The Future of Work: How new tools created the virtual workplace

Editor's note: This piece, the second in "The Future of Work" series, also appears on our sister site, CIO Dive. Stay up-to-date with all the latest news on the enterprise tech industry there. Changes in office design kicked off the series.

Geographic barriers no longer decide where someone can work. In some cases, it's as easy as calling in. Others have gone as far as implementing video robots that roll around the office — a person's face on a tablet atop a Segway-like body.

TINYpulse's "What Leaders Need to Know About Remote Workers" report reveals that remote workers are happier at work and feel more valued, but tend to have a lower relationship with coworkersan issue that can lead to turnover if not handled correctly.

But solutions are coming.

The potential future of the workforce is marked by corporations streamlining their approach on almost everything, from data storage solutions to communication platforms. With new, flashy tools and shifts in workplace culture, there is an almost unlimited potential for customization, which allows technology to cater almost exclusively to the needs of an enterprise.

But, perhaps ironically, the technology is enabling HR and organizations to put the power back with their most important resource: people.

Who makes up the virtual workforce?

While telework has not reached full acceptance in the workforce yet, it does represent a cultural shift in corporate America. TINYpulse's report challenges the stereotype that teleworkers are less productive or lazy, noting that 91% of workers surveyed believe they get more work done via virtual work than they would in an office setting.

Demographics of virtual workplace
Data: TINYpulse
Industry Dive

With the growing acceptance of remote work, it is now easier than ever to tap into the global talent market, Dora Wang, employee engagement researcher for TINYpulse and author of the report, told HR Dive. If a company is struggling to find talent nearby, virtual work enables them to look anywhere in the world.

"Speaking from our experience, we have an entirely separate office in Saigon," she said. "Now that we have those improved communication technologies, it's more possible to manage people from a distance."

Employees with family commitments are not the only ones who opt for remote work. Up to 41% cited the freedom of choosing when and where to work as the major pro.

Reasons for working virtually data
Data: TINYpulse
Industry Dive

But employers must exercise caution implementing flexible and remote work programs. Those who work remotely because their job requires them to — a sizeable chunk, TINYpulse reports (22%) — tend to score lower on measurements of happiness, including how valued they feel at work and how likely they see themselves working at a company within a year.

A lot of this, Wang says, is likely due to workplace culture problems.

Creating a culture when no one shares an office

Overall worker satisfaction is a major hurdle for virtual work programs. But like other culture-changing initiatives, there is no silver bullet.

Time zones can't be ignored. While working in a time zone three or more hours different than coworkers correlated with a lower happiness score, those with the highest happiness levels worked on teams that didn't share one time zone at all. In fact, those who worked in the same time zone reported one of the lower happiness scores overall.

"It could be that those in distributed time zones are going into this proactively," Wang said. The culture would have been specifically built around working together virtually, making remote work feel more natural and accepted.

"There could be any number of reasons for this trend, but one possibility is that having teammates scattered across locations eliminates the "us versus them" mentality that might spring up when there is one centrally located team and remote employees isolated outside of it," the report notes.

Culture in virtual workforce
Data: TINYpulse
Industry Dive

Video technology has long enabled remote workers to feel like part of the action — at least, for short bursts like meetings. But culture is found in the small, day-to-day interactions with teammates. Without a robot that will carry their video visage around the office, a remote worker may miss the natural camaraderie that forms during unpredictable moments.

That's where group chat comes in. Chat tools, like the ever popular Slack and its counterparts, HipChat, Campfire and Yammer, enable constant conversation in a casual format that's more accessible than email. Remote workers can be part of the daily chat and feel like part of the team throughout the day, rather than dispersed moments.

"The chatroom has a better ability to mimic that watercooler feel," Wang said. "The back and forth is there, and that's what we need to work toward."

But Michael Fenlon, global and U.S. talent leader at PwC, says that leaders should not discount the impact of video, either.

"Video really does make a difference. We can see each other, see expressions," he told HR Dive. "I think at a deep level humans are attuned to engaging at that level."

The end of email?

Business leaders and consumers have long griped over the sheer volume of email and the amount of effort it takes to keep up with the constant communication demands. The seemingly inescapable platform demands both time and attention so employees can ensure they remain up-to-date.

A recent study from Samanage, a Software as a Service (SaaS) enterprise service management provider, found nearly 20% of the 1,500 U.S. adults surveyed said they received more than 100 emails on a daily basis.

Another 35% check work-related email at least one hour a day outside of work hours, Samanage found, totaling more than 30 days of extra work annually.

"I think email will continue to diminish, in many ways, for the same reason that Slack or HipChat are temporal and a continuous stream," said Workboard CEO Deidre Paknad.

Whereas email is a bottomless well, with important messages sinking to the bottom, Paknad referred to messaging platforms as steady streams of communication, with periodic tags or mentions to highlight an important part in the ongoing dialogues.

Companies are looking toward messaging tools like Slack, HipChat and Yammer to revolutionize and streamline enterprise communication. In some cases, organizations want to eliminate email altogether in favor of real-time messaging platforms.

"You can feel the workplace becoming more human because the technology is enabling a different kind of connection among its employees," said Leela Srinivasan, Chief Marketing Officer at Lever.

A self-proclaimed "Slack junky," Srinivasan said, communication tools can change the tone of the workplace and help create more cohesive teams.

Google Apps had a similar impact when it was launched, Srinivasan said. "It provided this whole new way of collaborating across borders and time zones on work."

A September 2015 report from CompTIA, a tech industry trade group, surveyed 700 business professionals and found that email is still the primary form of communication. Of those surveyed, 72% used Microsoft Outlook and 41% used Gmail. Just 4% of those surveyed used Slack.

Though email is still dominant in the enterprise, many experts point toward messaging tools as the future.

Slack in particular is growing into an industry darling, with more than 2.7 million daily active users and 800,000 paid seats. Earlier this month, the company raised an additional $200 million in funding on a $4 billion valuation.

Communication tools in virtual workplace
Data: Samanage
Industry Dive

April Underwood, Slack's VP of product, said four out of five Fortune 100 companies use the platform, according to a ZDNet report. To advance its product, Slack is looking at potential tools for admins to help manage channels and research how organizations can educate users to most effectively use the tool.

But implementing alternative communication platforms in the enterprise is a process and can demand system-wide changes in organizational behavior.

When introducing new tools, "the adoption curve isn't necessarily technical, its process related," said Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA.

Companies may hear a pitch about a certain tool and "believe that the tool really is going to fit better with a modern workflow or more remote workers," Robinson said.

But in reality, organizations can struggle with mass adoption of new technology, according to Robinson.

"I do think that communications is shifting and it's going to shift," Robinson said. But it "may be a longer road than you might think when you look at the potential of some of these tools and the potential to really disrupt things."  

PwC: Eliminating the office

When instituting virtual work programs, companies may need to monitor how the programs affect office culture. Letting employees work from home could have a "contagion" effect. Fewer people show up to the office thanks to a virtual work option, but those who do show up want face-time with coworkers. But if no one is there, less people will feel obligated to come to the office — potentially stifling culture entirely. The trick is finding a balance that works for your company.

The call for flexibility is one reason why PwC radically transformed its office culture.

About three years ago, PwC took stock of the workforce to capture the "shifting expectations" around what it means to work, Fenlon said. The result: Eschewing the traditional office space, instead converting them into co-working spaces. No one is required to go to the office so long as they work with their teams to ensure the necessary work is done. Flexibility is in the DNA of their work philosophy.

"The design reflects how our culture has evolved, which includes the technology, like the Google suite of tools," Fenlon said. "It's changing how we work. Not just video, but real time collaboration of work products."

80% of PwC's workforce is millennials, he added, meaning that desire for flexibility and the ability to adapt was already present. But the firm also had to convince a group of high-achievers that working outside the office wouldn't make them look like slackers.

The most important aspect of the change involved no change at all — the dependence on and commitment to teams. PwC's model is based on teams that decide how they will achieve goals and complete projects.

"The circumstances vary," Fenlon said. "But even if I am not working day to day in a PwC office, the commitment is grounded in teams. The culture exists wherever our teams are."

TINYpulse's research supported that phenomenon.

"These days, you don't quit your job," Wang said. "You quit your coworkers."

What the future looks like

Along with the introduction of new technologies and methods of communication in the workforce comes the need to set standards and policies, according to Robinson.  

Just as people remain closely tied to their inboxes, users can be equally as dedicated to messaging platforms, accessing them constantly, even after the close of business.

"It can be all too easy to allow those work communications to filter into daily life and it's not always healthy," Robinson said. "I think it requires a new level of filtering and curation on the individual's part."

AgileBits founder Dave Teare has "love" for Slack, but over time he realized that  the company used the messaging platform for too many things, sapping productivity. AgileBits, at one point, had 81 messaging channels, not counting private or archived channels, Teare wrote in a blog post.

While Slack allowed for seamless connection, even with remote employees, it wasn't enabling "effective communication," Teare wrote.

Because "Slack was not designed for deep, meaningful conversations," Teare wrote, the company decided to "break up" with the tool and look toward Basecamp for company communications.

The same steady stream of communication that becomes a pressure point for some, allows other to keep their thumb on the pulse of a company.

Though the constant flow of conversation can be overwhelming, at times, Srinivasan said, "it's easier for me to scan Slack and get a sense of what's going on than scan my inbox."

While she can quickly sift through the more important material on Slack, with message tags highlighting what needs attention, an inbox can be oppressive "because of the sheer volume and the variability of quality of what's in an email, Srinivasan said.

"Email addresses are no longer sacred," Srinivasan said. "I think we're increasingly challenged just by the volume of email and the quality of email we're receiving." 

But, Srinivasan said,"I don't have spam in my Slack."

Though Slack and email equally have their proponents, the future of the workplace may work to combine the two. An application like Workboard's offering factors "accountability" into the communication stream, Paknad said. The platform aligns employees around a shared results and ensures ideas don’t get lost in the constant stream of communication.

A more structured approach to communication, without the rigidity of email, could transform the modern workforce, Paknad said, while still maintaining the fluid conversations taking place on messaging platforms. 

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Filed Under: HR Management HR Tech & Analytics
Top image credit: Nick Keppol