technology has always been seen as a threat to jobs, but it has also been the principal agent of improved human welfare.” – Mr Ian Stewart, Chief Economist at Deloitte.

As technology advances, the digitalisation of the workplace is inevitable. We incorporate the latest technology into our everyday lives, and employees increasingly expect more and more from their workplaces. But with this comes the blurring lines of where the workplace ends and the home begins, something that concerns business leaders and employees alike across Europe.

In a Ricoh-sponsored study, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, almost half of business experts said that the increasing number of work processes becoming digitised would means that everywhere, from homes to parks, could have the potential to be a “work” space. And this movement comes with a host of pros and cons that need to be considered before employers take the plunge into the ‘work from anywhere’ trend.

The end of the office?

In recent years, bold expectations from flexi-working, the end of the office, and the move towards “telecommuting” have been thrown around. And while flexible work environments are on the rise, the fact is the majority of businesses still revolve around a relatively rigid, office-based, work environment.

In the G8 group of industrialised nations, European countries have some of the lowest productivity per capita. It’s clear that businesses need to take action in order to improve productivity, collaboration and innovation across the continent. And many believe the answer is digitalisation of the workplace.

Over 70 per cent of executives feel that employee productivity, employee well-being, organisational innovation, and customer service would all be improved by increasing digitalisation in the workplace and breaking down the boundaries of how we work.

The value of allowing the workforce to move from a rigid, office-based environment is well observed, with 87 per cent of business leaders agreeing they would “get more value from employees if they were less tied to their desks and computers.” The majority also note that a digital workplace would have a positive impact on the bottom-line of their businesses – for both profit and revenue growth.

Control culture

Despite the benefits that flexible working can bring employees and businesses, last year there was a shift by conglomerates in the US such as Yahoo and Best Buy who announced they were either abandoning or severely limiting their telecommuting policies – in the name of “collaboration and innovation.”

One of the common tensions surrounding flexible working is the fear of losing control. Business leaders are naturally concerned by the difficulties of managing and controlling a remote and moving workforce. This was highlighted in the EIU study where around a third of global executives expressed concern over the negative impact flexible working may have on the ability of senior management to control the organisation.

But do the employees of today, and will the employees of the future, respond well to a command-and-control approach to management? The key balance here is to ensure that the work environment is flexible enough to suit their working styles – to help improve positivity and creativity – but keep enough structure that productivity is not affected. If business leaders are not physically seeing their employees every day it’s vital that there is open communication with clear tasks and goals in place to ensure the business does not suffer.

The future of work

It’s clear that business leaders recognise the benefits that digitalisation will bring to their workplaces and workforces – but there remain concerns on how to manage this. It’s important that executives carefully consider how they create a digital, flexible work environment so that control over the workforce is not hindered. But with European workforces being some of the least productive, it’s vital that they implement clear digital strategies in order to address this – before it’s too late.

 

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