READ the June 2021 issue of our magazine: COVID-19 Rages On: Are You Ready?
When a workplace sees accelerated digitalization, two things will happen: the culture will assimilate the technology and influence how it is used, and the technology will shape certain elements of the culture. People Matters asked Lekha George, Head of People and Communities for ASEAN and Korea at Cisco, to share some thoughts about how this works out and how leaders can take advantage of it.
The last year and a half has seen a proliferation of technological tools in the workplace. Compared to before the pandemic, how much of a role are you seeing these tools play in the approach to talent management?
When the pandemic struck, businesses were forced to shift almost overnight to a remote working environment. The unprecedented scale of this shift raised questions around how to ensure that employees are productive, engaged, and motivated. Remember, the environment around us was quite uncertain and there was fear on a personal level for many people. Businesses had to find ways to really reach out, to engage employees, and to provide a sense of psychological safety, and technology was a huge enabler in that.
So, collaboration tools became really critical in making sure that we stayed connected and that employees felt there was interaction from the company and the leaders. Our own WebEx platform became a huge way for us to enhance that human interaction and make sure that we stayed connected.
Features that were once a nice-to-have, such as backgrounds and noise reduction technology, became so important because everybody was working from home—you had kids running around, you had dogs and cats.
How is the increased use of technology playing out in various aspects of the workplace? Where are some of the benefits and challenges?
The greatest benefit of technology is to empower us by enabling connections and bringing us together, and businesses should ensure that it is made available to all employees for that purpose. But at the same time, businesses need to also be very mindful that even through the adoption of tools and systems, we remain anchored in business goals and priorities. So we have to be very clear about what we really need to achieve and what are our ultimate long-term goals and priorities, and only then should we move forward on technology and tools.
There is also a challenge around making sure that workplaces are secure. Because as we move into a seamless digital world, there is also a jump in cyber threats. Our Future of Secure Remote Work report found that 69 percent of the organizations in Asia Pacific actually experienced a 25 percent or more jump in cyber threats. And in our 2020 Consumer Privacy Survey, 60 percent of people expressed concern about whether the tools they use are protecting their data. And so with the increasing adoption of tools, businesses are now realizing that cybersecurity is one of the top priorities. But the good news is that 70 percent of organizations have increased their investment in cybersecurity.
From a more human angle, the aspect of isolation is another challenge. Gone are the days when we could have water cooler chats and casual conversations in the workplace. Business and HR leaders need to think about that sense of isolation and how to increase the engagement, how to make sure that human connection still stays and is rooted within the workplace culture.
How do you see culture and technology shaping each other in today's workplace?
I think workplace culture is really the foundation on which any kind of innovation or strategic direction evolves. These have to be connected and completely aligned with the culture in the workplace. When we move into a digitalized environment, the culture needs to remain strong. The trust with the employees needs to remain intact. And that happens when all the actions a company takes are aligned with its workplace culture.
So the question is how to foster innovation and work with digitalisation, while making sure that there is openness and authenticity. Leaders must be role models in the actions that they take, so that trust continues to stay and grow.
As business leaders and HR leaders, we have to understand that hybrid working arrangements are here to stay in some shape and form. And in a hybrid workplace, employees will be working in different ways, from different locations, and those will be driven by personal choices and personal needs—employees might have caregiving needs, or might be young parents.
Technology needs to enable and drive that flexibility for employees. Companies still need to adopt collaboration tools and use those as mechanisms for forming connections. And that's going to also lead to more inclusivity.
But the other side of culture and technology being so interconnected is that people can very easily become always-on, working non-stop and moving from meeting to meeting. So we need to recognize that at a company level, and put in place ways to ensure that that does not happen, that people switch off. People should have time that they can use for breaks, and leaders should also model those behaviors to ensure that that kind of opportunity is possible for employees.
In other words, technology definitely drives workplace culture, but it's also the other way around, where the culture and the company's thought leadership will shape the way technology is used.
You've spoken in the past about Cisco's Conscious Culture. Could you share an example of how Cisco's workplace culture influences the use of technology?
For us at Cisco, Conscious Culture is a culture where everybody is treated in an inclusive manner, where there is respect, there is trust fostered, there is fairness. There is care, empathy, listening, well-being.
And at a time like this, when we are surrounded by technology and digitalization is accelerating, our Conscious Culture has naturally driven us to remain connected with our teams through our various platforms. Leaders and employees check in with each other on priorities for the week. We also have virtual health check meetings, because we recognize the danger of isolation and how people might feel the lack of human connection—no work agenda, just to check in on how employees are feeling. And we also employ listening tools to measure the pulse of engagement. We have employee and leader check-ins, where employees can express their feedback, their voices, and their concerns around anything that they're thinking and feeling. Using all these different mechanisms virtually, despite a digital environment, helps us foster that trust and collaboration among teams.
Where else do you think the accelerated digitalization and reliance on technology might bring workplace culture in the future?
In our approach to the future of work and hybrid work, we need to consider what guiding principles we need to have from an employee perspective and from a business perspective. Some aspects that we really need to look at would include how to ensure that collaboration happens with the use of technology, and how to ensure that employee productivity and employee motivation are taken into account.
I see a huge opportunity for leaders to pause and reflect on the work and the processes, the policies and practices, and think about what works and what needs to change. It is an opportunity to consider how we can ensure that we are truly going to be inclusive, and even how we would shape our policies to begin with.
In that sense, digitalisation will truly be able to drive innovation in the thinking behind the return to work.