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June 27, 2016
Creating a digital workforce
By: Emma Cooper

Organisations are fundamentally changing their approach to the workplace. Innovative digital solutions are enabling employees to collaborate across functions and regions, to make strategic decisions at a local level and to use data to make real-time changes which can improve productivity. According to recent research from Accenture, if organisations are to truly take advantage of what digital has to offer, a culture change is needed. Leaders must empower their staff to use technology allowing them to “do work that is both creative and flexible” and make more key decisions.

Emma Cooper, Managing Director of UK Health and Public Sector, and Organisational Change Lead for the UK and Ireland at Accenture, explains how businesses need to adapt to changing technology and embrace a truly digital workforce.

How is digital innovation transforming the workplace?

It is transforming many aspects of the workplace. From how work is organised, the type of work we do, the workforce itself and why, when and where people work. We’re entering a new era where leaders will need to let go of some of the decision-making and allow staff to operate in a more entrepreneurial way, with decisions being made locally, at lower levels in the business. Leaders will need to cope in an environment that may feel quite alien to them. Employees now have different expectations of work and need to be able to operate in a much more flexible way. That’s not to say we should throw away all of the good disciplines and practices of running a business, but some elements of leadership will require different competencies. For example, creativity and social skills will become more highly prized competencies.

What can be done to overcome these challenges?

Leaders have to be enthusiastic about learning how to adapt to this fast pace of change. Flexible working needs to be combined with new, innovative technologies because you can’t adopt flexible or collaborative working without the relevant technology to support and underpin it. For example, if you implement a hot-desk policy, you need the technology which allows employees to login to any computer in the office. There also needs to be a careful balance between using new technology to help us collaborate more effectively, while maintaining personal connections. The social side of work can be important for happiness, and personal connections can help build teams that work more effectively together.

How can leaders balance the needs of a multigenerational workforce?

I see a generation of people emerging who are far less risk averse and more willing to move around in terms of their career. They expect flexibility, a faster pace of work and recognition more quickly and in different ways – for example, moving into leadership roles much quicker than they traditionally might have. How do you make work flexible in a way that’s tailored to individuals? How do you maintain a talented employee’s interest? Businesses can work with the third sector and send high performers off to work with charities in different parts of the world. That’s giving employees flexibility and a flavour of different things. Organisations can do this to attract and retain talent, because people will feel that their career is more varied. This increasingly flexible way of working, with things like career-breaks and tailored working propositions, is equally valued by all generations. Could we get to the stage where we have a much more varied type of contract with employees, where we’re focusing on things that are important to them? If you think about the people who would have traditionally retired, the over-60s, over-65s, they might not want to come into an office every day from nine to five, but instead stay in work longer and choose working hours to suit them. I’m in my mid-40s, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to work just as flexibly as somebody who’s 21.

Is technology improving collaboration?

There are many tools that greatly improve our ability to collaborate. These tools are not only enabling better collaboration between teams, but they are giving employers the ability to tap into workers anytime, anywhere. This not only applies to traditional, office-based workers, but to workers across the globe. I’m currently working in a team with people from the UK and India using video-conferencing. Now we have blogs, wikis, podcasts, and tools like SharePoint and Yammer too. These are all easily accessible, allowing us to share knowledge and have instant dialogues. The concept of having dedicated offices is long gone in many organisations. Lots of companies are implementing things like hubs, where you don’t actually have a set office or desk; you don’t have to come in every day, but you do have somewhere people can collaborate and work together.

Can analytics and data be used to advance the way work is done?

We can now integrate processes across functions, which have traditionally operated in silos such as marketing, IT and HR, through things like big data and analytics. How we work together within an organisation has the potential to change significantly. Rather than having the same team working on projects for long periods of time, we will be able to create a much more flexible workforce, where you can take advantage of the people inside and outside your organisation. Analytics and modelling have the power to give people more opportunities to experiment and improve their ability to make decisions at a local level, on issues such as inventory, pricing and product design. For example, in local shops, store managers can start to use data from their point of sales systems to customise orders based on their local market, and take into account aspects like the weather. This is very different from standard stock-taking. One of the challenges in having unprecedented amounts of data is how to use that to inform your thinking in a quick and effective way, without becoming overwhelmed. This is something that the younger generation is probably much more able to do, because they’ve been brought up in an age of data bombardment.

In your view, what will the future of the workplace look like?

We will be able create tailored talent-management practices for individual employees and groups. Digital is going to allow us to tap into workers anytime, anywhere. People may be willing to work in a much more flexible way, and because the pace of change will be so fast, the ability to learn and cope with this level of ambiguity will determine your success.

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