With coronavirus case numbers still stubbornly high in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, it is clear that a “return to normal” will not happen for some time. Even though the entertainment and hospitality sectors are opening up, office workers are going to take some convincing to go back to commuting to crowded cities. Indeed, many of these employees have glimpsed a new way of living that enables them to get their work done while spending more time with their families and on other personal tasks and will have little desire to abandon it.
However, this is not to suggest that organizations and their employees can just continue as they have done over the past 18 months. Technology has, of course, enabled business and society to cope with the pandemic in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but problems have emerged with what has been a rapid shift to a more digital economy. For example, recently-published research from the AI-powered corporate learning platform Soffos.ai indicated that nearly half of decision makers in U.K. businesses felt that employees were keen for greater opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, with a similar proportion believing their businesses had become less appealing places to work when in-person interaction ceased. More than a third had invested in digital communication tools to help handle enquiries during the pandemic, but felt that these had led to a reduction in the quality of customer service. Nor were the problems limited to this area. Executives questioned said that the sudden shift to digital had hindered many businesses, with 38% of decision-makers believing that their organisation now utilised “too many” different channels for internal communications, which was interrupting productivity. The same proportion agreed that a reliance on inadequate tech had hampered their ability to train staff.
Nikolas Kairinos, Soffos.ai CEO and founder, said: “The pandemic has thrown many challenges at businesses, not least how to best engage with customers and employees in a new digital-first landscape. While some adjustments have been successful, clearly the quality of relationships and service has suffered in many businesses. Technology itself is not the issue, but rather the adoption of poor or inappropriate tech, which likely occurred because businesses had little time to prepare for lockdowns, social distancing and remote working. With some business leaders feeling that too many technologies are in play, and employees missing out on vital collaboration, improvements have to be made.”
There are similar findings in a study from the office equipment maker Ricoh. Research among 1,500 decision makers across Europe found that only 36% said they had provided the tools and technology to maintain productivity while employees worked from any location. More than two-thirds believed their employees spent up to three hours a day on high-value activity — more than double the time employees themselves estimated. More than half acknowledged that investing in AI and other forms of automation would boost productivity in a hybrid workforce, but the fact that a similar percentage believed in-office collaboration to be vital to the future success of their organizations suggested a lack of readiness for new ways of working.
David Mills, CEO of Ricoh Europe, said: “Employers clearly value in-person collaboration — but they must strike a delicate balance between safeguarding culture and a sense of team, often best experienced though office-based working, with the virtues of hybrid working. It is important to remember that technology that aids productivity for hybrid work will benefit people while they are in the office, too. This is particularly true for automation and AI based tools, which employees increasingly crave, because it frees them from repetitive, low-value work, to focus on more rewarding tasks.”
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The importance of adopting these new ways of working is emphasised in just-published research from Forrester, which was commissioned by 1E, a company focused on improving employees’ digital experience. Among the key findings in the report, which will be among three pieces of research being discussed at the Work From Anywhere Conference tomorrow, is that improving the digital employee experience (DEX) is the most important priority for IT organizations to improve support for remote working, but that only 34% of respondents say they have the current capabilities to support all remote and hybrid work needs in the next two years. Moreover, a fifth of those questioned said they needed to improve to meet today’s remote workforce needs.
Sumir Karayi, founder of 1E, said that the issue had developed from the rapid move to remote worked necessitated by the pandemic. There was a feeling that organizations had got through the first part but had to do more thinking about the longer term in order to improve employees’ experience of IT and hence their productivity. He pointed to the fact that every week nearly half of business employees experience a problem requiring contact with IT support as evidence of the disruption and wasted time that affects employee satisfaction and therefore the quality of their work. “If your laptop has a problem when you are at work you can just walk down the corridor and get a replacement. If you are at home that’s not an option,” he explained.
Such problems could be reduced if organizations ensured their employees had the latest and best equipment needed to do their jobs. With knowledge workers “pretty much driving the economy now,” it made no sense to stint on their equipment, which cost a fraction of their salaries and of their value to the business. Doing so was like giving a chef substandard cookware and blunt knives, he added.
But there was also a more fundamental issue. IT needed to undergo a change of mindset. It must move away from being seen as a cost centre guarding its data centre like a precious prize and instead set itself up to make sure every employee is as productive as possible. As other research available at the conference points out, organisations with a “mature digital experience” will not just have happier employees. They will be more successful as well.