Whether it’s retailers plying wares online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores, media companies swapping print for pixels or companies looking to empower frontline workers, one theme is increasingly common in business: digital platforms are now fundamental to success — and that success depends on employees who can collaborate in real time, at any time and from anywhere.
With widely distributed employees and and a more mobile workforce, many companies have had to shift gears quickly in recent years to stay competitive.
Critical to that effort is the ability to share information and ideas effectively using the latest communication and collaboration tools.
The rise of real-time messaging apps like Slack, videoconferencing apps like Skype for Business and online file-sharing apps like Dropbox has given companies a host of tools they can use to underpin corporate growth and connectivity.
In particular, the growing adoption of team-based collaboration software and revamped business processes has helped organisations become more agile.
“Companies that utilise team collaboration applications report having significantly increased group and personal productivity, have faster time to market, and execute projects [faster],” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC.
But getting employees to all row in the same direction — and even use the same software to do so — isn’t easy. Corporate execs, fully aware of the importance of modern digital tools to support their workforce, find themselves playing catch-up to match the apps and devices their employees rely on outside the office.
Better connectivity means smarter, more engaged workers
“Consumers now expect one click to buy, two clicks to return. And when those consumers go to work, they expect that same ease of collaboration, communication, and getting things done that they enjoy when they're at home and working in their communities or their families,” said Kurtzman.
A report from Deloitte showed that almost 80 per cent of corporate execs rate employee experience as important, but only 22 per cent called their companies “excellent” at creating a productive environment for workers.
That gap indicates where companies are increasingly putting their efforts as they scour the digital landscape for the right tools to keep employees productive — and happy.
Doing so is critical to both attracting and retaining workers. “After all, why should they be able to collaborate more easily at home or for their children's football clubs than they can at work?” asked Kurtzman.
“It makes sense to have the same depth of communication, collaboration and the ability to get things done that they enjoy outside of the workplace.”
The digital experience for workers should match that of customers, Jeffrey Mann, a VP analyst at Gartner, said in a recent research note.
“...All too often, the employee experience is an afterthought for business and application leaders,” wrote Mann.
“They ignore the relevance to workers of the proven lessons from marketing and customer relationship management regarding the customer experience. Many of the same techniques used to create happy customers can be applied to encourage productive employees.”
At Valet Living, a residential concierge and amenities service provider, Facebook’s Workplace enterprise social network is now used to connect 6,000 employees — 90 per cent of whom work part-time — across 40 states. The deployment has helped on-board new staff members faster.
“Understandably, it’s been difficult to on-board associates in a consistent and thorough manner until we adopted online collaboration tools,” said Henry Toledo, chief people officer at Valet Living.
Workers can access relevant training materials through a platform they're already familiar with in their personal lives, said Toledo.
“We know it’s critical to arm our associates with the skills needed to succeed and offer a consistent experience to our clients and residents, so we created a library of training resources, including our online training database, Valet U, giving all new associates the chance to get up to speed quickly and efficiently,” he said.
The ability to connect a disparate workforce using digital collaboration tools — previously impossible via email alone, said Toledo — has led to tangible business benefits and reduced employee turnover.
“As we increasingly collaborate across the organisation, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between connectedness and a steady rise in Valet Living’s associate retention rate," he said. "We saw a 20 per cent increase in associate retention since Workplace was introduced just a year ago — a testimony to our ability to make our associates feel welcomed from the jump."
At Weight Watchers, company execs found that rolling out Workplace to 18,000 employees worldwide in 2018 helped with internal knowledge-sharing.
“One of the big questions or challenges [we had] was how do we bring everyone together?” Stacie Sherer, senior vice president for corporate communications, said in an earlier interview.
“How do we break down the silos between our different geographies, and how do we break down the silos between our corporate head offices and all of the folks who are out in the field, who may only work a few hours a week but want to feel part of something bigger?”
Employees applauded the move, Sherer said. “One respondent said, ‘I feel like I work down the corridor [from] colleagues in other countries — I feel like I know them so well because of the connections they make on here,’” she said.
“Because you can craft your own profile and there are groups around personal interests in addition to all the groups focused on work collaboration and communication, you get to know your colleagues in a way that you wouldn't otherwise.”
A culture of collaboration
Many businesses now realise the need to improve collaboration to stay competitive; not surprisingly, spending on social software and collaboration tools has been on the rise. According to Gartner, it's expected to reach $4.8 billion in 2023 — almost double the estimated $2.7 billion spent in 2018.
A survey of roughly 40 digital transformations by Boston Consulting Group found that organisations that focused on cultural change as part of their digital transformation projects had a much higher rate of financial success (90 per cent) than those that neglected culture (17 per cent).
Financial software vendor Intuit, for instance, is using its transformation efforts to focus more on innovation, less on managing infrastructure. “Digital transformation is as much a mindset and cultural shift as it is a business and technical shift,” said Intuit CIO Atticus Tysen.
The company has been using Slack’s workstream collaboration app to bolster idea-sharing among staffers, no matter their location.
“Slack is one way we connect our global workforce across different sites and locations through near instantaneous messaging, while also creating opportunities for like-minded individuals or teams to have an area for ongoing dialogue that doesn’t require long meetings or multiple emails,” Tysen said.
“Using Slack, we are enabling the mindset and cultural shift of finding more opportunities to work efficiently at scale.”
Another Slack user, data analytics company Splunk, has had similar experiences.
“For us, Slack was the promise of really starting to change the communication culture,” said Fred McAmis, vice president for learning and development, at Splunk.
Before deploying the app, Splunk relied on a variety of different tools to communicate. “Marketing had one tool, while product and engineering had another,” he said. “When our CTO joined, he chose Slack for engineering. It started as a pilot project and quickly spread across the organisation.”
Today, short, targeted instant messages help teams push projects along. “It’s real-time, while e-mail is very formal in comparison,” he said.
Improved collaboration processes are also helping the company stay agile as business scales. “At Splunk, our employee base continues to grow year over year, which means it’s imperative to maintain the company experience,” said McAmis.
Clear pathways for professional development help employees stay motivated, he said. And there is a Slack channel for leadership courses that are available to employees at all levels of the business.
“While training is the main event, I believe learning takes reinforcement," McAmis said. "So we use Slack to supplement the training and offer a way for our people to stay in touch and remind themselves of what they learned. Slack gives us the ability to share knowledge quickly and create knowledge databases.”
The next big push: digital tools for frontline workers
Much of the focus of digital transformation in recent years has been on office workers. But enterprise software vendors are now targeting collaboration, communication and productivity tools at a wider range of employees, such as retail, manufacturing and healthcare staff. These frontline service and task workers represent a burgeoning area of investment for many organisations.
That’s especially true of Microsoft, which has been targeting frontline workers since late 2018.
“[Frontline workers are] a massive segment of workers around the world that are currently pretty drastically underserved by technology,” Emma Williams, corporate vice president of Modern Workplace Verticals at Microsoft, argued last year. “What we are delivering is a customisable experience that really focuses on a mobile-first worker based on their role.”
Those comments came as the company added a raft of updates to its Teams collaboration tool to woo frontline workers. Those additions included new mobile app functions, integrations with third-party scheduling apps and an employee “praise” tool.
One company that's used Teams to successfully engage frontline workers is Virginia-based Ferguson, a plumbing supply company. The company rolled out Teams and sparked a shift to channel-based communications in a way that helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.
The change was especially important for showroom consultants who must answer customer questions, repeatedly check stock and generally assist with purchases.
“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey, I'm looking for this product; do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson, explained last year. “That has not been a great experience for the customer — it can take time.”
Using Teams channels, the sales staffers at Ferguson can now quickly send a request for info to the back office using their mobile device, allowing them to better focus on customers.
“They can continue to service the customer, but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or … [leave] sitting around waiting.”
That kind of change can lead to more efficiency, engaged workers — and happier customers.
Although many organisations are just now beginning to invest in tools for frontline employees, more money is likely on the way as the business case becomes clearer. And the evolution of the workplace, already well under way, will continue.
“We're at the beginning of making every worker a knowledge worker,” said Kurtzman. “The collaboration of an enterprise runs much more efficiently the more ideas that are there, the more ideas that can be acted upon.”
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