Don’t forget the employee experience, wherever your employees happen to be

Keeping smart people means thinking smart … even if you’re a building

Paid Feature Is it really almost two years since those first frantic days of lockdown, when companies scrambled to equip remote workers with even the most basic equipment? When the queues for laptops were longer than the queues for supermarkets, and webcams were almost as scarce as surgical facemasks.

Even when workers had the basic kit, when it came to collaborative remote working, many organisations were making it up as they went along. Major system outages were not uncommon, as were security breaches and privacy outrages. We were all on a fast-learning curve.

Fast forward to today. Platforms are more stable, and most organisations have found a modus operandi to ensure that remote, and hybrid or fully office bound teams can work together. It may not always be ideal, but it generally works. For now.

And plenty of workers like where we are now. Lenovo research shows just 16 per cent of employees at medium-sized firms, and 12 per cent at large firms, want to move back to full time office work. At the same time, just 10 per cent want to work exclusively at home, though interestingly, younger employees are more likely to want to work primarily in the office.

As for the people who actually make this all happen, just 15 per cent of IT decision makers (ITDMs) at medium-sized firms expect their workers to be mainly working from the office in the post-Covid future, a figure that increases to 19 per cent at larger outfits. And just 14 per cent of respondents said collaboration tools had impacted productivity and efficiency negatively.

So, at what point do we need to move beyond improvising for the duration of the crisis, and towards accepting that work has changed permanently? If employers and employees have reached a balance of sorts today, how do they work towards improvements in the future? And where does technology fit in as companies reassess the sometimes jerry-built, and often insecure, systems that have seen them through the worst of the pandemic?

As Lenovo’s general manager for worldwide smart collaboration, Shannon MacKay says, the challenge is two-fold. For employees the key question is: “‘How do I not have death by meeting’ while ensuring they feel connected... companies and leaders who are going to succeed are taking that truly holistic view so that it’s ‘what do I need to do as a company from an infrastructure perspective AND what do I need to do from a culture perspective’.”

Clearly there’s no one-size fits all solution, MacKay says: “I think companies are still finding their identity.” But, more pressingly, “they’re concerned about employees being burnt out and employees leaving. And then, how do you train and develop your people in a virtual world?”

Significantly, employees have a “bigger voice than they’ve ever had in the process of how and what they need to do their jobs effectively wherever they are.”

Now the challenge is setting up the workforce for long-term success, wherever they happen to be day to day. “I think we focused on the what and getting it right, and not necessarily the how,” McKay says.

This means focusing on smart collaboration - which includes not subjecting employees to back-to-back meetings and encroaching on what was formerly commute time, or the time spent walking from one meeting room to another, or even one building to another. “Even though I run smart collaboration, I have to remind people in my team ‘recharge your batteries, it’s OK to take a break.”

It’s not just laptops that need recharging

At the same time, ITDMs need to look again at what they are doing to equip employees whether they are going to be working full or part time from home. A year and a half ago a laptop, any laptop, would do. And a camera, if you could find one. Desks and chairs could wait – people had laps after all – as could any deep thinking about how this all impacted the way we work long term.

Now it’s not just having a laptop. It’s having the right laptop, and she continues, it’s the right cameras and vanity lights, and sound equipment. “Things that are going to make that experience more enjoyable.” By vanity light, we simply mean something that is going to help the employee present themselves in their best possible light, to colleagues and customers. And, of course, this all means ensuring that their internet connection is secure, and easy to manage.

Again, there is no one size fits all here, both in terms of organisations and in terms of individual workers. “This is the first time we have five generations in the workforce,” MacKay points out, which has implications for preferred technology and how individuals prefer to work and collaborate.

Older workers might feel more comfortable with a keyboard or voice, while younger workers might be more open to touch, she says. “Even just the interface and what their expectations are and what they expect as employees is very unique.”

But there is also the question of ensuring that people still feel connected to the organisation at large. It’s easy to forget that while some people are happy to work at home without any “distractions” whatsoever, others thrive on meeting people face to face, whether for purely social purposes or for sparking ideas and creativity.

“If you’re not meeting with customers and colleagues, how are you getting enough connection to something that makes you feel valued?” she asks.

This is where companies need to consider the broader effect of the changes the pandemic has wrought. As we all know, many organisations are considering what their real estate footprint should be, given the enormous changes to working patterns over the last year.

But there’s more to this than simply shuttering excess office space. However many floorspace organisations have, the question remains, “How do I ensure that people feel like they want to come back into the office because it fosters a culture and is a great experience.”

I’m back…hello?

“Proximity bias” is a well-documented phenomenon, which means people will pay more attention to and attribute more value to people who are physically close to them – which can lead to remote workers being cut out of office life, even within a meeting. Countering it can begin with reconfiguring conference rooms to ensure that both remote and on-prem employees are equally engaged, for example by having a horseshoe shaped table rather than the traditional rectangle, with remote employees appearing on screen.

But it also means thinking more deeply about the technologies used, from whiteboard capabilities in software, to high quality sound and vision equipment, with the aim of making the conference room an immersive experience, wherever you are.

For example, says MacKay, “Even if the person talking is not in the room they pop up on the screen, and the sound quality is great, the camera knows where to follow people, those kinds of things.”

And this hardware needs to be both unobtrusive and require minimal management by participants, “So you just walk in and it comes on and it works.”

This is an industry wide effort. Lenovo can supply and deploy hardware and underlying management platforms, and consult on the best setup, while “partners like Microsoft, Zoom and Google have these communication platforms and they will continue to put features in to make it feel like the camera follows the person talking in the room, with 360 sound.”

Stepping up a level, this feeds into the broader management of the workspace for a more fluid workforce, with platforms such as Lenovo's ThinkSmart Manager, which can be used to manage the collaboration devices and room systems.

From there, it’s just a step up to considering how to layer in AI and scheduling, to help people find rooms easily, or to work out when a meeting room is reaching capacity and crank up the air conditioning. Or providing a console so that when an employee turns up at an office, they can easily find a vacant space, rather than “walking the halls.”

“That’s the core foundation that we think takes hybrid work to the next level of ‘what does the smart office look like?’” says MacKay.

And this demonstrates just how far we’ve really come since last year, when it seemed like the traditional office was doomed. “Not everyone is ready to deploy smart buildings,” says MacKay. “But we’re on the cusp of that.”

The point is to remember who the smart building is really for – your smart employees.

Sponsored by Lenovo.

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