A tale of two revolutions of technology in the workplace

Jackie Kinsey is Chief Leadership Officer at ThoughtWorks (F) - Using technology in the workplaceJust over a century ago, the Industrial Revolution in the UK brought about huge changes to workplaces, bringing more people together into cramped, uncomfortable environments, working longer hours, and placing often inhumane pressure on workers. This wasn’t a particularly great development for most people, but it’s fair to say it was especially grim for women and young people.

The current century’s ‘technological revolution’ offers the opportunity to also revolutionise working practises through allowing people to work more flexibly in terms of hours and location, and with better, faster communication but these changes aren’t being widely adopted.

As we shift from a workplace defined by one revolution to a new one, there are some old-world mind-sets struggling to adapt to the change. Many business leaders are still stuck in an 20th century mind-set, and reluctant to a new way of working that isn’t familiar with their experiences and they don’t understand. By embracing technology and all the new possibilities, this can result in greater productivity, happier staff, and a more future-proof business for the new working reality and the next revolution of working practises.

What is work in the Technology revolution?

Garner, Sheldon and Forbes (2016) believe we are at a “tipping point in mobile working.” Their report, “Working Anywhere: A winning formula for good work,” highlights trends which show remote working is slowly and infrequently being adopted. It is estimated that 1/3 of the entire labour force works remotely at sometime and they predict that this will be 70% in 2020. With technology, work now doesn’t need to be in an office. So what does this mean for traditional command and control leadership practises? How open are we to acknowledge that the traditional presenteeism reinforces this command and control approach, a distinguishing trade mark of the supervisors in the Industrial Revolution. One of the worst legacies of a system that encouraged working in the office in the boss’ sight-line was the rise of presenteeism: showing up early and staying late to prove commitment and ‘loyalty’, regardless of whether much was actually achieved. In agile offices, technology can be used to put the emphasis more firmly on outcomes and real results. Allowing workers to focus on completing tasks in a way that suits them, in support of a larger goal, makes for a more productive, engaged workforce at a time that works well for them and their lives.

The traditional societal practises of going to work in the future may mean just opening your laptop.
In order for these practises to be embraced, business leaders will need to acknowledge and adjust their perceptions of what work is. If technology is seen separately to business strategy then the leaders within these businesses will be less likely to implement the changes it can offer. Gartner et all note, “Technology is not universally embedded in all business strategies, nor is it viewed by all as universally good.” The report found that there were two camps with respect to technology: those who were concerned so try to break it, and those who were excited by technology and can’t wait to try it. When any revolution happens this response to change is very human, but leaders need to understand how they can support this change.

How should we communicate in the new world?

A lack of presence in the office doesn’t have to mean a lack of communication. With the line between social and work increasingly blurring, the use of WhatsApp, Slack, emails, and Gmail is a great way to keep the lines of contact open.

Over the past few years many businesses have adopted multi-channel systems to enable their customers to reach them in whatever way they prefer. The banking industry moving from the high street to a comprehensive online and mobile service is a prime example. If it’s a good idea for customers, it follows that it’s good for employees!

Sticking solely to email and conference calls can make remote or flexible workers seem distant and disengaged. At ThoughtWorks, we make time to schedule ‘virtual coffee catch ups’ after meetings where people can natter under less pressure. These work really well as once people have established an initial relationship, they can build on it remotely. This is using technology to replicate those valuable ‘water cooler conversations’ of old, and still strengthen colleague relationships whilst embracing the new system of working.

Having multiple communications channels can seem challenging and hard to manage, but it’s definitely the wave of the future. In addition to being digital-natives, millennial workers are multi-lingual, using email, texting, messaging groups, image-services and microblogs seamlessly, swapping between them whenever one is more fit for purpose. Traditional businesses have an instinct to monitor and control conversations, which is easier with fewer ‘official’ channels. In order to capitalise on bright new thinking, it’s important to use all opportunities that communication channels can offer.

The ‘Trust’ Revolution

Ultimately, for all its technological advantages, the new workplace revolution will be defined by people and attitudes. Making real, positive change requires focus on the most important, underlying human factor to all organisational change: trust.

The perception of needing to control and manage people on the shop-floor through overseeing them is a hangover from the Industrial Age. In order to evolve, leaders need to embrace the technologies now available to help them learn to trust workers to get the job done. This might be a massively different way of working and thinking, but courageous leaders, using technology to observe the progress and results provided by their flexible teams, will soon recognise that an agile workforce built on trust is more productive, healthy and future-fit.

It’s never easy being swept along in a revolution; it’s hard to distinguish the real, enduring changes from the passing fads. However, judging by our experiences at ThoughtWorks and our courageous, technology-embracing clients, I have seen how using technology to facilitate more adaptable, autonomous workforces is the way of the future. Stronger levels of trust between managers and more self-sufficient workers is the best way to ensure the Technology Revolution creates a workplace free from the limitations of the outdated, exploitative and narrow-minded structures of the past.

Article written by Jackie Kinsey is Chief Leadership Officer at ThoughtWorks.