No one can deny how desktop computing revolutionised the workplace by empowering office productivity.
It enabled employees to create and print out their own documents and spreadsheets and have access to applications that were previously only available to a few in the organisations. Many workplaces have adapted to modern desktop computing, with desk areas kitted out with monitors, keyboards, headsets and mice with plenty of power sockets, ethernet connectivity and IP phones, Wi-Fi hotspots for laptop users and breakout areas where teams can interact less formally.
Over the past year, the question of office productivity has shifted to the home, which raises the question of how a concept introduced 40 years ago applies in today’s modern hectic world, in the face of a global pandemic.
Rebooting the digital workplace is one of the areas explored in Tech trends 2021 from Deloitte Insights. The pandemic has meant that office-based workers have more or less worked for the past year remotely from home.
Nick Smith, a Deloitte partner focusing on the cloud business in the UK, said: “Many feel they get a better work-life balance and would like to continue to work remotely, but there’s a bunch of uncertainty.”
He said that many Deloitte clients have concerns about the balance between having employees on site and working remotely. The consensus is that the work environment will be mixed, where people may work from home some of the time. “It is not wholly about doing one or the other,” he said. “How does this affect wellbeing, learning and productivity?”
What the past 12 months has shown is that video conferencing can quickly become tedious, intrusive and saps productivity, but it has enabled team members to stay connected. Among the challenges as the economy reopens and people begin to return to office is how the regular video conference call meetings of the past year will operate in an office environment where some of the team is on site and others are at home.
Smith does not believe it is practical to force a pattern such that the whole team is in the office on a particular set of days each week. “That doesn’t work. But neither can you have mixed meetings, where some people are in a meeting room, while others tune in via a video conference. We need to think about what coming back to the office and a mixed environment will look like.”
Deloitte believes that the office will be retooled to make it easier for virtual, multidirectional collaboration to take place with remote workers. At Deloitte, all conference and meeting rooms have been equipped with platform-agnostic video conferencing. Each seat at a conference room has its own individual camera with noise-cancelling microphone.
“Having a grid of faces on screen for everyone is a real leveller,” Smith added. “Everyone looks the same size on screen.”
Seamless remote and onsite work
In the report, Deloitte suggests that the office of the future will likely be infused with the same digital technologies and tools used in the remote workplace. The same capabilities that augment the digital workplace can similarly augment the physical workplace experience.
According to Deloitte, organisational artificial intelligence (AI) can help teams to organise the time, data and location of in-office meetings to maximise the value of space and to promote team interactions.
“Nobody has bumped into each other this past year,” said Smith. “Previously there may have been a culture of being seen in the office, but this is not the case with more agile working.”
While watercooler moments and meetings in hallways have typically led to business benefits, Deloitte believes organisations will need to examine the return on investment (ROI) of office space more closely to maximise the benefit of team members collaborating and interacting in a less formal work environment.
Data collection is a key ingredient to understanding the digital workplace, according to Smith. “What are the positives are opportunities of a digital workplace? Can you make it more measurable and helpful for people? This is not about Big Brother, but about understanding interactions, connectivity and how information flows between teams.”
The Deloitte report suggests that by analysing the anonymised data collected on how workers are using tools and platforms while working from home, business leaders are in a better position to understand how to improve the employee experience, boost productivity and improve employee retention.
“As offices reopen, organisations will use this data to ensure workers work well from both remote and in-office spaces, to ensure thriving, productive and cost-effective operations,” said the report.
By using data to understand how behaviours in the digital workplace correlate to success, Deloitte argued that companies have an opportunity to improve work processes and create personalised employee experiences, which are analogous to the personalisation that customers of streaming music and video services receive.
Deloitte noted: “The most agile companies will investigate the patterns remote workers are encoding in data and use them to develop new ways of working.”
As ways of working and collaborating are standardised, the knowledge that can be extracted from emerging work patterns will become more precise and more valuable.
Deloitte said that data generated by the digital workplace could be used by managers to identify employees suffering emotional stress and burnout. “Psychographic data such as boredom, stress and fatigue can help leaders better allocate tasks and ensure that employees are appropriately challenged and empowered to manage their career goals and be productive while avoiding burnout,” the report said.
The report suggested that AI could work behind the scenes as a coach, offering employees assignments predicted to be both interesting and aligned to their skills. “The coach ‘knows’ the skills and experiences that each employee needs to optimally challenge, and makes suggestions to improve behaviour, collaboration and specialised skills in real time,” the report’s authors wrote.
If digital collaboration tools become part of day-to-day working practices, Deloitte believes that the metrics data collected could help firms map relationships and interactions, which would reveal informal structures that are usually more influential than the formal organisational structure.
“Virtual connection-building tools can nudge contacts between individuals and teams, make customised recommendations to link employees with mentors and like-minded colleagues, and support onboarding by connecting new hires with teammates,” said the report.