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Digital Workplace Has Become More Important Than Ever In World Hit By COVID-19

The digital workplace is an interesting problem to address. The priority areas and technologies will vary based on industry and the enterprise. But the bottom-line is that without using digital, the workplace of the future has no hope.

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This isn't a million-dollar question. It is a billion-dollar question: How much will businesses invest in work from home (WFH) technology? Gartner says that global IT spending related to WFH will total $332.9 billion in 2021, showing an increase of 4.9% from 2020.  The bigger question, to which everyone wants an early answer, is: Will remote work outlast the pandemic? Popular opinion holds that WFH will only become bigger, better, shinier. But a McKinsey & Company study says that "the potential for remote work is highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations, and geographies." Clearly, not all of us will have the luxury of working in pajamas from our kitchens and dining rooms.

Regardless of when the pandemic is pushed back, the conclusion offered by the McKinsey study will remain valid for years to come. What this means is straightforward. Enterprises should not fall back on their plans of building out a digital workplace of the future.

Employees will return to offices, sooner or later, because working under one roof has many unquestionable advantages. Besides, far too many job descriptions don't lend themselves to remote work. However, common sense says that a fluid, hybrid model will steadily take root where employees divide their time between WFH and office. Which only validates our earlier conclusion that enterprises must press forward with creating digital workplaces.

A variety of forecasts have been made for technology investments in the digital workplace of the future. Some market studies have placed the figure at $72.2 billion by 2026. This appears unremarkable and meager when compared to the $332.9 billion forecast for WFH technology. However, as the hybrid model gains traction-which it inevitably will-a rebalance will take place between spends on WFH and the digital workplace. Budgets created for WFH will steadily trickle into the digital workplace bucket.

Addressing the present while building for the future

This creates a conflict for CTOs and CIOs mandated with developing technology and investment strategies aimed at improving the productivity and experience of remote employees. IT heads will immediately see the danger in this. Going too fast on keeping pace with WFH trends could suck up investments -- for example in advanced PLM products for industries such as fashion and footwear -- that could have been funneled into creating the digital workplace of the future. The battle is between solving the present crisis without getting distracted from long-term goals.

Workplace modernization begins on a foundation of digital dexterity. A workplace should be frictionless, responsive, and adaptable to many modes and styles of working. The digital workplace technology stack should augment knowledge discovery, enable real-time collaboration, enhance user experience, and build smart workplace security. Fortunately, many of these technologies, processes and systems can be replicated for WFH environments. But the larger truth is that the traditional workplace - the one with conference rooms, coffee machines and the front desk-has to become more intuitive. It must include technologies such as ambient computing, IoT, analytics and image recognition, the ability to quickly repurpose space and assets based on needs and provide access to intelligent co-worker bots that unlock the full potential of human capabilities.

Placing bets on workplace digitization
My forecast is that workplaces will shrink. For most enterprises, 20 to 25 percent of full-time employees will work in a permanent remote and distributed mode; another 15 percent work that requires top quality niche capabilities, complex problem-solving skills, prototyping, etc., will be crowdsourced; which leaves about 60 percent of the workforce in hybrid mode. This 60 percent will divide their 40 hours a week between office and their chosen locations, perhaps in a 3:2 proportion.

You may not agree with my guestimates. Use your own thinking/research to replace them. But the conclusion you and I will reach will be the same: The workplace will shrink but not vanish. It will call for a complete rethink of how an office is modelled and the technologies it uses to make people more productive and efficient.

What are the top three bets that CTOs and CIOs will take to modernize their traditional workplace? I will take a stab at the answer:

1.    Exceptional collaboration/ enhance productivity: Collaboration helps solve problems faster, accelerates the development of new ideas, transfers knowledge, draws people closer to each other, binds communities and establishes a sense of purpose. With increasing isolation, the focus on collaboration is essential. I can think of ideas such as Intelligent Proximity developed by Cisco to automatically pair devices using ultrasound with in-range Webex rooms. This allows users to seamlessly join calls from their devices, share content, make presentations, etc. Another example is the use of a mobile app that stitches together a contextual, immersive and unified experience for employees, creating a digitally enhanced workspace across locations. Such an app would allow employees to enroll for learning programs, keep them updated about company events, manage leave, reimbursements, greet colleagues, share knowledge and deliver a superlative customer experience. Think of the app as a social platform for an enterprise that uses data and analytics to understand usage patterns and constantly customizes the output.

2.    Free up real estate/ enable cost savings: One study shows that 34% of space blocked for meetings goes unused. Technology that can help identify ghost meetings and eliminate them - using check-ins and people-counting in real time -- could save millions of dollars in real estate. One study showed that offices in the US, with only 3,000 employees, were over-paying between $4 million to $8 million per year in unused space. This is a criminal waste and can be addressed using digital workplace technology.

3.    Workplace co-bots/ improve employee experience and efficiency: A digital workforce - or intelligent co-bots -- is an intrinsic part of digital transformation. The co-bots that must be put in place are of two types. The first are roles-based. These work with employees to enhance their potential. These bots are persona-driven. For example, in a technology company, they could assist application testers do their jobs better by leveraging a knowledge repository, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. The second type of bot provides support functions such as applying for leave or helping complete medical reimbursement forms. In both instances, the goal is to improve employee experience and efficiency. There are instances in which co-bots have resulted in a 500% improvement in productivity. The good part is that such bots are scalable without linear cost and can be extended to remote employees as well. But here is the icing on the cake: Industry 4.0 technologies are what the next generation of employees expect. Using them in the workplace will help recruit and retain future talent.

The digital workplace is an interesting problem to address. The priority areas and technologies will vary based on industry and the enterprise. But the bottom-line is that without using digital, the workplace of the future has no hope.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Pradeep Kar

The author is Microland's Founder, Chairman and Managing Director, setting the foundation for excellence as Microland guides enterprises in adopting nextGen technologies to achieve the highest possible levels of reliability, stability, and predictability.

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