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Technology critical to driving change in work culture

Involving firstline workers in digital transformation gives opportunities for workers, their companies, the industries and society at large.

An employee working at a checkout counter at the Asda superstore in High Wycombe in Britain.

WHO are our firstline workforce? Numbering two billion worldwide, they are the people behind the counter, on the phone, in the clinics, on the shop floor, and in the field. They embody three firsts in an organisation. They are often the first to engage your customers, the first to represent your company's brand, and the first to see products and services in action.

In Singapore, where small and medium enterprises (SMEs) represent 99 per cent of all businesses and employ seven in 10 local jobs, our firstline workers are the backbone of our SMEs. And with SMEs contributing half of our gross domestic product (GDP), our firstline workers also form the backbone of our economy.

This weekend, businesses and citizens will be transitioning from the festivities of Chinese New Year to what will hopefully be a Singapore Budget 2018 that will be celebrated.

As businesses add to the wish list for this year's Budget, whether it is for programmes to help them bridge talent and skills gaps or incentives that will better allow them to digitise and innovate, let us not forget what we can already do for our firstline workforce. Today, the democratisation of technologies is making it easier for employers to build a modern workplace and adopt a new work culture that empowers employees to do their best work wherever they are.

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The modern workplace requires companies to meet new employee expectations, connect a more distributed workforce, and provide the tools that allow all employees to create, innovate and work together to solve customer and business problems. A truly modern workplace brings out the best in employee ingenuity, creates a culture of innovation and action, and welcomes and empowers all workers from the executive team to the firstline workforce.

According to the Microsoft Asia Workplace 2020 study, more than three-quarters of workers polled in Singapore felt that more can be done by their organisations to invest in culture development. The study also found the following factors influencing the culture of work in Singapore today:

  • Increasingly mobile workforce and exposure to new security risks: The rise of mobility and proliferation of mobile and cloud technologies have resulted in individuals working across multiple locations and devices. In fact, the study found that only 38 per cent of respondents are spending all their work hours in the office, and 84 per cent of respondents are working off personal smartphones. The latter raises new security challenges for organisations.
  • The rise of diverse teams: The study found that 26 per cent of workers in Singapore are already working in more than 10 teams at any one point in time. This makes the availability of real-time insights and collaboration tools crucial to get work done.
  • Gaps in employees' digital skills even as leaders are in the motion of embracing digital transformation: As the bar is raised with new technologies adopted across industries, deployment is uneven. In fact, 74 per cent of respondents feel that more can be done to bridge the digital skills gap among workers.

Clearly, the future of work is a digital workplace that will unleash the potential of the digital-first workforce and enable new ways of collaboration and innovation, ensuring seamless work across multiple locations and devices. However, a truly digital workplace cannot be realised with just changes to the physical work environment and the organisational culture - it requires the use of the right technology as well.

Asiawide Print Holdings, one of the leading corporate printers in Singapore, recently took the step to transform its workplace with the aim of positioning the company for future growth. With a geographically diverse team and a management team that juggles multiple work and family commitments, the company recognised that a communication system that was based on phone calls and e-mails is longer sufficient and wanted a technology solution that could help employees work and collaborate better across time and space.

By making use of the communication and collaboration tools on cloud-based productivity suite Office 365, Asiawide's management team not only had more flexibility to communicate with their team across time and space, firstline workers are also given access to data and insights for their line of work wherever they are, empowering them with the ability to address customer demands in a more timely and efficient manner. With technology driving this shift in Asiawide's working culture, employees now have enhanced ability to deliver better service and response to customers and peers.

From the Asiawide example, it is evident that technology plays a critical role in driving change in culture. And more often than not, involving firstline workers in digital transformation will drive unprecedented opportunity - for workers, the organisations that they work for, and the industries and society at large.

For one of the world's leading sports brands, Puma, firstline workers are the retail assistants who greet shoppers going into the stores; customer service assistants who assist with queries on the phone; or the merchandiser who selects the right products for their customers.

Recently, Puma took a bold step to replace its mystery shopping audit with a real-time customer feedback platform built on the Microsoft cloud. By empowering its retail staff on the ground with actionable real-time insights from the platform to take immediate actions to improve and rectify customer issues, this has enabled the brand to serve customers better; fine-tune staff training programmes and operations; and leverage the platform as a recognition tool for staff.

Come 2020, technologies such as artificial intelligence, real-time intelligence and enterprise social networks with video and voice capabilities will become the norm, and are expected to be integrated into the workplace, impacting firstline workers. Hence, digital transformation involving firstline workers cannot be an afterthought. In fact, it should be an integral part of the digitalisation process to ready the organisation for its digital future.

Together with the shift in work dynamics, the role of an organisation's leader is also changing. It is now more important than ever before for leaders to take an active role to shape an open workplace culture that fosters collaboration, creates agility and builds trust.

In particular, strong leadership and vision from team members, support from managers and an open management receptive to new ideas were identified as key elements that could eliminate collaboration challenges faced by employees today.

While the path to building a digital and modern workplace of the future means more changes for employees, IT and processes, the end result is a new world of work where seamless collaborations and creativity will happen, and key performance indicators such as productivity, organisation agility, employee and customer satisfaction will increase tremendously.

The future of work is responsive, adaptive, collaborative and innovative; and the time is now for business leaders to start embracing the transformation and build a new culture of work for the workplace of the future.

  • The writer is director for small, midmarket and corporate customers, Microsoft Singapore

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