How digital workplaces keep workers connected

Innovative companies are overhauling their offices and upgrading their technology systems to create business agility, according to MIT research.

connected workers
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High-performing companies are moving to open seating and implementing social software in the interest of enhancing employee connectedness, according to MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research (CISR). Such initiatives reflect a growing emphasis on digital technologies and a desire to better align with customer preferences.

“We’ve talked for years about employee engagement but we still create pretty miserable places for people to come to work,” says MIT research scientist Kristine Dery, who polled 313 companies for her research. “How do we build workplaces that create the fertile ground for our workforce to engage more effectively with the capabilities that digital gives us and also to be able to deliver the new business models or new ways of having a relationship with a customer?”

Step 1: Think digital native culture

Taking cues from digital native companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon.com, traditional enterprises are trying to change their workplace arrangements – a difficult task in environments where culture is long ingrained. At 233-year-old BNY Mellon, IT managers eschew offices to sit at long tables with programmers and infrastructure engineers, a seating arrangement CIO Suresh Kumar says was inspired by Silicon Valley’s programming culture, which emphasizes sharing.

[ Related: IT moves to open workspaces, but not everyone is happy ]

Regardless of what tools companies elect to adopt, facilitating connectivity is key. Dery says that traditional workplaces that wall off managers in offices and relegate rank-and-file to cubicles can inhibit connectedness, creating siloes and friction between functional teams. In addition to physical workspaces, eliminating “speed bumps” created by clunky expense reporting systems, laborious teleconference software, VPNs and outdated business processes empowers employees to provide better experiences for customers.

Leaders in these high-performing companies constantly survey the workplace, often using analytics software to identify those potential speed bumps. “These leaders encourage experimentation with new approaches to work, have a high tolerance for failure of new workplace initiatives and provide continuous learning opportunities,” Dery says. Connected companies also feature digital leadership teams comprising members from IT, HR, marketing and other units, providing that holistic view.

DBS Bank offers an exemplary digital workplace, Dery says. DBS, which has over 280 branches, has created online forums to create a communications channel between employees and CEO Piyush Gupta. This casual communications tool "cut through hierarchies and dismantled layers or work," Dery says.

DBS also focused on creating flexible and open meeting and workspaces, which can be physically modified to accommodate staffing changes. Customer service center employees now use Facebook and other social media tools to share ideas and trade work shifts. And new DBS employees are on-boarded via a mobile application.

“They really focus on using systems, space, and social networks to create this more connected work environment,” Dery says.

Digital connectedness draws in millennials

Such efforts are also table stakes for companies that want to attract and retain members of the coveted millennial generation, which comprise more than half the workforce today. CIOs understand this full well.

[ Related: 8 cutting-edge workplaces that millennials will love ]

Paul Chapman, CIO of cloud storage vendor Box, says that digital workplaces are no longer an option for companies that want to compete. Chapman, speaking about digital capabilities at the Technology Business Management conference earlier this month, added, “Unless you take the work out of work and enable workplace productivity through digital experiences then you’re going to find it harder and harder to run your business,” Chapman says.

Chapman says that grown-up digital natives, particularly millennials, were raised on digital capabilities fostered by Google, Apple and Amazon.com. They expect the “freedom of choice versus the choice of one” and will jump to new jobs for the best technologies. Failure to accommodate can dampen employee morale and trigger turnover.

Stanley Black & Decker CIO Rhonda Gass, who is leading a “digital excellence” effort to modernize the industrial tool company’s business processes, said at the same event as Chapman, “It is more important than ever as we reinvent our companies through digital technologies.”

At SAP SE, 31-year-old millennial CIO Thomas Saueressig is exploring the use of augmented reality and intelligent assistant software to boost employee productivity. He expects employees will one day use software that can generate a hologram of all of the people in the meeting as they collaborate on crucial documents and presentations.

"I fundamentally believe that the new generation and the expectations of our customers and our employees are changing so significantly," Saueressig tells CIO.com.

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