BT’s customer experience futurologist Dr Nicola Millard discusses with Kimberley Dondo how technology will shape the future of work and collaboration

Dr Nicola Millard

Dr Nicola Millard

In the past ten years technology has transformed the way we work and the rate of change is only going to get faster.

Employees no longer need to be in the office to complete day-to-day tasks, while innovations such as Skype and network infrastructures have changed how people communicate.

“Giving people choices as to when and how they work is incredibly valuable,” says Dr Millard. “There is the option of working from home or using co-working hubs that mean you don’t have to make the two-hour commute every day.”

Allowing people these flexibilities can have many benefits for an organisation, from increasing diversity to helping employees manage stress. It is particularly critical for retaining staff who may be sandwiched between caring for children and elderly relatives.

However, questions remain about how to foster collaboration without having staff in the same office. Of course, building strong partnerships is as much about structure as it is about processes. This includes making sure that employees understand what their role is and the organisation’s aims.

However, this will not by itself lead to collaborative success. Millard explains: “It doesn’t happen by magic. That comes from a leadership challenge and you need underlying technologies to create a common ground. The two things that are vital for this are that it has to accessible to everybody and it has to be appropriate to the task.”

A helpful space for collaboration could take many forms. One method is to set days when every team member has to be in the office for meetings, although this diminishes some flexibility. Another solution is a digital space designed to promote teamwork.

However, companies must think carefully about how this can work. As Millard explains: “One generation may be digital natives whereas the others need to learn different processes. So it is about merging different systems of working.”

Promoting teamwork when staff are working remotely is not the only problem. Many employees struggle with being contactable 24/7. It’s no longer the case that working hours are clearly defined, which leads to a danger that staff cannot disconnect. Dr Millard reveals that one in three workers suffers from ‘techno-stress’, caused by the inability to switch off.

Email is one of the biggest culprits since the rise of smartphones means that most of us get a notification every time a client or our boss sends an email. Millard argues that this issue stems in part from an unconscious pressure we put on ourselves to always appear as if we are working even when we aren’t.

She explains: “There is an issue of presenteeism in the office but there is also presenteeism digitally.”

Dr Millard advises putting in place some guidelines around when it’s appropriate to use email and when it’s not. If your boss sends you an email at 2am it is their prerogative to do so but it isn’t necessary for you to reply.”

Guidelines should be clearly explained to employees as part of the company’s policies. It’s also critical to get senior management buy-in, as many junior staff will struggle to ignore emails from senior team members unless it’s made clear that they will not be judged for doing so.