Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Office of the Future: Automation and Innovation in the Virtual Workplace

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The workplace is changing. Although the physical office can still be a place of productivity and collaboration, companies are empowering the individual worker by providing all the tools necessary to be a valuable member of the organization from any corner of the globe. Today’s workforce is becoming increasingly flexible, mobile, and even global in nature — virtual collaboration is at the center of the workplace and shaping the way businesses operate now and for the foreseeable future.

The strong influence mobility has had on the workplace can be found at the epicenter of this shift. As smartphones and tablets have become rooted in our personal lives, workers have found these devices to be beneficial in facilitating their work responsibilities as well. As a result, many employers have embraced the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend to foster collaboration among employees outside the office. The introduction of mobile devices in the workplace has deeply affected the way people work as they increasingly rely on their personal smartphone and tablet for email, note-taking, and video conferencing. Since BYOD policies have allowed workers the flexibility to conduct regular business from even the most far-reaching areas around the world, the need to confine work between the four walls of an office has decreased, depending on the company, driving further adoption among telecommuters.

The same factors that are driving companies to downsize their physical office spaces has resulted in the rise of temporary contractors as an alternative to full-time employees, thereby creating the need for secure collaboration apps with functionality spanning across corporate firewalls. Advances in mobility and Internet-based technologies have enabled employers to connect with individuals willing to work on a short-term basis without needing to be located within the same time zone. By breaking down the geographic boundaries that have historically limited organizations to a select pool of qualified candidates, mobile devices and collaboration apps now allow independent employees to hit the ground running and remain connected to their working groups from anywhere in the world. The opportunity for employers and hiring managers is compelling, as the potential size of talent pools multiplies significantly. In fact, a recent study surveying more than 33,000 workers in 26 countries found that contractors are more engaged and more innovative than regular employees.

In the office of the future, the evolution of technology allows the workplace to become increasingly virtualized. Within a virtualized environment, cloud is the most important ingredient to help businesses automate processes, simplify content, and facilitate workflows by providing a centralized, secure infrastructure for collaborative solutions. In addition, in past years there were only a select few enterprise-ready devices with applications for business collaboration – most notably, BlackBerry devices. Now, there are a wide array of devices offering improved functionalities to drive productivity and reduce the need for multiple machines.

With cloud becoming a key enabler of the virtual office and open to all organizations, small-and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have benefited greatly from cloud by operating with the same top-notch software as their larger peers. In the early 2000s, collaboration tools were catered to companies running software on-premises, namely large organizations with significant IT budgets and footprints. Now, in large part because of the prevalence of the cloud, SMBs are getting more value from cloud-based vendors. In fact, Jim Deters, founder of Galvanize, famously said, “Two guys in a Starbucks can have access to the same computing power as a Fortune 500 company.” As more collaboration apps have evolved to cater towards the burgeoning cloud-first mentality among corporates, SMBs now are back in the game and able to leverage the same apps that enterprises are utilizing to drive their own process efficiencies. Since SMBs can procure first-class collaboration, the IT playing field continues to equalize across the size spectrum, thereby allowing smaller organizations to focus on their core competencies. As a result, large enterprises are forced to find new ways to innovate and remain nimble to thwart off potential competitive threats from smaller and more agile businesses.

Cognitive computing also offers a significant advantage that many have not yet tapped. Collaboration apps such as instant messaging are fundamental in helping employees sync up with each other but can also have a downside: creating too many interruptions.

Can cognitive help reduce the interruptions? Today’s workers are interrupted every three minutes on average, and it takes about 23 minutes to refocus, causing a potentially endless loop of being unproductive. To address this pain point, for example, IBM is facilitating the development of information-empowered workforces by infusing cognitive into its collaboration tools to help people work together in more intuitive ways. One of the ways to achieve this is to streamline and collapse all the apps into one collaboration solution so workers can address the action items that matter in an efficient manner.

A frequently overlooked source of interruption is unnecessary noise arising from workers’ email inboxes. Take a practical example: end users often receive multiple emails a day containing the same question. Adopting a system that can understand the question and offer the same answer to the same question automatically would reduce the amount of time a worker would spend on addressing redundant messages so they can focus on the important tasks. With society producing vast amounts of data – too much for the human brain to handle – the key to harnessing its full potential is to build cognitive-infused tools. A growing consortium of businesses recognizing the potential of untapped data has driven a major increase in the use of analytics within the workplace. Widely used to predict everything from supply chain cycles to customer buying habits, analytics are even powering tools and apps to help workers understand priorities of their tasks by reducing noise. Automation, however, when abused, can actually make workers counterproductive by creating excessive noise. As more and more capabilities become automated, there is a surge in the quantum of notifications. Automation needs to be properly managed; therefore, we need to think about it as a form of machine intelligence to keep the information moving seamlessly.

In truth, the virtualized workspace is not a one-size fits all solution. Employers need to customize environments and policies for their teams by leveraging free trials and capabilities to assess what does and what does not work for their organization. Another thing to keep in mind is resisting the urge to adopt too many apps, which may end up making employees counterproductive and create too many silos of information. A good rule of thumb in choosing a beneficial collaboration solution is to keep in mind and evaluate how one app mixes the collaboration ingredients, or the “Cs”: context, content, conversation, colleagues, and commitments.

There is a lot of promise in the concept of information-driven workforces. Companies that are able to leverage analytics are one step closer to successfully building a more collaborative and informed workforce. We are in the midst of great advances in making our workforce more connected, and collaboration tools have been at the core of this technological and cultural transformation. The next step is bringing analytics to the table to serve a dual purpose: help free up individual workers to dedicate time to more pressing and demanding work streams, as well as drive enhanced productivity within the team by identifying optimal division of labor and assessing project status and improvements. All the data is there – it is simply a matter of being able to leverage it.  

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