The Future of the Workplace: Technology

work from home, Technology, futuristic thinking

How Leaders Can Harness Emerging Technology for the Future of the Workplace

Leaders have been using technology for good and evil since the beginning of time. Those who created the first fire, constructed the best axe, crafted the finest bow held a lot of power. It’s no different in the 21st century, although the technologies that touch the widest audience are often digital. In the office, technology and innovation affect everything from culture to office layout, to setting strategy and vision to attracting and retaining talent and helping organizations create a roadmap for the future.

The latest shiny new object is AI, artificial intelligence. While AI features in daily headlines, it is only one of many new digital technologies that will change the future of the workplace and our lives. A recent World Economic Forum report outlines the top ten emerging technologies that may shape everyone’s future including flexible batteries; designer viruses that can affect specific types of bacteria; wearable plant sensors; metaverse for mental health; and net-zero data centers.

With so many changes coming quickly, organizational leaders will need to draw on their skills and learn new ones to harness technology for the future workplace.

Keep an Open Mind

At Acertitude, Suzanne Hebert, vice president, digital transformation and process excellence, oversees the company’s hardware and software applications and manages the data quality team. She says leaders need to be open to new opportunities. “If you believe that what you’re doing now is fine, and five years from now — even a year from now — you’re still doing that same thing, you're likely far behind. Technology is advancing so quickly that staying status quo incrementally moves you backward over time.”

And powerful technologies are now “literally in the hands of customers — smartphones, social media, digital payments,” points out Reet Bhambhani, senior partner, EMA Partners India. “The customer is ‘always-on’ and expecting seamless accessibility, which is putting pressure on legacy businesses while giving forward-looking and progressive businesses a unique competitive advantage.”

To capitalize on that, Raffaele Jacovelli, managing partner, HightechPartners, stresses the importance of being open minded with his corporate clients, many of whom are looking at embracing digital transformation. “They understand they do not need to be an expert in the technology they have to adopt, but they should have the attitude to say, ‘Let me find out what this is, and how it can impact my business and my company.’ Curiosity is key, being willing to experiment, try and fail.” He admits there can be challenges in getting non-technical companies on board with this attitude.

Hebert adds, that it’s important for leaders to “be clear on the types of solutions that would solve their problems, investigate what's out there, and pressure test.”

Hire Experts

According to a recent McKinsey report, global adoption of technology by organizations is shifting far more rapidly than planned or expected before the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings showed that organizations acted 20 to 25 times faster than expected to make digital changes — and 40 times more quickly than they thought possible before the pandemic. McKinsey also reported that globally, the share of customer interactions that are digital accelerated by three years (four years in Asia).

While C-suite leaders will need a good understanding of technology, the way for them to keep up with this pace is to “cast the right team and hire incredibly talented people, experts who can understand the zeros and ones and bits and bytes and leverage the right technology,” says Ryan Grant, president and founder of The Grant Partners.

This may mean creating new roles within the organization. Acertitude has been doing a number of searches for chief information officers (CISO) as well as for AI experts, Hebert says. And there are new C-suite roles for data/analytics, digital transformation and even chief metaverse officers.

Bhambhani says they’ve seen the evolution of the technology function from IT Manager to CIO to CTO to CDO. “On the risk side, it’s been the CISO/CRO roles that got created to separate risk management from technology design and management. What each step has done is take technology closer to the business.” She adds that a more recent trend, and one still in its infancy, is “having an AI leader either within the CTO/CDO organization or as a separate role. In addition, data scientists and — due to the rise in frequency and sophistication of cyber threats — cybersecurity experts are critical to organizations now.”

A 2021 Harvard Business Review analysis suggested that it’s also important to specify technological and/or digital skills for those not in traditional technical positions. “[F]ewer than a third of the specs for chief human resource officers and chief accounting officers [of those organizations surveyed] mentioned these skills. Falling in between — at 40-60% — were searches for roles such as CEO, board director, and chief financial officer.”

In Bhambhani’s view, “each business line leader and functional leader such as finance, HR, marketing, risk, etc. needs to be personally well-versed with technology and its use cases to effectively drive their functional agenda in an efficient and differentiated manner. With routine tasks being hyper-automated, a CFO or CHRO or CMO has as much at stake in understanding technology and AI and its adoption as the technology function leaders within an organization.”

Develop Best Practices

During the pandemic, some offices went all-remote very quickly and that led to several challenges.

Hebert noticed in her own environment the proliferation of communications applications. “Information and requests are coming at you from everywhere: text messages; phone; Zoom; Slack; email and Teams accounts,” she says. “It can be overwhelming. The more that we can streamline that so that people don't have to check all those channels every couple of minutes to make sure that they're up to date, the better.” She suggests leaders evaluate the tools they already have and find where there’s overlap, cutting where possible. This can help with costs but also with “helping users to narrow their attention and have a better experience.”

Security is also an issue. When offices went remote, organizations saw their people disperse and begin to take work calls on their personal phones and do office work on their home computers. That can have an impact on data and information security. McKinsey recently reported that cyberattacks are on track to cause $10.5 trillion a year in damage by 2025, a 300 percent increase from 2015 levels.

While the tug of war between fully remote and fully in office may continue for a while, the workplace of the future will likely settle on a hybrid work schedule for most organizations that are not, for example, in the manufacturing realm, Grant says. “Hybrid is the happy medium. It’s going to be important to leverage technology to bridge the gap between in-office and remote work.” If nothing else, Hebert says, organizations “should consider soft phones versus eliminating business lines altogether, not only for data security but also for continuity.”

The other challenge, particularly with AI, is bias reinforcement. AI pulls from existing information and “can begin to pick up on stereotypes that are pre-existing in your workplace, such as a predominance of men or of middle-aged workers,” points out a recent Stanton Chase blog. It can also “exacerbate the issue of accessibility. An AI tool used in the hiring process or to make assessments may automatically rule out certain candidates, such as those who are disabled, simply because they can’t access a test or function within its parameters.”

Maintain the Human Touch

“Anything that can be automated will be automated,” Jacovelli says. “But technology is not a substitute for a human being. It will augment one’s ability, enable people to do certain tasks faster and more effectively, but [leaders] bring other value,” soft skills like emotional intelligence, critical thinking, adaptability and creativity that, Jacovelli says “cannot be trained. You can coach people and help them improve, but it’s not like they can take a course and become an expert after that.”

As a Russell Reynolds Associates blog points out, confidence in leadership is declining, and an overreliance on technical tools “cause skills erosion [and] might also negatively impact confidence in our human leaders. C-suite, next-generation leaders, and employees alike are looking for enhanced people leadership in the new frontier of work. To augment AI’s advantages, leaders need to be both agile and discerning, often stopping to consider how to wield new tools responsibly.”

Even in executive search itself, automation is tempting and helpful, but there are limits. “Back in 1999 we were looking through magazines and contacting previously placed people for recommendations. Today, we use the tools on the Internet and social media,” says Jacovelli who cautions that search is already being further automated – and even more so with generative AI. “We’re nearing a time when we can easily identify a potential profile—but this is our value add: executive search consultants with their human touch will make a difference in assessing candidates, convincing them to consider an opportunity and mediate to find the best win-win agreement with the future employer. Our aim is to have a positive impact on their life for good and enable our clients to onboard the talent that can make a difference.”

Culture at the Core

The technologies an organization chooses can offer flexibility for employees and help leaders manage employees from anywhere. Tech can speed productivity, save money, streamline processes and improve data flow. The right technologies can help improve communications and aid in collaboration across physical spaces.

All of which “can help organizations attract, develop and retain talent,” Grant says. “Not everybody's looking for the same culture, but they are looking for connectivity. They are looking for community, they are looking for purpose. Talent is your most important asset, and the way you retain talent is by having an extraordinarily successful culture, a culture of engagement.”

The challenge will be for leaders to use the right technology at the right time and pair it with the human touch.