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Next in Tech | Episode 44: The Big Picture, Part 1 – The future of work

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Listen: Next in Tech | Episode 44: The Big Picture, Part 1 – The future of work

The pandemic laid bare problems with the set of assumptions organizations have been making about work. Few have thought strategically about how work gets done. The future of work is one of topics in the recently released Big Picture reports and research director Chris Marsh returns with host Eric Hanselman to discuss better ways to approach work and employee engagement. Technology alone won’t fix it. Check out the report: https://spglobal.com/BigPicture

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Eric Hanselman

Welcome to Next in Tech, an S&P Global Market Intelligence podcast where the world of emerging tech lives.

I'm your host, Eric Hanselman, Principal Research Analyst for the 451 Research arm of S&P Global Market Intelligence. And today, we'll be discussing The Big Picture reports that we just recently published, and specifically looking at the future of work with the author of that section of the report, Chris Marsh.

Chris, welcome back to the podcast.

Chris Marsh

Yes. Thanks for having me again.

Eric Hanselman

Well, I wanted to lead off with the future of work because The Big Picture reports -- for those of our listeners who haven't seen them yet, they are available on the S&P website. There are all sorts of interesting data that's in there. And it's really far reaching.

What we've done is actually pulled together everything from the technology aspects that 451 typically deals with, metals and mining perspectives, TMT, the financials and insurance group. Really, this is this whole collection of all sorts of different perspectives all brought together.

But I wanted to lead off with work because this really is fundamental to how we live our lives, how things get done in the world at large and are critical and foundational elements to all of the other things that we happen to have covered. And it's also something that we think about one of the things that has been really at the forefront of everybody's thoughts throughout the pandemic, that this is really what is that key aspect and something that I think organizations have started to get something of a handle on.

But I think one of the things we've seen is that there's a lot further that needs to be gone in terms of capabilities and particularly in the way in which I think organizations are thinking about it. We've had this really urgent expectation about what needs to happen, the shift to remote work and a lot of the pieces that were tied to it.

A lot of those were focusing on the technology issues, and that urgency really sort of push that focus on technology in addressing what were these new relatively unknown models of work. But there are different pieces of that, that organization should be considering. What are the issues with that approach?

Chris Marsh

Yes. It was a really sort of interesting response, I think, that we saw organizations take when the first lockdowns happened and then subsequently through the following months. I think one of the main problems with what organizations did, to your point, was maybe thinking too much about the technology itself because I think certainly in terms of main impacts on the workforce and employees' productivity and their engagement, most of those impacts were actually cultural.

They weren't actually technological, certainly in terms of the pain points and the frustrations that employees were feeling as this shift happened to sort of remote and is it now -- as we now see this consensus around sort of hybrid models being taken on board by companies. And I think really what we saw happen was many of the often unstated assumptions companies had around how work actually happened be eroded by that shift. And it kind of exposed how little strategic thoughts that companies historically really gave to how work actually happened, how it was organized, how it was designed, how it was executed beyond having a set of business goals, a baseline set of technologies and then just expecting things like alignment and focus and engagement and even productivity to just kind of happen.

And I think it became pretty clear that a much more careful and considered thought needed to be given. And in fact, that was always the case, but I think we had this particular impetus to do that more considered thinking because of the pandemic because of the shift to remote and other, indeed, business changes that had happened, which impacted how employees needed to operate.

Eric Hanselman

This is a fascinating idea, which is that businesses have always expected that they just know how to get work done. And in an office setting, it was really easy to not really think about what those patterns of work are, as you're saying.

And to your point, this was something where much like the way we've sort of expected technology just works, to an even greater degree, we've expected that work just works and without really thinking about models of work, how it's actually getting done and the reach of each of those pieces. But you were saying you had examples of this.

Chris Marsh

Yes. I mean I think that's right. I mean I think we're all accustomed and have been for many years now to the idea of a customer experience and for the importance of companies increasingly to organize and unify around delivering the customer experience. We've not had the same amount of emphasis on the employee experience.

And one of the things we've found from our research, and we do within my team a significant amount of primary research, survey work amongst employees, amongst technology decision-makers when it comes to workforce technologies and business leaders looking into these different dynamics and certainly amongst our employee research, we find that engagement is a much bigger driver of productivity than productivity is necessarily of engagement.

And if you actually think about it, that's not surprising, that the happier you are, the more engaged you are in your company, getting your work done, then your productivity is going to be better than if you feel disaffected in some way, you're not enjoying your work, you don't enjoy collaborating with others, et cetera, et cetera.

Yet the typical focus in technology choices hasn't really been, okay, we're provisioning a sort of ecosystem of different tools and technologies to our employees, what's the optimal way that we can drive their engagement, right? That's not typically the set of considerations that is primary in technology choices. It's much more features and function. So it's where are we going to get the best governance capabilities, where we're going to get the most collaboration features, how we're going to get the workflow orchestration capabilities that we need.

And of course, those decisions are being made across all types with the hope that selecting sort of "best-of-breed tools means a best-of-breed experience," which obviously it doesn't and certainly not where, as is the case of most employees, they're having to use a whole landscape of different tools week to week, which adds extra complexity, of course, in trying to understand what experience you need to create across that ecosystem of different technologies.

I would say, a more specific example that I think probably most of us can relate to when lockdowns first happened last year, of course, we saw knowledge workers pile even more into their conferencing tools, collaboration solutions when we had through our employee survey work year-on-year data prior to the pandemic saying that pretty much the biggest obstacle to personal productivity is too many meetings, not enough time to focus solo on your work. And then -- so that was the before picture.

Then we've had the after picture. Saw some recent employee data, which shows that the single most mentioned challenge that's been made worse by the pandemic is distractions. So this was all very predictable. And I think it's illustrative of, again, the lack of strategic thought, the lack of really careful thoughts by companies into how best to drive employees' engagement around their work and their productivity as well.

And I think the jury is a little bit out, going back to your earlier comment, Eric, on whether companies actually understand this yet and whether they have the wherewithal to actually make the necessary changes. We do see some evidence of it.

So 70%, so 7-0 percent of technology decision-makers in our technology decision-maker surveys say the pandemic has changed their long-term workforce technology strategies. We also see improving the workforce experience rise as a transformation priority. But on the other hand, there's only really emerging evidence, I would say, of the best practices around how to bridge specific technologies with business goals with a more specific and considered sense of an operational culture.

And part of the reason is that -- for that is fairly straightforward. That needs to be a multidisciplinary effort, and things like that don't come easy certainly in larger enterprises. So yes, a lot of thought needs to go into what we call the work execution culture piece of this.

Eric Hanselman

I mean we can serve these kinds of transitions with technology relatively easily. Here is this new piece of technology that will help. But as you're saying, that much more fundamental rethinking of really what is work all about, what do we really need to do to manage it, kind of for us, for your team was on the podcast a few episodes ago and kind of was talking about work execution culture and ideas about really rethinking some of those approaches to getting work done.

I mean how should organizations be thinking about new work models and ways to approach them?

Chris Marsh

Yes. I mean in a broad sense, we position the work execution culture, as we call it, as 1 of the 4 pillars of how we describe the employee experience, right? So the other 3 pillars being sort of compensation and benefits on the one hand, company values and mission statement on the other hand, so the degree to which as an employee, you feel aligned with what your company is trying to do with the values it represents.

And then the third other pillar is career progression, right, the opportunities you have to progress your career to take advantage of opportunities. So by work execution culture, which is that fourth pillar, we really mean the work policies, the practices and the technologies that come together to define how employees get their work done day to day, month to month.

It's perhaps, I think, historically, the most underappreciated component of the employee experience. But I think if the experience of the past 18 months has shown anything, it's that it's much more important than maybe it's been given credit for, and it's becoming indeed one of the most important ways to think about the employee experience.

And this is another pandemic impact, I would say. We're beginning to see new kinds of collaboration between HR and IT and operations teams to define that execution culture in a way that isn't just technology features, isn't just company values, isn't just HR-centric like time-off policies, right, to give more thought to how you can bring the human, the business and the technology into a singular context, right, so a renewed sense of the employee experience.

And I think an important part of the reason for why more companies are beginning to realize they have to go down this route is that they know that the work execution culture, so again, that experience an employee has as they start their day, as they go through their week, it impacts our engagement, and that impacts a whole spectrum of business outcome.

So we're not just talking about productivity here. We're talking about talent retention. We're talking about operational agility. We're talking about business resilience.

So all of these things are essentially impacted and starts that experience that the employee has in just doing their work. So to drill down on -- into that a little bit more and just to give like a couple of examples of where we think companies need to give some focus, right, collaboration is obviously a very big area.

And I think many of the learnings that are coming out of the pandemic are around this idea that there are, in fact, many ways to collaborate, right? You don't always have to speak to someone directly through a conferencing tool or through your phone.

You don't have to message someone either necessarily through synchronously or asynchronously through a messaging platform. Really, synchronous voice and video and asynchronous messaging are pretty basic as tools of collaboration. And in fact, we have some data to testify to that in employee engagement survey, which came out of the field recently actually. So this is really sort of new data.

Only 28%, so only just over 1/4 of employees say that they feel their different work tools make them feel more connected to their colleagues, right? So we provision them with the conferencing tools, the collaboration platforms, different social solutions, but still only 1/4 say that these technologies actually make me feel as I'm connected to my colleagues in a way that's going to help me be productive.

So rather than fitting all employees into these sort of basic modes of connection, I think there is beginning definitely -- and we see this on the supply side when we look at different types of technology, there is beginning to be more appreciation of the different ways, the different contexts and the different impacts that people may be choosing when they want to collaborate.

So just as an example, you can collaborate through tools whereby you're asynchronously aligning with someone. So think about work management tools, for example. You can see, you can change the details of a project without directly synchronously or asynchronously contacting anyone at all. It's reflected in the system.

We're also seeing things like asynchronous video come into play. So instead of sending e-mail or a message, increasingly, we're seeing in technology, the ability to send a video of yourself. So maybe if you're a manager of a team and you think it's the most sort of engaging way to interact with your team, to give guidance, you can send a video to them.

And that's especially powerful, I think, where that's embedded and being delivered in the context of the work that it's referring to. And Raul Castanon on my team, who's another analyst in my team, talks at length about there's another form of embedded communications within structured processes. So I think that's also going to be an important part of how we see culture change on the work execution side.

And then also, we've actually seen a really interesting bump with the shift to remote and hybrid of usage amongst different types of sort of digital whiteboarding solution whereby you can do more than just speak to someone and screen share. You can collaborate with different widgets and capabilities in a kind of digital canvas, which can be more inclusive, allowing people to contribute. If they're not necessarily the type to want to raise their hand and say something, they can nevertheless, contribute to the discussion that's being had around this digital canvas. And I think we're finding lots of use cases where people find it a more engaged kind of experience.

So collaboration in and around, I think, is changing to reflect the need to focus more on engaging experiences, allowing people to choose their own personal method of best collaborating and also to do that in a way which sort of gets the job done. I would say, one -- a second big area beyond collaboration, which I think is really interesting, is workforce analytics. And this is part of a sort of general shift towards more data-driven decision-making.

But we've also seen, unsurprisingly, over the past sort of months, managers and HR leaders and operations professionals really scramble to identify trends in people and productivity, trying to find those insights on how the workforce is operating. And there's just a whole big growing interest, I would say, around different kinds of workforce analytics.

And I think in our view, it's going to become an increasingly important part of the technology stack within organizations as they look to bring together the tech and the people together. So looking for signals from different tools that your employees are using and focusing that -- not just on productivity, right, how can we use these different technologies in the most optimal way, but also sort of correlating that with like talent retention and agility so that you can really understand in a data-driven way, the best way that your teams can operate and feel engaged.

So just 2 examples, I guess, different ways of collaboration, the increased interest in workforce analytics as practical ways that I think that culture will begin to shift.

Eric Hanselman

Well, you mentioned retention. And clearly, there are some pieces that technology has to play. What you've identified, I think, is interesting in the fact that technology gives us a whole set of new potential avenues that can aid new models of work.

But you've also got some interesting data around employee concerns, about tools and their preferences and how that relates to retention. What is that? And how should organizations proceed?

Chris Marsh

Yes. So I guess this is resting on similar kind of themes. I wonder how much business leaders, technology leaders know that around 1/3 of employees say they would seriously consider a new job in another organization if the only thing that was different was the better availability of good technologies, right, productivity tools, other applications, devices.

So compensation was the same, level of job seniority was the same, career progression opportunities were the same. If the only thing that was different was essentially there's going to be a better set of technologies and work practices there, 1/3 of employees say they would seriously consider leaving and taking that new job. So that, in my mind, is pretty significant.

Eric Hanselman

But that is wild. It is...

Chris Marsh

Yes, it's huge. And that certainly wasn't a thing until fairly recently, right? I mean I always say this, I know Conner said this in the past because we're slightly different generations. I would never have asked those questions the last time I was interviewing for a job. When he interviewed with me, he did ask that question.

So partly, this is a generational thing, but it just reflects a growing feeling that people want a productive day today. They don't want all of the frustration. They don't want to be struggling with legacy technologies.

And that's not just a productivity thing, that's an engagement thing. And so that deserves serious consideration. So that kind of goes back to the earlier point that there really needs to be more strategic thinking about this because this isn't just about the sort of margins of productivity. This impacts a whole host of different things.

And it needs to have some kind of executive sponsorship, I would say. I would say it needs, if it hasn't already, to be prioritized as a transformation effort. I mentioned earlier that we're seeing in a growing number of companies -- and actually this is pre-pandemic, this be prioritized.

So some have already taken this on as a transformation effort, improving the workforce experience for a number of years now. But if it isn't, I think it needs to be. And I think it also needs a more multidisciplinary approach, right?

So we talked earlier about this not just being a sort of HR on the value side, IT on the technology side. These pieces need to come together, right? The human, the business, the technology needs to be considered as one singular context. Historically, that's not happened, maybe other than for a very few organizations.

Eric Hanselman

Well -- and when you think about what those implications are, I mean, this is really workplace technology doing some value signaling about culture. You were mentioning that this is something that if you've got job seekers that are doing that check on, all right, what is my work environment going to look like from a technology perspective, there's an expectation there that that's really doing some signaling about what the culture of the organization is.

Chris Marsh

Yes, absolutely. In fact, we have some other data actually which sort of triangulates with this idea. We often ask in our employee surveys questions around the degree to which the company the respondent in the survey is working for is sort of technologically progressive.

So are they typically early adopters of technology? Or are they typically sort of at the other end of the spectrum, always late to the game, very conservative, wait and see?

And there is, again, I think maybe unsurprising, but a startling set of correlations between those that work for companies that are perceived to be sort of early adopters, trying new technologies with those individuals who feel as though they have more autonomy around their work. We know autonomy helps drive engagement as contrasted to those employees who feel as though their company is always a little bit late to the game.

They tend to have more reliance on legacy kind of tooling. And those employees, you can see attitudinally, are overall less positive about their company's fortunes. So you can see it attitudinally as well.

So yes, I mean, this is pretty important for anyone involved in setting policies for how the workforce operates or anyone responsible for employee engagement strategies, employee experience strategies. This is super important context that needs to be borne in mind.

Eric Hanselman

As you were leading with, this really winds up being a discussion that we haven't had to have because work was able to take place in a relatively constrained setting. And now suddenly, that bright light has been shown on it.

Well, wow, Chris, all sorts of great perspectives here. We could dig into a whole range of different aspects on this, but we are at time for today.

Thank you very much for all of this, and I will focus our readers or our listeners, hopefully, readers of The Big Picture report. But thank you for being back on the podcast.

Chris Marsh

Yes. Pleasure. Thanks for having me back again. Enjoyed it.

Eric Hanselman

Well, as I said, there's a lot more. So I think post report, we need to actually follow up and really look at some of the details and some of the implications that are here, A, because this really, as I was saying at the top of the episode, this is something that is so fundamental to the way we live a good percentage of our lives.

So -- well, thank you very much, and thank you to our audience for hanging in there with us. I once again will point you towards The Big Picture report, and we will be back next week. I hope you will join us then for part 2 of The Big Picture report where we'll be talking about merger and acquisition perspective, security pieces with [ Dean Alderson ] and Scott Crawford. So I hope you'll join us then because there is always something Next in Tech.


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