Not long ago, the concept of "work" was narrowly defined as what employees did eight hours a day, five days a week, within the four walls of the office. It included rigid policies, rote work, hierarchical governance and insufferable technology.
Globalization, mobile computing, more informed buyers and a millennial workforce — who expect more flexibility and better user experience — have radically revolutionized the workplace. As such, forward-thinking companies that are "skating to the puck" are redrawing the boundaries of "the office" to attract the most sought-after workers and foster a culture of anywhere, any time work.
If you believe in business as usual, stop reading. But if you want to conduct business across time and space, harness the next-generation of workers or are considering the asset-light approach of elastic IT, then read on.
Achieving a Boundaryless Workforce
Thanks to the hyperconnectivity made possible by the SMAC Stack™ (social media, smart devices, the cloud and big data), employees can work wherever the technology and corporate policy allow. But a boundaryless workspace is more than just telecommuting. It also includes the dissolution of linear hierarchy, rigid policy, departmental silos and outdated technology and culture.
Here are the 10 most common ways to break down these boundaries:
Decentralize your decision-making.
If you want to encourage your workforce to be more accountable and make decisions with results in mind, you'll need to let go of traditional top-down management. To do this, senior executives will need to proactively listen to employees, allow them to take ownership of projects they're most qualified for in a way that best suits them and then reward and compensate them based on performance instead of time in the office. This is perhaps the crucible of worker empowerment.
Employ collaborative tools.
Services such as Jive, Chatter, Yammer and Newsgator are increasingly being adopted for a reason: They can improve employee collaboration and social interaction. With these and similar tools, remote employees who otherwise would never encounter each other can better share expertise and ideas across functions, departments and locations, which improves their ability to work.
Mobilize and personalize your technology.
You can either fight "the bring your own device" movement or embrace it (see also: Making BYOD work). If you choose the latter, you'll need to stack your IT on the backs of social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies (aka the SMAC Stack), as well as consumer-friendly apps. Such technology enables workers to communicate quickly and richly, while enhancing their ability to access information, collaborate and innovate from anywhere.
Adopt a "so long as it gets done" mentality.
In the work from anywhere and anytime era, it doesn't make sense to force employees to exclusively work from the office within a set number of hours. So consider more flexible models for where and when employees work and remove any associated stigmas with these choices. Either you believe there is more than one way to skin a cat or you don't. You won't achieve worker empowerment in thinking the latter.
Let your employees outsource "busy work."
You could make employees spend time on things they're not good at. Or you could do like Pfizer: Deploy an online support system that lets workers reassign menial tasks such as presentation production, research and straightforward data analysis so they can pursue more high-value tasks1. In doing so, Pfizer boosted productivity by 65,000 hours resulting in considerable savings, not to mention a happier workforce. How about them apples?
Know why employees leave for someone else.
Then match the competing incentives. For example, Chegg Inc., an online textbook-renter from Silicon Valley, was struggling with high attrition among millennial employees. In response, senior management removed some middle-management to give younger hires greater exposure to high-profile projects and it introduced an unlimited paid vacation policy. Since then, the company's annual turnover rate among millennials has been halved and Chegg reports that no one has abused the generous policy2.
Understand that tech support can come from anywhere.
With more people using technology in their personal lives—particularly the millennial generation, which has grown up digital—a computer science degree is no longer required to solve technology issues. At Starbucks, for example, if employees have a technical issue or a meaningful idea for IT improvement, they can set up an appointment with someone in the "Tech Cafe," which is similar to the popular Genius Bar experience at Apple Stores3.
Consider a networking management system.
Like work.com, for instance. It incentivizes remote workers to send frequent, informal updates to encourage continuous feedback between employees and managers. It then rewards and recognizes participation as the basis for future career assessments. Not only that, but early reports show that networking management systems like work.com can generate up to 10 times more feedback than a conventional approach, which feeds into millennial workers' desire for a constant feedback4.
Get senior leaders on board.
As with our other future of work enablers, worker empowerment will not happen without executive buy-in. Not only do senior leaders need to support and encourage the change, they need to grant permission for reinventing processes, allow employees to work with their own technology and remove organizational layers to drive more decision-making. They also need to communicate and listen more, going well beyond the annual employee satisfaction survey.
Expect and counter pushback with patience and trust.
Moving from a traditional workplace to a more fluid and collaborative one will not happen overnight. While some workers will adapt quickly, others will feel threatened out of fear, discomfort or lack of skills and push back. To counter this, leadership needs to engage in trust building exercises. For instance, Microsoft boosted morale, productivity and idea-sharing recently by creating a group therapy-like wiki, in which workers could discuss problems and propose ideas on how to solve them5.
In the future of work, employees must be empowered to operate at their full potential and this requires a workplace that has freed itself of unnecessary and debilitating boundaries. It is only then that companies can hope to meet the business challenges of the fast-changing global economy.