Don’t talk about your ‘workstation’ any more. Get used to the idea of the ‘digital workplace’. Over the years our business environment has become entirely digital. Goodbye to desk diaries, phone directories, Who’sWho booklets, business cards, you name it. The last bits of paper that were cluttering up our desks have vanished. Even the good old family photo that used to sit in a frame on your desk has now become your screen wallpaper. Along the way we have seen the arrival of virtualisation and then the Cloud. Using portals and shared work spaces, company employees can nowadays access apps and useful information from one and the same interface. They can work where and when they want – at home, in an airport or at a hotel, at a fixed workstation, on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
DIGITAL WORKFLOW moving to the cloud
This ‘cloudification’ of our way of working means that the promise that IT and telecoms would converge is finally being kept. Telephony over IP, web-conferencing, shared calendar, company social networks, online file storage: staff have a whole range of communication and collaboration channels they can use to synchronise with their colleagues, interact with them, co-edit a document. “The digital workplace can now be accessed from an ordinary web interface, so you’re no longer reliant on specific hardware. This makes it easier to deploy and simpler to work with,” points out Eric Leblanc, Vice President, Benelux, France & French Speaking African Countries at software-based enterprise unified communications company Unify, a subsidiary of the Atos Group (formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications).
Microsoft or Slack: who will win the battle of the workplace?
A boom in chatops
By adding audio, video and ‘collaborative’ communication elements to the trio of messaging + word processing + spreadsheet, collaborative suites in the Cloud such as Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google’s G Suite provide all the tools needed to communicate and collaborate, either at the office or ‘on the go’. And they are claiming the title ‘digital workplace’. These tech giants have put down strong roots in the workplace, but they are nevertheless now being challenged by a new generation of solutions known as ChatOps. These real-time collaborative tools, with names like Slack, HipChat, Glip and talkSpirit, are carrying forward the ‘chat’ approach into the business environment for the use of operations staff. Members of the same project team co-ordinate in live mode, exchanging documents on the fly using simple drag and drop. San Francisco-based Slack, the ChatOps leader with its five million daily active users worldwide, has set out to be more than just a business chat app. The Californian unicorn has developed hundreds of connectors to integrate third-party apps and allow all company flows to converge into its interface, which it intends to be ‘universal’, enabling actions such as uploading a file from a Customer Relationship Manager app. Slack also enables users to call on bots in the course of the conversation to automate some processes such as planning a meeting, co-ordinating colleagues’ diaries, launching a poll or sharing a list of tasks.
Email the ‘cockroach of the Internet’?
Slack incorporates functionality that companies need when they are working in project mode – communication, marketing, HR, and so on – but the tool was originally designed by geeks for geeks, i.e. coders and startup entrepreneurs. With emoticons, animated GIFs, stickers, hashtags, slash commands, etc., Slack’s interface uses all the codes of the tech culture, which might be rather off-putting for ordinary folk. At the same time, Slack rather resembles those social networks so beloved of the general public – Facebook and Twitter – thus creating overlaps between business and private usage. However, this communication in synchronised mode tens to create a feeling of permanent urgency, which might increase the mental load and the overall stress. Unlike email – which you can always opt to answer at a later point in time – Slack functionality engenders a culture of immediacy. The company’s Canadian founder Stewart Butterfield has made no secret of the fact that he would like to do away with email, which he describes as “the cockroach of the Internet”, by which he implies that it’s both a nuisance and hard to get rid of!
COMPANY employees are between 20 and 35 YEARS OLD
This is understandable. Slack et al are talking to the Millennial generation, who in their private lives have already swapped dad’s email box for instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Messenger and Telegram. However, this generation divide is sure to narrow over time. According to a paper published by French multinational telecoms corporation Orange, 20-35 year-olds already account for 35% of the total workforce and will be up to 75% by 2025. So Generation Y will soon be holding the reins, occupying an estimated half of all decision-making posts in 2020.Meanwhile Slack’s success has provoked a reaction from the tech giants. Microsoft, which at one time was thinking of making a bid for Slack, has just launched Teams as a direct competitor. Facebook has brought out the appropriately-named Workplace, a company social network with a Facebook feel to it.
CHATBOT to attract and interact with talented JOB-SEEKERS
15 years on, chatbots can do what in-company wikis were supposed to
Innovation Consultant at SQLI
Cyril Harpoutlian, an Associate Director at Daveo, sees in this new type of channel a means of attracting and retaining young talented people, pointing out: “Staff want the same level of interaction with their employer as they have with Amazon or Siri.” He has been inspired by the ‘one click’ concept popularised by the e-commerce giant to make all operations as simple as possible. Daveo is now planning to move on from HR to address all company processes, starting with the expenses approval circuit. But with the recent advances in artificial intelligence, chatbots will not be restricted to automating easily-modelled procedures. “Chatbots also allow access to company data,” underlines Benjamin Thomas, innovation consultant at French business digital transformation firm SQLI. “A salesperson will ask for the sales figures for the month of October. As a next step, the chatbot will then be able to give him/her the reason why sales were lower on a given day.” And in the digital workplace, these smart agents will also be able to keep the promises made for wikis ten or fifteen years ago. He argues: “Wikis were supposed to gather together all the company’s knowledge, except that nobody could be bothered to add to the knowledge base.” However, this is precisely what Slack chat assistant Niles does automatically. Niles ‘listens’ to employees’ conversations and stores the answers to given questions, so that he has the answer ready the next time the question is asked.
how will companies communicate n the future?
'Augmented’ employee or slave to the machine?
VIRTUal ASSISTANTS will HAVE TAKEN OVER CERTAIN tasks
In a recent report Gartner predicts that within the next two to five years virtual assistants will be supporting staff throughout the day, taking some tasks off their hands. The virtual assistants will feed employees relevant information, plus forecasts and recommendations depending on the employee’s position and current tasks at any given moment. This is already happening in the Finance sector. French bank Crédit Mutuel is using IBM’s Watson to assist its 20,000 Customer Advisors with writing their emails and their recommendations on banking products. Gartner uses the expression ‘augmented employee’ but at the same time acknowledges that these predictive algorithms do raise issues of ethics and own judgement. In a worst case, one might envisage an employee being virtually enslaved by a machine, being assigned priority tasks to accomplish throughout the day. Artificial intelligence would then be used to assess the quality of his/her work and productivity levels.
BLOCKCHAIN PROVIDING A BREATHER
Fortunately, there is now the blockchain to give us all a bit of a breather from the digital intensity. This technology can be used to help establish trust between colleagues in a company. SQLI’s office in Nantes, western France, has been trying this out for the last two years. “Once a month we use the platform to assess staff satisfaction,” explains Technical Director Damien Lecan. “Are our staff happy with their situation, and their objectives? It’s a traditional questionnaire but it’s backed up by a blockchain, which ensures that the results can’t be doctored, unlike a centralised system. So all staff know that their opinions are actually being taken into account.” And, going forward, the trial could be expanded to staff consultation and participative decision-making as well.