Zooming in – Embracing Technology

Efficiency versus experience

Pre-pandemic there were two distinct worlds of technology. One was corporate IT where technology was used to speed up business processes, save costs and improve efficiency. The other was digital entertainment where the aim was to create an enjoyable experience for the user, encouraging them to participate more. The typical corporate application, such as an accounting system, required employees to be trained on how to use it, whereas the entertainment app could be picked up instinctively. Work technology and home technology were designed with different objectives so naturally the user experience was different. A computer game is exciting and potentially addictive. An inventory control system is not!

Of course, there are areas of business technology where the user experience is taken into account, particularly when the user is a customer. Online shopping is one example where success is dependent on ease of use and attractiveness of presentation. But rarely is the user experience a high priority when that user is an employee. People use their creative talents in their leisure time and enjoy playing games or sharing anecdotes with friends, but mostly they leave that at home when they go into the office. Social media is something to be used outside of work time because it is frivolous and work has to be serious.

Covid-19 has changed all this. By merging work with home, the two worlds of IT have overlapped and organisations have had to adapt rapidly to meet employees’ needs. If there is no system provided by the employer for staff to communicate informally then enterprising employees will find a way. There will be WhatsApp groups appearing on their phones, or Zoom sessions being held between them at lunchtime on personal accounts, to keep the informal communications going. Digital technology is not just useful for the formal side of work, it is also there to make work enjoyable and encourage people to collaborate and feel part of a team.

Challenging assumptions

The period of enforced home working has offered traditional leaders the unique opportunity to test and change their assumptions about some of the most fundamental aspects of how work gets done. For example, the assumption that people get more done when they are physically together in a group. Just look to the world of online games where digital technology is all about remote involvement, drawing people in across living rooms and getting emotional buy-in. As increasingly more work takes place digitally, business leaders are starting to borrow from the playbooks of game designers, storytellers and film makers and reimagine how they design their meetings. They are discovering that digital technology can be a strategic means to shape new behaviours, break down barriers and enable better decision-making, but only when they are prepared to challenge traditional assumptions and embrace human ingenuity.

As a result of the pandemic, millions of people have discovered Zoom and started to use it to hold meetings. By October 2020 Zoom was hosting 300 million daily meeting participants, up from just 10 million in December 2019. For many people the first experience of holding a remote meeting was not through work but as part of their personal life. Groups of friends who were unable to meet up during the first lockdown would get together on Zoom for a chat, a virtual coffee or maybe a quiz. They soon got used to seeing themselves on the screen and quickly found how to mute and unmute their microphone. Their social life shifted online with clubs, pubs, churches and charities all experimenting with Zoom.

Businesses were forced to play catch-up. Many did not have a corporate video-meeting system in place and some were reluctant to adopt Zoom as a business tool. Those with a Microsoft based IT infrastructure adopted Teams as the preferred virtual meeting application. The result was that 40 million additional users were added to Teams over a period of six months. Google Meet also grew rapidly as an alternative, with 100 million participants logging in to meetings every day. But still this trend was not being seen seriously enough by the traditional IT department.

The Digital Employee Experience

A report on the Digital Employee Experience by the global software company Socialchorus stated “2020 has ushered in a new era of work. Employees around the globe are embracing enforced remote and hybrid working as they strive to collaborate and communicate with their colleagues in a more effective manner. They are doing so with enthusiasm due to their desire to keep in touch with managers and colleagues at a time when face-to-face contact has been vastly reduced … Against this backdrop, business leaders must recognise that it is a business imperative to provide an engaging Digital Employee Experience (DEX) that works for everyone on their team. The successful implementation of DEX depends on harmony between the tech expertise of Chief Information Officers and their IT teams, and the human input of HR and Internal Communications departments. Yet our research has uncovered a gulf in the motives and actions of these groups that is currently hampering efforts to improve DEX within their organisations.”

Connecting a distributed workforce, in the holistic sense of connection, not just the technical sense, requires a multi-disciplinary approach not usually considered in organisations. Procurement buys the software licences, IT sets up the technology solutions and HR focuses on the people.  There is no single function dedicated to reimagining and redesigning the intersection between these three. The remote working experience forced by Covid-19 has raised the question of who is managing the organisational culture that ultimately unlocks the greatest value from employees and that produces the company’s best decisions. It has made CEOs stop and think about how work gets done and how technology can be used to improve the effectiveness of the workforce.

Decision-making

Few organisations know as much about speed, scale and IT as Amazon, a company that started selling books and now provides a global cloud infrastructure powering many of the biggest companies. For a company whose servers host vast amounts of data, its executive chairman Jeff Bezos does not necessarily believe that all of it is necessary for effective decision-making. In a 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos explained how high velocity decision-making works at Amazon. Two points are striking from this letter, relevant to today’s more distributed working world:

  1. many decisions are reversible and therefore can be taken faster than you might initially realise, and
  2. most decisions should probably be made with around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. He argues that if you wait for 90 percent, you are being too slow.

Most businesses rely heavily on meetings as part of the decision-making process. Before the pandemic these were almost always face-to-face. People often travelled half-way round the world just to sit across a table with their colleagues. Suddenly this became impossible and people had to find an alternative quickly. The obvious way to continue to make decisions was simply to move the meetings online and use Zoom, Teams, Webex, Google Meet or any other technology that closely replicated the regular meeting. Video meetings were adopted easily because there was no complicated technology to get in the way, as long as the home workers had an acceptable quality of broadband.  Fortuitously  Covid-19 hit the world when 95 percent of homes in the UK had access to superfast broadband and 53 percent could get the ultrafast version. 

Zooming away

Zooming in - embracing technology

Once people had worked out how to log in, turn the camera and microphone on, adjust the lighting and cut out the background noise, talking to other people came naturally. A little discipline was needed to stop everyone trying to talk at once and then it became a productive environment for sharing ideas, making decisions and replicating all the features of a face-to-face meeting. There was no travel time needed between meetings and soon people’s calendars filled up with back-to-back meetings. “Zoom fatigue” started to kick in and people realised that there must be a smarter way to use this technology.

Consequently, everyone who had developed some skills in setting up, coordinating and running physical meetings has had to ask themselves: How do I adapt to these changed conditions? How can I achieve the goals of my company via Zoom meetings? How do I react to these new circumstances? What is my responsibility? How am I going to delegate? Can we achieve this goal without having a meeting?

Instead of taking meetings for granted, the use of technology has forced a review of the effectiveness of meetings that was long overdue. Maybe there are better ways of communicating, sharing ideas and making decisions.

Until recently, traditional leaders could get away with poor digital meeting skills. When virtual collaboration failed, they could demand that their team reverted to face-to-face meetings. This option, however, was mostly off the table for 2020. The shift to virtual meetings has also changed some of the power dynamics between leaders and their teams. On screen, leaders cannot solely rely on the trappings of status. They cannot call people into their big office and intimidate them. Microsoft Teams or Zoom is a more level playing field.

Working from home has also demonstrated that everyone has a life outside work. Whether it is the cat making an appearance on Zoom, the dog barking in the background or the front door needing to be answered, online meetings have provided a glimpse into other people’s lives. Some people have offered virtual tours of their homes, whilst others have mastered the art of loading a false backdrop to conceal the untidy room behind them. During the most severe periods of lockdown, when schools were closed and childcare was not available, it was more obvious that some employees were having a difficult balancing act between work and the rest of their life. The window into their world, provided through their webcam, helped managers and colleagues to have empathy with the situation.

Social media

Although the formal business meeting could be replicated by Zoom, what about the informal ones? Employees working in the same office chat together over coffee, share ideas over lunch and have chance encounters in the corridor. They talk about their hobbies, share views on the latest news and discuss their favourite TV programmes. This generates a sense of belonging to a team and helps people to collaborate as they work alongside each other. But none of this is possible if people are all locked down at home. It did not take long for people to find ways of continuing to keep in touch with their work mates either through official company channels or on social media. Typical of this is the WhatsApp group set up by one team member and populated by the rest of the team.

Quickly managers adapted to a new way of communicating with their staff. As well as speaking to them one-to-one on a regular basis, they introduced team activities, coffee break conversations and virtual lunches. One example is Lucid Group, the global healthcare communications agency. Their water cooler and coffee machine moments were replaced by virtual quizzes, sharing photos of lunches, specific joke days and regular contacts with management to maintain work and social continuity. “We injected a lot of fun into the connections and we’ve created much more of a community spirit across the group with connections that might not otherwise have been there,” according to Angela Young, chief people officer. “That is good for morale but those connections also lead to work conversations that generate ideas,” she added. “The CEO Dennis O’Brien and management teams are really conscious about maintaining our distinct culture through this.”

To replace the office restaurant, some employers have gone as far as providing the food for a “Zoom lunch”. Investment firm Wealthsimple pays for lunchboxes to be delivered to staff at their homes across London and encourages everyone to eat them while socialising with colleagues virtually over video conference calls. According to one employee “Remote lunches have been an amazing way to have dedicated time and space to socialise with my colleagues. It has truly cultivated a sense of camaraderie and support during what has been an extremely weird and often isolating time.”

Remote technology

In the past it has been necessary to be in the same building as the technology because it has not been designed for remote access. Call centres are a good example, where rows of employees answer the phone and handle customer queries. Calls are automatically routed to the next available person and queueing systems keep the customer informed whilst they wait. Now these systems can be cloud-based and route calls to people wherever they are. Calling your bank during the pandemic, you would expect the person on the other end of the line to be working from home. So, if it is technically possible, are we likely to see this continue once the call centre building reopens? The employer can save real estate costs and the employee can save the time and hassle of commuting if the option of home working remains open.

One example of this is the British Red Cross.  They needed to swiftly adapt to the demands of the pandemic by implementing a world-class cloud contact centre. Executed within a tight timeframe, the solution was simple, scalable and easy to use. It enabled the 100 geographically dispersed and remote British Red Cross volunteers to handle up to 2,000 enquiries a day from any location, without complexity. Calls are directly routed to volunteers’ home phone or mobile via Olive’s cloud call centre platform, with the ability to rapidly scale up if needed.

The technology distributing work is so successful that outsourcing giant Capita has told 64 per cent of employees – 35,000 out of a total of 55,000 – that they will be able to work from home for the majority of the time once the pandemic is over. Its chief executive, Jon Lewis, said the company was moving towards a hybrid work model, with internal discussions with employees showing that 72 percent of staff would prefer to work up to three days a week from home. Mr Lewis, who runs a large number of call centres for the government and local authorities, told the PA news agency “Call centres are to some extent a historic capability today. There’s no reason why you need to put 2,000 people in a warehouse in the UK. Those people can work from home.”

Security issues

The blending of personal and work technology has posed some security headaches for corporate IT departments. “The abrupt shift to remote work in 2020 sent a shockwave through organisations, as people found work and personal lives blended unlike ever before,” said Ray Canzanese, threat research director at Netskope. “While many companies rose to the challenge to embrace cloud-based collaboration tools, we also found increased risk as employees used work devices for personal reasons. Organisations must tackle this problem head-on by prioritising threat protection and ensuring safe cloud and web access through methods like strong authentication and access controls, data and threat protection, as well as zero-trust network access to private apps in data centres and public cloud services.”

At the beginning of the pandemic Zoom suffered criticism for lack of security. It was relatively easy to gain access to someone else’s meeting and “Zoombombing” became a problem. As a result, Zoom has implemented a series of security measures, including end-to-end encryption which make it much less vulnerable. The threats to the security of data have continued to evolve and organisations have had to educate employees who work from home about the risks. Many companies use Virtual Private Networks to provide online privacy for remote employees and ban the use of their hardware for any non-work activities.

Digital transformation

It is not just the use of technology by employees that has changed the way people work. It is also the impact technology has had on jobs. We know that retail outlets in the high street have suffered during the lockdown and many have introduced internet sales outlets to compensate. This has only been possible because technology can provide an alternative shopping experience which is convenient for the customer. This has resulted in a loss of retail jobs, but an increase in work needed to operate the online store.

Home deliveries have taken off during the pandemic as shops are closed or people are avoiding the potential exposure to infection in mixing with other shoppers. Amazon’s UK sales rose by 51 percent in 2020 and they created 10,000 new jobs in the process. With automated warehouses and sophisticated computer systems, many jobs involve working with technology in new ways. When you can order a product one day and have it delivered within an hour’s window on the following day and even get an email telling you it has been delivered by the time you get back to your computer from the front door, some clever technology is involved.

Covid-19 has accelerated this shift from old skills to new ones. In some cases it means people losing jobs, but often it means the nature of the work changes as technology automates or enhances part of the job. Take the family doctor as an example. Before the pandemic the doctor would expect to see patients in their surgery to discuss their symptoms and perhaps carry out a physical examination. Because of the risk of infection, they had to change the way they worked.

Instead of seeing people in person, many doctors now carry out a first appointment using the phone or a video link. They may need to prescribe medicine, which pre-Covid-19 would probably have been on a piece of paper. Now they generate an electronic message to a pharmacy and the prescription is ready to be picked up by the patient. The whole process is a much better use of the doctor’s time, not because of some novel technology, but just having the incentive to use what was available. According to Nick South, a partner and expert in the future of work at Boston Consulting Group “What’s interesting is you’ve had a bunch of technologies around to enable remote working for quite a while. It took this mass shift to remote work in general for firms to say ‘Oh, actually, let’s try and apply it at scale’.”

Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the possibilities of working differently by taking advantage of technology. We are at the brink of major developments in Artificial Intelligence which will change the way many established professions have worked for the last century. Self-driving vehicles will replace the skilled driver and expert systems will allow the public to get specialist advice without needing human intervention. And on the mundane level things have moved on during the pandemic. Now, when you can get into a restaurant between lockdowns, you are likely to see the menu on your mobile phone and place an order without talking to a waiter. Whilst we might miss the interaction of a real person writing our request on a piece of paper and passing it to the kitchen, that is likely to be seen as an outdated practice. Technology will have replaced yet another task that we took for granted before Covid-19. We are never going back.

Summary

Corporate IT has been built on efficiency not user experience.

Home working has brought together personal and corporate use of technology.

Social media has provided effective substitutes for personal contact and informal communications.

Organisations have adopted video meeting technologies, such as Teams and Zoom and users have adapted well.

Senior managers need to focus on the Digital Employee Experience.

Decision-making has benefitted from a review of the effectiveness of meetings.

Virtual meetings have levelled the hierarchy and shown people as human.

Distributed technology has moved jobs out of the office and proved that functions such as call centres can be run from peoples’ homes.

The pandemic has caused a permanent shift in areas such as retail where many jobs will never be the same.



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