How to build a collaboration environment for a changing workforce

By 2025, most workers will be millennials. These ‘digital natives’ will have a major impact on how collaboration takes place — and it won’t involve walking next door to an office to collaborate.

multiple-exposure image showing a network of people and tools [keyboard, tablet] against a skyline

Most enterprises today are not the unified “all workers in the same space” environment that they were just a few years ago, when virtually everyone was in a corporate location and able to literally walk to the next office to communicate and/or collaborate with coworkers, or use email or simple internal messaging tools.

Employee communications, vital to the efficient operation of any organization, are far more complex today. Indeed, we estimate that a typical corporate entity has from 20% to 35% of its workforce as contingent labor — working independently and usually from remote locations. Keeping these independent contractors, consultants, third-party partners, and even customers connected is of critical importance to the productivity and the overall success of the organization.

A collaboration complication arises when we look at the future composition of the workforce and their work styles. By 2025, we estimate that 60% to 80% of workers in a typical organization will be millennials. These “digital natives” have a major impact on how worker collaboration takes place. They are not typically interested in walking next door to an office to communicate/collaborate.

Rather, they are much more likely to pick up a device and text, video chat and/or connect via a plethora of electronic means rather that in person. Further, they have highly varying work styles that don’t always equate to working a traditional 9-5 day. They have predisposed preferences for tools that must be met.

Meeting their expected experiences in a secure fashion is mandatory. We’ve seen instances where companies trying to recruit employees among millennials have found they refused jobs or quit after a short period when these tools were not readily available (or acceptable) to them. The notion of a single work style dictated by the organization is outmoded thinking. This change is happening now, but most companies are not ready.

What we need to ensure effective collaboration

Allowing workers to use consumer-grade collaboration tools (e.g., texting, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and so on) typically is not an adequate solution for corporate use. Such use could easily expose corporate sensitive information to hackers and “bad actors” and/or allow users to share data with unwanted recipients, exposing the company to loss of data, regulatory liabilities, or worse.

Equivalent and functional enterprise-class tools must be available for the use of current and future employees, to both make the organization maximally efficient as well as securing corporate-sensitive communications among workers. Fortunately, major vendors are moving to establish secure, enterprise-class tools to make collaboration secure (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Slack to name a few.).

What should you look for in a collaboration service?

Organizations need to evaluate what types of workers, communications and other forms of collaboration will to take place as the world moves to a digital transformation approach to the workplace. Picking the right tool means looking for capabilities that support and enhance collaboration in a changing workforce. These capabilities include the following:

  • Workflow flexibility — the capability to customize a solution based on typical roles and responsibilities over a broad scope of users, devices and apps
  • Workspace customization — the capability to create customized collaboration “rooms” and needed enhanced services, like scheduling, meeting tracking, note taking, connections to peripheral services, cloud vendor selection and so on.
  • Security of users, apps and data — the capability to use advanced security and privacy components to insure that no user or corporate data moves beyond specified “islands” to ensure isolation and protection, and that advanced authentication and encryption are in place.
  • Cognitive support for data extraction — the capability to capture and catalog all relevant data that takes place during a meeting or informal collaboration, and make it available as a knowledge source to the appropriate user base and/or entire organizations. Advanced AI capabilities to make this and automated rather than manual process.
  • Analytics to provide understanding of usage — analyzing what is and isn’t working in the organization and to modify and enhance the collaboration tools available as warranted. This is key to creating a flexible collaboration strategy.

As an example of an enhanced collaboration solution, Cisco recently released an updated version of its WebEx product, and added an AI-based assistant capability, including its recent Voicea acquisition’s products. Adding its Voicea voice recognition product to its meeting capabilities allows it to transcribe the entire meeting in minutes without having a manual recording secretary try to keep up with the conversation.

It also provides a version of the meeting that can then be searched by keywords, allowing much better discovery of corporate meeting contents. And users can make Voicea queries to extract information from the meeting even if they were not present.  Cisco claims a 30% increase in meeting productivity and six hours of labor savings as a result.

Staying secure and private

Other modern collaboration enhancements that Cisco added include keeping authentication and encryption keys local to various sites so that international organizations don’t have to worry about a localized breach exposing credentials in the entire organization, and also better complying with local privacy laws. This can be extended to implement isolated regional data repositories as well to better protect corporate data.

Modern collaboration tools are not only necessary to improve internal user experience, but also a key component of external-facing communications with customers. Being able to leverage the internally focused collaboration tools to extend to customer interactions should be an important criteria in evaluation of which vendors best meet the needs of the organization before final selection of a solution. For example, Cisco also has concentrated some of its efforts with WebEx in making it an enhanced customer interaction/management tool (its CloudCherry acquisition) that can be used to increase the organization’s customer ratings scores.

The bottom line on collaboration

Companies must be proactive about adding collaboration tools for the new workforce needs as millennials and supplemental workers increase and become a larger and more important part of the business. Organizations that do not provide such capabilities face an increasing amount of employee frustration and lowered user productivity, resulting in lower efficiency of the entire business. Ultimately, moving beyond simple email and internal messaging to a modern collaboration strategy will be the difference in successfully operating any large or small organization.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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