The ‘Workplace of the Future’: It is Primarily about Culture – not Technology

Not a good start for a blog entry, but I am honest. When I am getting asked to write about the ‘workplace of the future’, I am a bit tired. What can be said, what hasn’t already been said? Just kidding. There is a lot left, but as somebody who is working with newest technology most of the time either in my home office or on the road, I tend to forget that most of the other employers are far away from being in a similar, comfortable situation. In a recent Google Hangout, which was held by the organizers of the Social Business Arena at the CeBIT trade show, I said: Yes, I am already working in the workplace of the future.

What did I mean with it? I have all technical features available in my Home Office, fast DSL internet. I am in the IBM network via VPN with my Mac. Email, Instant Messaging, Online Meetings are daily practice. Unified telephony ensures, that people can reach me wherever I am through one telephone number. The routing to the appropriate device is handled in the background. And our internal social network is or becomes not only for me as a marketer more and more the new production line. I am collaborating with my colleagues worldwide behind the IBM firewall. Through the cloud I am working with my vendors and I am sharing and discussing topics with customers, influencers and Business Partners through several social channels. The only two technologies I am a bit slow in adapting are video calls/conferencing and online collaborative editing. Video: Well, I like some privacy and to be honest, in my home office I am not always dressed up for business meetings. And online collaborative editing, working simultaneously on documents and presentations: I just need to get more used to it.

The most progress of the last years happened in my mobile life. Meanwhile I am quite often on the road only with my smart phone and my tablet. Meanwhile I have nearly all of my functionality available on the mobile devices optimized for touchscreen and smaller screen sizes. There have been made dramatic improvements. Social networking is available as Instant Messaging or collaborative editing on the road are. Still most impressive for me are online Meetings and video meetings on the tablet. This is just cool. My own devices – I live in an Apple iOS world – are secured through a stack of IBM software managing the device. More and more I leave my MacBook at home while traveling. A really significant change.

When writing this down, I need to make myself clear, that this is for sure not the standard for each employer and each employee. So my environment is for the majority really a ‘workplace of the future’, starting with the technical capabilities and features I have available up to the acceptance of working at home and mobile.

What am I missing from a technological point of view? There is some pain I would love to get rid off: Sorting and archiving of emails, the whole information and file management and the very often time consuming search for information. We need technology which exactly helps at these points and with the prototype of IBM Mail Next, which I have seen most recently at the IBM Connect conference, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We need systems helping us doing our work, storing and tagging the information automatically, allowing easy finding. We need a Productivity Dashboard presenting us the information needed in the right context at the right time without or with a few human, manual interventions. And I am not only talking about email. Such a Productivity Dashboard needs to cover the broader information spectrum from email to files to social and activity streams connecting to corporate and pubic information systems. Such an intelligent system be supporting us in taking away routine work and enabling us to make faster and better decisions based on an intelligent analysis of more or less ‘big data’. And of course this needs to support not only stationary computers but mobile devices, too. And yes, a lot, no, most of the functionality will be coming out of the cloud despite all security discussions and skepticism we currently experience here in Europe and Germany in particular. The hybrid cloud is going to be standard in most of the enterprises in the foreseeable future.

So this functionality is my number 1 on the wish list. The number 2 is usability. The mobile wave has helped as a lot in the last years in getting easier and much more user friendly devices. User designs coming from mobile are now more and more reaching the ‘normal’ computer. And the ‘normal’ computer of the future is going to be a convertible supporting touch and keyboard input. But our software still needs to becomes easier and much more user friendly. Again IBM Mail Next with a revolutionary new User interface shows the way. Ok, I could talk further more about technical trends like the Internet of things changing the ‘workplace of the future’ But let us stop now, because there are aspects much more important than technology.

The ‘workplace of the future’ needs first and most notable a cultural change in the enterprise. Still the work life is dominated by behavior and management practices, which are counter productive. Luis Suarez just published  an article here describing, how people are still hording information to protect their jobs, still believing in locking away knowledge as a power base. A lot of managers and employers have not yet recognized, that this behavior is out of date in the ‘social age’, the age of more and more transparency – and ‘whistle blowers’. I am totally convinced, that the ability for innovation and creativity while knowingly using the information systems will be the core competency at the ‘workplace of the future’. Information hording will be useless, because information is today more easy available than ever and new analytical systems will accelerate this further.


This development paired with more and more transparency and the behavior of the ‘social networks’ demand a new way of leading employees. According to the worldwide engagement index of Gallup a quarter of the employers worldwide are actively disengaged. 3 % of the employees just do their job. And only 13 % are engaged. The productivity loss is enormous and the opportunities to improve business outcomes breath taking. These results show in my opinion that the old ‘Command and Control’ management principles are no longer working in particular in a networked world. And the topic is not new. It is being covered over and over again, but not a lot is changing yet.

But instead of more flexibility the amount of controlling and the number of regulations seems to become more and more. Yes, the legal Compliance requirements are getting tougher and tougher and the enterprises need to respond and apply. The logical step are more and more ‘Business Controls’ and control mechanisms being introduced, to avoid fraud. It seems that we can’t avoid this kind of regulations. On the other side we have seen for years a wave of cost cutting programs, job cuts and so called restructuring efforts. Not surprising that this creates a climate of mistrust. An example: Which companies just trusts their employers to book their travel according to guidance to the cheapest conditions? Instead each and every travel needs to get approved in most companies. Management seems to believe that their employers are not able to make thoughtful and responsive decisions? And can we be sure that a company really saves money through such ‘Controletti’ mechanisms? Very often it seems to be more an effort of defending the right that certain jobs and departments exist. Approval and controlling for each and everything. Micro management instead of trust in the employer.

Who wonders that the big majority of the employers are unmotivated? And this is by the way not a generational question. For sure the  Generation Y and the Generation Z now coming in the enterprise are driving the demand for change, but the overall challenge is across all generations. Not only the young, but in particular the older employees are tired and unmotivated and keen on change. Leadership in the enterprise today requests more communication, dialogue and coaching, something a lot of managers still need to learn. Leadership is not any more ‘operations’, putting pressure on the employers and checking dashboards.

The request for flexible working time models, for working at home, the balance of job and private life is there. And yes, there are no true and false, black and white responses to most of the questions. The current discussion about employers being ‘always on’ responding emails outside of their working times is hot. The technological ability to work from everywhere every time is a blessing and a curse at the same time. So should companies configure their email servers to stop delivering emails outside of the working hours? Or do such regulations take away my personal flexibility to work when ever I want and take off at other times? Does the workers council need to define and write down rules with the management to protect the employers? I believe, we need to find the right balance, personally and in the enterprise. I am not sure, if we really need written down company-level agreements. For sure we need a common understanding and code of conduct communicated and backed up by the management

To summarize: The technological capabilities have improved dramatically in particular in the mobile space and the future perspectives are very promising. The much bigger challenge of the ‘workplace of the future’ are more a question of company cultural and leadership. The way of leading and managing needs to change, the sooner, the better. A responsible balance between the interests of the employers and the employees has to be defined. This is the real, not easy but hopefully solvable challenge in front of us defining the ‘workplace of the future’.

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