by Zeus Kerravala

CIOs need to be prepared for the future of work

Sep 19, 2018
CareersCIOIT Jobs

Workfront's annual State of Work report shows businesses are at risk because most U.S. workers don't have enough time or confidence in co-workers to drive rapid innovation.

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The business climate is changing rapidly, as are the attitudes of the workforce. In the digital era, competitive advantage is based on an organization’s ability to make the best decision with the right people in as short of a time as possible. This requires effective collaboration, which can be scuttled by poor tools, lack of time, or disgruntled employees. So, it’s critical that CIOs work with line of business, human resources, and other company leaders to build an energized and collaborative workforce that fuels innovation.

Innovation is no longer a luxury for companies or a task for a chosen few. It’s incumbent on every employee to constantly challenge the status quo and think of new and better ways to do things. This requires employees to work in dynamic teams where there is a high level of trust between team members so innovation can accelerate quickly.

Unfortunately, Workfront’s annual State of Work Report shows many businesses aren’t ready for an era in which rapid innovation will be the basis of sustained market leadership. Workers want to innovate, but they need better tools, more time, and to better trust co-workers.

Independently conducted by Regina Corso Consulting June 14-28, 2018, Workfront’s study surveyed U.S. workers who are employed at companies that have at least 500 employees. The respondents, of which there were 2,010, are considered knowledge workers and are tasked with collaborating with other employees. This is the fifth year Workfront has run the survey, and the goal of it is to understand the modern workforce and related changes.

Workers don’t think co-workers are pulling their weight

One of the more interesting findings of the survey is that workers are skeptical of their colleagues. The survey asked the respondents to rank their fellow workers like they rank Uber drivers, and the average score was only 3.7 out of 5. In addition, they consistently ranked themselves higher, which can create a lack of trust in the workplace.

I’m a big believer of Patrick Lencioni’s teachings, and he states that every team must have implied trust to thrive, and an environment in which workers think they are better than their peers isn’t going to lead to trust.

There was a follow-up question asking about the most common sources of conflict with others, and the top three responses were conflicting priorities, lack of communications, and lack of understanding about urgency. One of the sources of friction appears to be a lack of visibility into the activities of others, as 86 percent of respondents said they don’t have a clear idea of what their colleagues are working on.

Employees need more time for innovation

The survey also found there was a significant gap with respect to what company leadership expects and what employees are able to do in the area of innovation. The data showed that 64 percent said company leadership asks employees to do things in a completely new way, but 58 percent said they are too busy with day-to-day work to think beyond what’s in front of them.

Some companies, such as Google, mandate that every employee spend a certain percentage of their time on new projects. From my research, that seems to be the exception to the rule, as employees do no to really feel free to innovate because they are bogged down with day-to-day stuff.

This thesis is supported by some agree/disagree opinion questions, such as:

  • 63% state, “If I had more time to just think, my productivity would improve.”
  • 57% state, “I consider myself an accidental project manager.”
  • 54% state, “My team would be more successful if all employees were given four hours a week to focus entirely on innovation.”

Productivity killers: Email, wasteful meetings and interruptions

Workfront asked a logical set of follow-up questions by asking workers what gets in the way of their productivity and innovation. The survey asked workers to quantify what percent of their week is taken up by certain tasks. The aggregated data shows that the average worker’s time is taken up as follows:

  • 40% – Performing the primary duties of my job
  • 16% – Email
  • 12% – Administrative tasks
  • 10% – Useful and productive meetings
  • 8% – Wasteful meetings
  • 8% – Interruptions for non-essential tasks
  • 6% – Everything else

A closer look at the data shows that baby boomers (45%) spend a greater portion of their time on primary job duties than Gen X-ers (38%) or Millennials (34%). There was no explanation for this, but it seems logical because Gen X and Millennials haven’t been in the workforce as long and may not have the same size workload of job duties.

The survey asked a follow-up question to that: “What gets in the way of work?” Top five responses were:

  • 62% – Wasteful meetings
  • 55% – Excessive emails
  • 41% – Unexpected phone calls
  • 35% – Excessive oversight
  • 34% – Lack of standard processes for workflows

The two questions map nicely together and show that if CIOs find a way to get rid of wasteful meetings and interruptions for non-essential things, that could give back at least one day a week, which is double the four hours a week that respondents felt they needed to make their teams more productive.

Automation is here, but its potential is misunderstood

The survey also delved into automation, and the data indicates some confusion. On average, workers say 37% of the day-to-day aspects of their job is automated but feel only 40% of their job should be automated, indicating that we’ve almost reached the era of automation. However, 69% of workers say automation will give them more time to do their primary job duties.

The mismatch in opinion shows there is still a misunderstanding of what’s possible with automation and is likely coupled with fear. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. workers say that in the not too distant future, they will be competing with robots or artificial intelligence for jobs. Here is where CIOs can start evangelizing robots and machine learning as great tools to help workers do their jobs better by freeing up time. In fact, AI could do tasks such as determine which meetings people should attend and which would be wasteful. That alone gives 8% of the average workers time back.

CIOs must prepare employees for the future of work

Looking ahead, the survey also analyzed workers opinions of the future of work, and the opinions showed some uncertainty of what will look like. Some interesting factoids: 

  • 38% – Most companies will encourage remote work.
  • 34% – Companies will adopt virtual reality for long-distance meetings.
  • 34% – My company will be able to track almost all the work that is being done.
  • 29% – Everyone will have access to a virtual office.
  • 29% – My department will have a significant number of new roles created to support the new world of work.
workfront state of work Workfront

CIOs should heed this data and put in an action plan to remove the barriers to better innovation and collaboration. There’s no “easy button” for this, so here are my recommendations:

  • Move to outcome-based oversight. Workers should be measured by the success of business initiatives instead of tasks within their own scope of work. For example, if a company is rolling out a new customer-facing mobile app, the entire team should be goaled on the success of it. This keeps everyone aligned and incents them to work together.
  • Reduce time-wasting activities. CIOs should provide guidance as to how to use email so it’s not so burdensome. Team collaboration apps can be used to organize messaging more effectively. Also, keep track of different activities and correlate them to productivity, so workers can understand if they are spending too much time in meetings or doing other activities.
  • Carve out time for innovation. Innovation is the lifeblood of digital companies, and businesses must priorities activities in this area. This will have high appeal with workers and energize them. Disgruntled employees are the silent killer of companies, and having time to work on new projects will keep morale high.
  • Embrace automation. Incent workers that are benefitting from automation to evangelize it within the company. Automation should not be feared but thought of as every employee’s best friend. A few strong examples of how automation is being used to free up worker time to do more interesting things will be a catalyst for greater employee support.
  • Prepare workers for the future. Change is scary for most workers. Use small groups as a testbed for new technology and new ways of work. Build best practices and proof points to get worker buy-in.