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Implementing a smart workplace for the future

The ECCT hosted a Special Lunch on the topic "Leaps and hurdles in implementing a smart workplace for the future" with guest speaker John Winter, General Manager of Robert Walters Taiwan. In his presentation the speaker gave a summary of the main findings of a white paper published in August by Robert Walters titled “A smart workplace for the workforce of the future – What companies can do to bridge the gap between employer and employee”. The paper was based on a survey conducted by the firm which gathered the views of 1,650 HR professionals, hiring managers and candidates working in companies across the greater China region.

While the concept of flexible or agile working has been around since the 1970s, a much larger implementation has been made possible by the rising ubiquity of technologies such as mobile devices, company-wide messenger systems, virtual private network (VPN) access, virtual meeting applications and mobile apps. These technologies have enabled companies and employees to improve their communication, collaboration and connections with one another as well as enabled employees to work in teams in different locations, across time zones. In the survey, the top reason cited for companies to transform their workplaces digitally is in order to improve workflow and overall staff productivity (cited by 72% of respondents). The next most cited reason was in order to strengthen collaboration between staff and improve communications (cited by 58% of respondents), followed by “digital transformation is a global trend” (cited by 54% of respondents).

While the majority of professionals surveyed (85%) answered that productivity is enhanced by the digital experience, 80% would feel motivated to work in a tech-savvy company and 78% agreed that the digital workplace can potentially overcome organisational silos, many also cited the downsides of digitalisation. In particular, 42% answered that their work-life balance may be disrupted while some employees (22%) fear that technologies will replace some jobs and some (11%) feel that they may struggle to learn and apply new technologies.

Flexible policies are being adopted by many companies in the greater China region. In Taiwan, 55% of companies surveyed have adopted flexitime while 18% allow working from home or remotely. However, 39% of companies in Taiwan have no flexible working arrangements.

If applied effectively, workplace flexibility can generate high satisfaction and employees are more likely to be focused, dedicated and productive. According to the survey, 83% of employees agreed that flexible working would give them higher motivation, 80% agreed it would improve their work-life balance, 70% agreed it make them more focused and productive and 69% said it would improve the quality of their work.

However, there are some barriers to implementing workplace flexibility. For employers, the top concern (cited by 60% of employers) is that employees may abuse the policy while over 40% expressed concerns about the difficulty of supervising employees and measuring their performance and productivity. According to Winter, there is a real concern that flexible working arrangements put a lot of pressure on middle managers to properly manage and evaluate employees.

The top concern cited by employees is that there would be fewer opportunities to communicate with colleagues (cited by 35% of employees), that it may create inequality (30%) or encroach on their personal lives (27%).

Flexible working arrangements are important to support diversity, especially for expectant mothers and parents with young children. According to the survey, 87% of respondents with family and childcare responsibilities prefer the option of working at home. However, only one third of them currently get it. By allowing flexible working, employers also expand the size of their potential talent pools.

Another potential benefit of flexible working for companies is cost savings from not having to buy/rent and operate enough office space for every employee.

Winter went on to talk about new workspace designs aimed at meeting the various needs and desires of employees to improve comfort, facilitate collaboration and increase productivity. This is an often-overlooked factor in attracting and retaining talent. According to the survey, 55% of employees would consider a job with lower pay if it allows them to work in the kind of workplace they desire.

While the advantages of flexible working appear to outweigh the disadvantages, several prominent companies, such IBM and Yahoo, which experimented with flexible working early on, have since reversed the policy because it did not produce the expected rise in efficiency. The paper cites a general manager from a software company in Taiwan who said that putting in place flexible working arrangements for developers in his company did not work well because much more time was spent on communications than when team members were in close physical proximity, which he said makes for more efficient collaborative working. This served as a useful case to illustrate an important conclusion made by Winter that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for flexible working. The type of job in question, the age of employees and multiple other factors have to be taken into consideration to find the right balance that works for any given company.