We are living through a technological revolution in the workplace. The vast majority of British companies (84pc) now offer technologies to allow people to work remotely, according to research by analysts IDC, and web conferencing, instant messaging and collaborative documents are de rigueur for many of today’s home-workers.
When used properly, such tools enable people to work as they would in a normal office, even across international borders, says Andrew Lawson, executive vice-president of Europe at the global software business Salesforce.
“We use collaboration tools and social networking apps like our own Chatter across our global team and find that email can often lead to conversations becoming lost in silos,” says Mr Lawson.
“These tools can mimic the way we talk and allow teams to work around a solution to a particular problem with real-time feedback. I’ve noticed a huge difference in how much more my teams engage since we started using Chatter.”
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the UK’s HR body, has found that most home workers are keen on such arrangements, with 65pc of flexible workers feeling happy with their conditions, compared to 47pc who work full-time in an office.
But there is an acknowledged risk that any technology that helps distance people from each other (such as email) can make teamwork less harmonious. Mr Lawson’s teams also use a feedback app, which encourages the venting of frustrations frankly across all levels of the organisation.
Even that can only help to a degree, of course. He says: “When it comes to managing international teams, tech can only take you so far. A strong company culture is also vital.”
The key to getting tech to work for teamwork, and not against it, is to listen to what employees want, says Cathy Temple, vice-president of HR for another software giant, Oracle.
Ms Temple says that technologies such as interactive whiteboards and shared cloud documents have become near-essential for most businesses. So while flexibility is integral to a mobile, fluid operation and can get the most from every member of the organisation, tech for tech’s sake can be a waste of time and money.
“[Bringing in new tools] is not about cutting all in-person meetings,” she notes. “Face-to-face meetings remain the best choice for some situations while conference calls and instant messaging are better suited to others.”
Ms Temple adds: “The key things for employers to do is to offer a broad range of tools for employees to choose from and to keep abreast of the new ways that people communicate outside work. If employees want a WhatsApp-style messenger, then the organisation needs to find a way of offering it.”
Oracle started offering flexible working in 2000, and allows employees to choose if they want to work remotely (if their role is appropriate). But Ms Temple cautions that clearly communicating what technology is on offer, and how it could be used, is integral to its effective use.
“Companies need to make sure that employees are able to recognise which tool is suitable for their work,” she says.
Using computers as cover
The technology to enable home working will continue to evolve, experts believe. Mr Lawson predicts that video will dominate in this area, although it offers only an improved remote experience and can never fully replicate in-person conversations.
Less familiar to many, but potentially more influential in the workplace, will be artificial intelligence (AI), according to Mark Greenaway, EMEA director of emerging businesses at Adobe.
Mr Greenaway says: “Thanks to the cloud, the number of collaboration tools available has skyrocketed, with ‘living documents’ – shared files which can be updated by anyone in real time – paving the way.”
With the help of AI, such documents would evolve into something even more useful for teams spread across buildings, cities, or worldwide.
“The next step to improving team content will rely on the implementation of AI, moving from ‘living documents’ to content which is truly alive. Documents with AI built in will be able to subtly make suggestions or corrections, and help keep team members informed, which will improve the way teams work together.”
While such potential hints at the possibility of the AI taking over completely, the reality, at least in the short term, is far more positive for remote teams. With the next advances in workplace technology, even those divided will come together stronger than ever. Knowing that both your team members and the computer itself have got your back can only be a good thing.
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