Culture Shock of the Mobile Workforce: The Societal Impact of Change
We currently have a workforce made up of many generations, but the situation is exacerbated when we consider the rapid pace of technological change. In just a few years, someone who used to be well versed on the latest email platforms and online collaboration tools is faced with a plethora of social media channels and smartphone apps.
The individualization of work
Such a diverse workforce is divided by different personalities and personal preferences, and different ways of working. For example, Mitel research has shown that women value flexible working hours and locations, whilst men value choice over tools and technology. Today’s younger workforce, which has grown up using the web and advanced personal computing devices, appears to be more open to new ways of working, as the Mitel research shows they are more welcoming to the idea of online and virtualized working. One in five of those aged 18 to 29 say they find the prospect of a ‘portfolio career’ appealing, compared to only one in ten workers overall. According to change management expert Belinda Kent-Lemon of Occam HR, “portfolio careers are often appealing to those at the beginning and end of their careers, where some financial flexibility can be accommodated. But for the majority of those in their 30s and 40s, the financial demands of children and a mortgage mean that at least one partner will need a reliable income.”
Technology as the cultural enabler
Looking ahead, there will be no ‘traditional’ way of working, as organizations look to appeal to a diverse workforce that wants to pick and choose its projects, hours, devices and location. But organizations could be making a mistake if they simply roll out technology to appeal to this diversity. Technology should not define a business, but become the enabler for a business to define its culture, its spaces and the kind of organization it wants to be, as Roger Philby, founder of The Chemistry Group, explains: “Many organizations make the mistake of giving employees all the tools they need to work flexibly, but how these are used needs to come from the leadership table. What culture do you want to create? What behavior do you want to incite? It’s important that direction is given on how employees use this technology.” The emphasis for flexible working is often facilitating this outside of the office environment, but Mitel research shows that many workers still value the traditional office space for social interaction, sharing ideas and meeting with different parts of the organization. According to Roger Philby, the value of flexible working is its inherent ‘flexible’ nature:
“For some people, home working is like a death sentence, while others struggle to cope with a noisy, highly-charged office environment. But ultimately, flexible working needs to work for the organization as well as the individual. If you know what culture you are trying to create then flexible working needs to become integral to this. If it is, you will naturally attract the right kind of people for your business.”
Merging home and work spaces
Our research revealed there is demand for more flexible hours and working spaces, with less reliance on central office location. Almost two-thirds of those people who regularly or occasionally work from home would prefer to have a dedicated space for work and this is more pronounced among workers aged 18 to 29. But until home office innovations such as the OfficePOD really take off, many workers may find work-life balance difficult as personal and working environments merge in the same place. As the OfficePOD creator, Steve Tanner, pointed out “an organization cannot promote the idea of flexible working and merely cover the provision of a desk and a chair for their spare room”.
Nature vs. nurture
Over the next twenty years, those workers who knew little beyond the nine to five culture will move into retirement and younger people entering the workplace will have grown up having seen their parents work flexibly. But for now at least, nature and nurture both have roles to play, as workers look to adjust to an increasingly diverse range of colleagues and approaches. The experience gained in the education system will be critical in shifting our culture and equipping young people with the skills they need to work in less structured ways. But Gavin Andrews, Leadership Lecturer and independent consultant, says there is little evidence of the education system adapting in order to prepare students for new ways of working: “The younger generation still struggles with independent work, even at university level, and this could lead to serious productivity issues in the future if our workers lack the discipline to work effectively of their own accord.”
“One of the issues for organizations located in city center offices is that the young tech-savvy staff they wish to attract and retain are usually not yet homeowners with the luxury of a spare room or other dedicated workspace, making the facilitation of home working difficult. In contrast, those with the luxury of space for a home office are often more comfortable with a traditional office at least part of the working week.”;—Belinda Kent-Lemon, Founder, Occam HR
Empowerment or disengagement?
There are risks to the flexible working model. Could long-term working relationships lessen and what impact will a lack of face-to-face contact have? Mitel research has found that workers still believe that social interaction and opportunities to collaborate are the best things about working in an office, so it is critical for businesses to provide opportunities for effective interaction, even with a virtual model. Whilst the personalization of working practices empowers individuals, it could also erode a sense of belonging – which is a vital ingredient for motivated, productive and loyal workforces. It is essential at this early stage in the virtual workplace evolution that we identify the best methods to engender a positive, binding working culture, through self-management skills, promoting ‘leaders’ over ‘managers’ and providing tools (through technology) to supplement this. Ultimately, balance will be key.
Monitoring and supporting virtual workforces
While workers are calling for flexible, often home, working policies in the workplace, issues around isolation and detachment are often ignored. Companies must ensure that all employees, regardless of their work location, remain part of a well-informed, close team and build time interacting with colleagues into the work routine. The right technology is crucial in delivering an effective remote working strategy. With the right tools and applications, employees can have an ‘in-office’ experience from anywhere, on any device – enabling remote workers to collaborate virtually with team members so that work can continue and productivity and morale are not affected. For several years, trust issues have been seen as a barrier to the deployment of full-scale remote working but these are gradually eroding as our culture adapts to this type of practice. As Gavin Andrews points out, “trust is an issue for businesses, whether remote or not”. The human cloud revolution will happen whether managers like it or not. Instead of putting up barriers, managers should accept this change and put in place approaches that encourage interaction and collaboration. Getting the right systems in place that are conducive to a ‘team’ environment is important for any workforce, but absolutely critical for a disparate one.