Clash of the digital titans: a reality check on workplace technology

Tensions between today’s workplace and the emerging digital workplace were brought into sharp relief at WORKTECH’s latest Tech and Trends 2019 briefing

Digital transformation will significantly affect two-thirds of all employees, according to a research study conducted by MIT’s Dr Kristine Dery. Aligning technology with business objectives has never been more important, but this can lead to tensions between traditional methods and adopting new practices. WORKTECH’s annual Tech and Trends event, held at Herman Miller’s showroom in Aldwych on 16 April 2019, looked at some of the most frequent clashes between today’s workplace and the emerging digital workplace.

Experience v digital talent

Legacy cultures, technology and leadership can present significant boundaries when preparing for the digital workplace, according to MIT’s Dery. She looked at the paradox between employee experience and acquiring the best digital talent in organisations –by outlining a framework of digital workplace.

Kristine Dery believes that organisations should create a fertile ground which allows different people to have different experience in the workplace. This involves investing in employee experience as a concept in itself. Referring to her research, Dery found that the top 25 per cent of high performing companies had twice as much customer satisfaction, were twice as innovative and were 26 per cent more profitable than other companies.

So, the recipe for a successful digital workplace is a diverse employee experience, but that loses its significance if the organisation doesn’t have the right employees – and it’s this that keeps CEOs up at night. Of the 67 per cent of employees who will be significantly affected by digital transformation, few can make this transformation happen. There is a clash between attracting the right digital talent and providing them with the workplace experience they want – particularly in sectors such as banking and insurance.

Dery suggests that an integrated strategy is necessary, combining technology, collaboration and a culture of transparency and knowledge sharing with great workplace design. She illustrated this with a case study of DBS bank headquartered in Singapore – traditionally a very slow bank but transformed into one of the world’s most successful banks due to a complete shift in mindset.

Smart reality v smart expectations

Smart means something different to everyone. Mark Halliday and Nigel Miller of Cordless Consultants examined the paradox between what is expected of technology in the workplace, and what is the reality. They highlighted that the most significant change in workplace property management today is the shift from space as a fixed offering kitted out with furniture and technology thrown in as an after-thought, to technology informing the need for space.

They analysed the different collaborative technologies tech giants are offering to aid the agile workforce, recognising both their strengths and limitations. The clash here is the misalignment of certain systems with others – this means an organisation has to commit to one company for all its meeting room requirements.

Halliday and Miller went on to outline the benefits of emerging technology in the workplace:

  • Experiential – technology is being used to up the ‘wow factor’ in workplaces and attract new talent
  • Business models – technology is leading the way in flipping traditional business models as it increasingly comes to the forefront of office fit-outs
  • Specialised – we are seeing more specialised spaces emerge, particularly spaces such as mini broadcast studios and ‘war rooms’
  • Flexible space – technology is used to utilise more available space and adapt to business agility
  • Multi-generational – technology is helping to integrate full time and contingent workforces and bridge the gap between generations
  • Smart – the smart building will look after the individual’s best interest in the space, which will lead to better overall performance.

Man v machine

‘It’s here, it’s now and it’s happening’, told Richard Skillet of Digital Anthropology told Tech and Trends 19, referring to significant job loss due to the influx of Artificial Intelligence. People are more expensive and less efficient, so companies are employing machines to do their jobs. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for humans in the future workforce, but it does mean we need to re-evaluate the model in which we employee people.

Skillet explained that people are typically the biggest fixed cost for a company. He proposed that this model needs to adjust so people become a variant cost, based on paying employees on day rates and output-based pay. This will see a closer alliance between AI and people, and a greater focus on employing by specific skillsets.

Data v privacy

A panel consisting of Mike Halliday of Cordless Consultants, Matt Graham of EY and Paul Jayson of DLA Piper debated the clash between data collection and the perceived need for privacy. In order for the digital workplace to take full effect, data needs to be collected on the building and on the people working within it to truly produce the best end user experience. Personal data allows smart systems to predict outcomes and make personal recommendations, but in order for people to surrender their data, organisations need to better tell the story about why they are doing it.

Workplace has traditionally been an all-encompassing term for the design of the space we work in, but digital workplace is displacing this idea and instead focusing on the technology that enables the space to maximise its potential. The digital workplace focuses less on space and more on the data and outcomes produced within it. Given that most large organisations are undergoing significant digital transformation, the conflict between traditional workplace and the digital workplace just got more tense.

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