A social future

We are living in a time of huge change but the way we work is still stuck in models first devised over 100 years ago, says Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK in a new e-book, Business Reimagined.

He has written the book, he says, to “start a proper conversation about the future of work, given these seismic changes in technology and the workplace” and because he sees great potential being thwarted through an unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances.
The book looks at every part of the way we work, from the fashion for open-plan offices to the constant pinging of emails.

Coplin says email is used for lots of communications which it is not appropriate for, such as messages requiring immediate attention. He adds: “Nor is its “reply all” button actually meant to be used to supply everyone with an endless stream of jokes, organisational showmanship and pointless grandstanding”.

He says we have lost sight of what the systems we have become accustomed to are for, which makes businesses less effective than they could be.
He says: “Our centralised environments have effectively become cognitive wastelands, where flair and innovation are lost to the daily battle with outdated processes and forms of communication.”
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What’s more, he adds, there is far too much focus on productivity rather than on thinking holistically and creatively about business.
He states: “We spend our working days locked to a single period of time and a single physical location, batting communications back and forward in a sort of nightmarish game of digital ping-pong. Success is defined by the number of individual processes we complete not the outcomes of the organisation.”
Flexible working
Organisations need to think differently about what they do, he says. What counts is how they adapt to new opportunities and innovations.
The problem is that we are still too rooted in our old, narrow ways of doing things and thinking about work. Work culture does not encourage deep thinking or creativity, he states, the kind of skills which are essential for the modern business.
Businesses say they encourage flexible working, but this is simplistically reduced to ‘working from home’ and “belittles the true potential of an authentically flexible approach”.
Flexible working, says Coplin, is about freeing workers up to be creative and properly productive by measuring them by outputs rather than inputs and allowing them in ways which enable them to be most productive.
He cites a recent Ipsos MORI study on flexible working which shows that individuals working away from the office feel under pressure to overcompensate for their absence. He states: “In order to quash colleagues’ negative perceptions, nearly half (47%) make a conscious attempt to be extra visible by sending more emails and making more phone calls. Almost one in three (30%) feel guilty about not being in the office, with over a third (39%) working longer hours to prove they are not ‘shirking from home’.” He says that this ironically undermines the very benefits of remote working, stating: “Even when flexible working is in place, it can be quite as destructive as the most regimented, process-driven, anxiety-filled open-plan office. Without a deeper cultural change, in fact, it’s useless.”
Moreover, many flexible working policies are still about accommodating parents’ responsibilities, which he says misses flexible working’s huge transformative potential for the whole workforce.
Social business
Coplin foresees the evolution of a new social business, drawing on the way we use social networks. It is more democratic, less hierarchical, more collaborative and relies on information flowing fast and freely.
He says: “Until now, if you wanted to interact with a business you would have to work your way through the customer services department, or the hierarchy of the part of the business you were dealing with. Today, you can get directly to the individual responsible for what you are interested in. You can likely also get a sense of the human behind the role. All of this helps to speed things up and focus communication…as more and more people enter businesses with collaborative expectations set by what is possible in their personal lives, friction is inevitably going to occur. Disruption will follow until a happy balance can be found.”
A social business requires many things. Technology-wise, it requires that video be integrated into communications processes so that is part of the natural working pattern, for instance, having water cooler moments with remote colleagues via video.
Managers’ roles also need to change so their main job becomes to make sure that everybody’s aligned on the company’s mission, to measure the output of the company and to make sure that the right incentives are in place so that people are motivated to make the best decisions and be creative.
Coplin adds that the workforce of the future needs to be trained to have the right skills for new ways of working. “Rather than teaching children how to use word processors, or keyboards, or mice, or web pages (all stuff they will teach themselves), we need to teach them critical thinking – how to stay safe online, how to communicate responsibly and effectively, how to search and reference, and so on,” he says.
He acknowledges that change will not be easy, especially in certain industries, but he believes it is absolutely necessary if businesses want to do better and stay ahead of the competition. Coplin concludes: “Technology is here to empower people. But that doesn’t work if human structures, habits or fears constrain them. If businesses won’t let their employees be free, they’ll be doing the 21st-century equivalent of trotting in front of a car waving a length of scarlet cotton. And their competitors in the fast lane will wave to them as they pass.”
*To order Business Reimagined, click here.

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