[Column] Mervyn George: Remote working is the future. Are South Africa enterprises ready?
As the Experience Economy gathers pace, organizations will place increasing focus on engineering the best experiences not only for its customers and partners but its workforce. The tradition of desk-bound employment in a central location will be disrupted as more organization realize the value of remote working.
Distributed teams can become the norm. As employee expectations evolve in line with the advances in technology, policy and culture that are making remote working a viable option, business productivity could see positive gains from a more engaged and motivated workforce.
Does that mean we should expect a sudden upending of traditional forms of work? Possibly not. Instead, we’re likely to see constant incremental changes to workplace dynamics as employees and managers adjust to new ways of working. According to recent research, 52% of global employees work from home at least once per week, with 68% working from home at least once a month.
Upending the status quo
While the technology tools needed to enable remote work – a device, a headset for calls, reliable internet connectivity – are readily available and largely cost-effective. Setting up a home office is easy. For those that lack the necessary space at home or prefer to work in the company of others, a rising number of co-working spaces in the key metropoles makes it easy to find a suitable desk or small office.
Often, the real challenge comes with the levels of trust and accountability between managers and employees that are needed to make remote working a success for employer and employee. There is an assumption that work time spent away from the office is allocated to productive work output.
But the tools to measure this are not yet mature enough to give managers complete peace-of-mind. At most, present tools enable managers to track whether tasks are completed on time and within budget – beyond that, there’s little to guide the day-to-day management of remote workers.
For companies to support growth, a staff-on-demand model should be considered to a certain extent. As one of the levers for building an exponential organisation, adopting staff-on-demand introduces more control where variability is identified or needed. This does not mean that permanent staff need to be traded for contractors on day one, but instead that the workforce could be augmented on a project basis.
This provides employers with the ability to reduce fixed expenses, improve control over project scope, build a pool of trusted remote ad-hoc workers, and identify which core functions of a business should be retained as full-time and in-house, and which can be outsourced wholly or in part.
Most importantly, it establishes buy-in from management and the existing workforce that remote working is feasible, which then starts to shape the future culture of the organisation.
Adding intelligent technologies
There is a dominating focus on intelligent working today. With the rapid advances in networks, data storage and computational power, access to trawl large volumes of data for the compilation of insight will become exponentially easier year-on-year. Accenture estimates that AI alone has the potential to increase business productivity across 16 industries by as much as 38% by 2035.
With the addition of algorithms to interpret data and insights, and to propose areas of further exploration, employees will naturally shift from a current world of processing lots of information to a future world of managing by exception, where anomalies and irregular patterns in data will be presented for further scrutiny.
Tasks for humans to perform in a work day will become more concise but with greater value-add and will allow for a range of different types of tasks to be fulfilled that constitute an area of work. Remote working may imply working from an inbox or work list, without the need for the current lengthy meetings we hold that allow us to derive the context and justification for decisions we make. To the employee, this introduces convenience. To the employer, it is just one byproduct of embracing an Intelligent Enterprise strategy.
The way in which we engage with these new forms of intelligence will change too. Already, there are significant advances in emerging technologies that allow the emotions and gestures of humans to be interpreted and used to derive some form of meaning or action with systems and data.
In a future that embraces, what I’ve termed the Office in a Box, employees would have the ability to wake up, to walk over to their study, dining room or home-office, to flick a switch and convert their personal space from ‘home-mode’ to ‘work-mode’.
Interaction with hologram displays and alternate realities via emotion, gesture and wearables, to navigate overlay data being presented from enterprise systems, analytics engines and AI-assistants, and allowing the interaction with that data and with colleagues in those same alternate realities will become the norm. As this type of holistic solution advances, the Office in a Box can be transported to wherever you choose to work from, in a similar manner to how we carry smartphones everywhere we go.
Adopting variability, flexibility
As the technology becomes more portable, and the number of devices needed to fulfil this reduces, and as we approach the moment of singularity – where our physical beings are connected to our digital selves – the connected nature of humanity implies an ability to monitor everything. This sparks plenty of debate around ethics and the limit to which humans should push technology and digital adoption, for the sake of prolonging human existence and human relevance to machine productivity. For the focus of remote working evolution, this implies that organisations will have the ability to monitor the time we spend in ‘work-mode’ more natively.
The sensors reading the mental and emotion load we commit to work topics, weighted by the physiological impact of that load and the criticality of the work task, would provide companies with an ability to produce a work productivity and performance measure by which we can be remunerated. Sporadic contribution to a work topic throughout the day or continuous contribution for a focused hour would both contribute to our variable income at the end of the day.
It sounds far-fetched but the reality is that many of these components are already being researched, developed or in early stages of adoption. It’s the collaborative adoption of various technologies that will provide massive advances and benefits to organisations. While employee experience stands to gain from the introduction of convenience, it is organisational profitability that stands to gain from the eventual exploitation of convenience.
The one safeguard we have as employees is to continue to shape culture – culture that promotes ethical organisational behaviour, culture that values trust and objective contribution, and a culture that influences policies to protect the essence of humanity.