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More needs to be done to digitally empower workers

The fourth industrial revolution involving various disruptive technologies and trends are changing the way we live and work. This requires new workplace practices

THE digitalisation of the workplace and proliferation of mobile device and cloud applications have given professionals the ability to work from anywhere at any time. In addition, these same technologies have resulted in workers forming virtual teams and collaborating to increase productivity.

In terms of technology adoption, especially at the workplace, Singapore is at the cutting edge of the social, mobile and cloud computing revolution. But are businesses and their employees utilising the flexibilty that these technologies offer?

A recent study by Microsoft showed that while 62 per cent of Singapore respondents consider themselves to be mobile workers and spend at least 20 per cent of their time working outside of their offices, only 37 per cent feel empowered by their organisation's culture and managers to be able to work together productively and collaboratively.

In addition, only 26 per cent of respondents agree that their organisation is committed at a leadership level to ensure every employee is included in closing the digital skills gaps within the workforce.

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The findings are part of a larger Asia Workplace 2020 study done by Microsoft involving close to 4,200 working professionals from 14 markets. This included 307 respondents from Singapore. The study sought to understand shifting employee behaviour and gaps in the workplace when it came to productivity, collaboration and flexi-work practices.

"As Asia primes itself to become the most connected market with more than half of all mobile connections originating from the region by 2021, organisations need to rethink how they empower their workforce with the right culture, policy, infrastructure and tools to maximise their potential. This means enabling collaboration from anywhere, on any device. However, it is also critical for business leaders to evaluate and implement changes to counter cultural and management challenges that are hindering employees to work seamlessly from wherever they are, which will in turn, hinder an organisation's growth and progress in the digital age," said Kevin Wo, managing director of Microsoft Singapore.

Earlier study

An earlier study, conducted in 2015, found that 39 out of 100 respondents in Singapore were ready for the new world of work, whereby organisations had the right people, place and technology principles in place to enable a productive, collaborative and innovative workforce. In the current study, 44 out of 100 respondents felt so, indicating that organisations in the market are slightly more equipped, although more can be done to move the needle.

The fourth industrial revolution has also accelerated the pace of transformation, the study noted. The revolution refers to the various disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) that are changing the way people live and work. It is differentiated from others by the speed of technological breakthroughs and the tremendous impact on people's way of life.

A Microsoft Asia Digital Transformation study conducted in late 2016 found that empowering employees was the No 3 digital transformation priority among Singapore's business leaders. On the other hand, lack of a digitally skilled workforce was the No 1 barrier in their digital transformation journey.

The workplace study noted that mobile professionals in the market are embracing flexi-work and organisations should look at new workplace practices, especially with the impeding influx of digital natives (born after 2000) entering the workforce for the first time.

A majority of the respondents (80 per cent) value work-life integration today, where the boundaries of work and life have blurred, but have enabled mobile professionals to be able to collaborate and work virtually.

The study also found that organisations need to address several structural challenges within the workplace to ready themselves for the digital age, as well as flexi-work practices.

The challenges:

  • Organisation's leaders are key enablers to drive flexi-work practices in the workplace: Only 26 per cent agree that their organisation's leadership is committed in bridging the digital skills gap in the workplace.
  • Organisational culture is important: Only 23 per cent agree that their organisation has invested in culture development through training and development led by HR (human resources).
  • Access to newer, data-centric technologies to enhance collaboration and productivity: Only 21 per cent feel that their organisation has invested in analytics and data tools to help them make informed and timely decisions; only 22 per cent agree that their organisation has given them tools to simplify workflows.

New approaches

The study noted that workplace shifts have resulted in new ways of working with technologies that have enabled increased collaboration between individuals and teams across geographies and groups. However, it found that there were certain gaps today that hinder collaborative and productive outcomes from teams.

The top five challenges are:

  • Too many face-to-face meetings that are taking up productive time (36 per cent);
  • Teams are too rigid and not open to new ways of work (29 per cent)
  • Teams take too long to respond to internal issues (26 per cent);
  • Teams are not open to new initiatives to improve processes (20 per cent);
  • Information about the team's work or project is scattered in multiple places (17 per cent)

Respondents feel that strong leadership and vision (45 per cent), support from the manager (44 per cent) and access to technology tools for collaboration (41 per cent) can help build more collaborative teams. The study also found that respondents are seeking better devices to help them become more productive at work. Beyond hardware requirements, 34 per cent hope to have access to information and data on mobile devices, 26 per cent wish for cloud-based productivity tools and 21 per cent hope for real-time collaboration capabilities.

When asked by the study about emerging technologies that would help build better work environments by 2020:

  • 48 per cent think real-time intelligences will help them make informed decisions at work;
  • 44 per cent believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be able to help perform tasks independently; and
  • 33 per cent look forward to virtual workspaces that support instant messaging and document sharing

"As the nature of work changes, how employees collaborate and work together will be impacted as well. It is critical for business and HR leaders to seek ways to better empower individuals and remove barriers to collaborate for the digital age, especially when the study clearly identifies gaps that can be minimised with technology. However, it is also important for businesses to also bridge the leadership and employee gap with more focus on people and culture," said Microsoft's Mr Wo.