People and technology in a changing world

Rob Davis, Business Manager, Managed Content Services at Sharp UK shares his insight into how businesses can adapt and thrive in a world where technology is rapidly reshaping the ways in which we live and work. 

Businesses need to look to the future to survive. They need to predict not only how their customers will change, but also, if they want to retain and recruit the best talent, how their workforce will evolve too. Millennials will account for close to 75% of the workforce by 2025 and so the dominant working style will soon be a millennial-friendly one. This generation will shape the world of work for years to come, their career aspirations, attitudes towards work, and knowledge of new technologies will define the culture of the future workplace. What does this look like?

We decided to find out first hand through a series of workshops and focus groups with young people new to the world of work. Using this approach combined with quantitative research, social listening and big data analysis meant we could get an in-depth look at their hopes, fears and expectations and a snapshot of the broader conversation around this topic. We discuss some of the insights we learned below.

‘Will technology take our jobs?’

Many young people were scared that their jobs would be made redundant by the technology of the future (not a fear limited to millennials of course). However, we also heard a more optimistic view that technology will leave us with more interesting work. In the office, many of us still find ourselves doing a lot of mundane, admin-based tasks, meaning that less time is being spent doing things that require creative thought. Technology provides a clear opportunity here for improvement of both working life and personal life, augmenting capabilities and therefore freeing up time for workers to be more creative at work and spend more time on personal activity. 

The millennials we spoke to also pointed out the opportunities technology can provide in making the workplace smarter and enabling companies to improve the working environment. For example, smart buildings with sensors that monitor temperature and light and automate these, with opportunities for personalised profiles to be created too, will make the office of the future a more comfortable place to be. 

‘We’ve already got all the technology we need, we just need to know how to use it properly’

Our conversations showed a strong fear around the potential of technology to ‘out smart’ us. The millennials we spoke to expressed concern that technology was developing at a pace faster than it is possible to learn and be trained. As a possible solution, the idea of lifelong learning excited the young workers in our study.

Better workplace education can actually be applied to help combat a number of the fears our workers identified, such as work life balance. It’s clear that companies can play a role here, starting now, by providing the tools and education needed to ensure their employees who are using office technology day in, day out feel confident in their abilities and are using these in the best possible way, increasing digital competencies and helping the workforce to keep pace. This will pay off not just for the employees, but for employers too in the long term. 

Technology providers also need to take responsibility by designing teaching and learning into their products. It perhaps goes without saying that technology should have an intuitive user interface, it should also have a smart user interface that can recognise how advanced or ‘new’ a user is and adapt itself appropriately. For example, suggesting advanced features to frequent users or simplifying features for an easier experience.

Flexible working boundaries

It’s clear from the millennials we spoke to that there is a desire from this generation to be much more flexible in the way that they work. Technology already enables us to work whenever we want and wherever we want, providing a much more fluid working environment. We are already seeing this today, and with it, a new breed of complex employee issues around work-life balance, given that technology sets the expectation that we are always contactable and able to respond immediately at any time of the day, blurring boundaries between work and personal life. This is seen especially with messaging apps, which by default, show if a message has been seen. The pressure to respond immediately because the sender knows you have read a message is accompanied on the flip side by anxiety when you know someone has seen your message, but not replied.

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Educating the workforce is key to tackling these fears, from what tools and technology are appropriate, to understanding how to accommodate the pressure of work and this new working style with personal life. Employers can lead the way and set clear boundaries to support this more flexible working style. 

Volkswagen is an example of one company that has set clear expectations about using specific company systems such as email. Although in contradiction of the future workplace, which is designed to be more fluid, by enforcing a company-wide policy they can help to take the pressure off the workforce about having to communicate at any time of the day. Providing a clear statement from the business and being supportive to workers is key to successfully utilising this new kind of working method. 

The ‘Lonely’ generation

It is clear that millennials are the most connected generation but they may also be the loneliest. When thinking about this in relation to the future workplace, it could be argued that technology is currently letting this generation down; whether that be their experience with collaboration systems and tools not giving them a depth of interaction, or that they are using the wrong tools for the job. 

It is key for businesses to not only provide systems that are more engaging, but to provide work spaces that allow and encourage social interaction; that give the younger generation a reason to come into the office and have face to face interactivity. As home working and mobile working increase  we will potentially be more siloed in the way we work. We believe it’s possible to overcome this growing issue of isolation through the correct application of technology, and providing education so that people can get the best from the tools they are given. 

A new vision of technology in the future workplace

The rapid progression of technology and the growth of industry 4.0 technologies from robotics and the Internet of Things through to Artificial Intelligence will soon transform the nature of work. Resistance to change is a typical human trait, but it’s understandable that technology is a source of fear for millennials given the inevitability that technology will take over some job roles.  It is no coincidence that the UN in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development calls for an urgent need to assume a new vision of the world and of the human being, to respond to environmental, economic and cultural challenges. 

The challenges for businesses not only relate to the rising power of technology and confronting the consequences of new technology on the labour market but understanding the meaning and impact of technology on the wellbeing of society, and the potential cultural shifts which may result.

It is now important for businesses, Sharp included, to ensure that people are supported by technology to work in the way that suits them best and allows them to reach their potential. This will require a future of work strategy that takes into account changing personal and societal needs.

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