empty cubicles
Businesses still stuck in old modes of working miss out on the benefits for employees and their bottom line that more flexible working styles provide PHOTO: Roger Gregory

The technology is there, and so is the desire of workers. 

The only thing limiting the shift to a more nimble, agile and productive workplace is the rigid policies of companies themselves.

Even the term “workplace” is becoming a misnomer, with “work” and “place” increasingly decoupled as collaboration technology advances, BYOD becomes standard operating procedure, and the millennial generation continues to demand more flexibility and work/life balance as a condition of employment. 

A recent PwC report (pdf) noted “flexible work hours” as the second most desirable work benefit for millennials, who said work/life balance was more important than financial reward. We are witnessing the convergence of enabling technology and a cultural shift in the workplace redefining how and where people work. 

Smartphones make it remarkably easy to stay in touch with the workplace after hours, and a significant percentage of workers do so. The availability of mobile technology and collaboration tools — together with an emerging mindset of flexible work hours — is creating a new normal. 

Certainly, the implied rule of 24/7 availability does at times throw off the work/life balance, but more employees are seeing “flexible availability” as a plus, especially when paired with a company mindset that no longer views physical presence in the workplace as evidence of productivity. 

The Impediment to Flexible Work?

Users have come to expect the same level of technology in their work life as they enjoy in their personal life, and that means using mobile devices, cloud storage and as-a-service software that's accessible from any location. Employees' biggest expectation is that they should no longer be tethered to a physical space, or even a physical device. 

Just five years ago, the idea of working from any place, on any device, at any time was an aspiration. Today, it’s a reality, limited only by corporate policies that are slow to embrace the concept of virtual work, limit access to reliable tools, and put up other roadblocks prompted by concerns over maintenance, security, training and support in a BYOD environment. 

The Company as an Ecosystem, Not a Closed Community

Older companies are slowly shifting away from the on-premises model of doing things, as newer, born-in-the-cloud companies are leaving them in the dust. 

The cloud model and as-a-service offerings are making it easier for companies to build an ecosystem of partners and suppliers that frees them to focus on their core expertise instead of running everything in-house with a large staff. 

This makes the future workplace one that is more disseminated. Today’s millennials are less likely to look to the largest corporations for job security, and those with specialized expertise will find themselves working not for business behemoths, but for the smaller specialty providers that supply these firms with outsourced, cloud-delivered services. 

Challenges of the Future Workplace

Some companies are slow to embrace this paradigm shift simply because of their unwillingness to face the solvable challenges of the new workplace. 

These challenges include the security involved in providing access to corporate information and cloud services to personal devices. What happens, for example, when an employee leaves but has corporate information on a personal mobile device? In a traditional corporate environment, the employee simply turns over company-owned equipment, but employee-owned equipment presents a special challenge. 

In addition, the IT department must relinquish its insistence on standardization and be able and willing to support multiple devices and platforms. 

Training and support, too, must be addressed when remote workers are presented with new as-a-service tools. Often, we see users who are confused about which tools to use default to using only basic functionality.  

True Collaboration Isn’t Quite Here Yet

Many organizations still struggle to ensure a consistent experience across a large number of devices and a geographically diverse user base. True collaboration only will be achieved when the workplace-of-the-future mindset matches the available technology, and people can be brought easily and seamlessly together.  

To achieve this state, businesses must consider three key focus areas:

  1. Fundamentals: Do we have the basic tools and technologies required to easily and effectively carry out our day-to-day tasks? Are the tools fit for the purpose? Are the tools improving or hindering productivity?
  2. Mobility: How easy is it to work from any device, from anywhere, at any time? Can we access everything we need when away from the office? Are the remote connections reliable?
  3. Collaboration: How easy is it to collaborate with colleagues? Are the necessary tools available? Are they reliable and easy to use? Is it clear how and when each tool should be used?

In the end, it’s increasingly not about where works get done, but how and when. To remain competitive in the marketplace — including the marketplace for talent —companies must embrace flexible, nimble operating models and give their employees the personal flexibility, technology tools and collaboration platforms they need to get the job done.