READ the June 2021 issue of our magazine: The Digital Culture Reset
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, technology was already transforming our workplaces – with advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and other innovations impacting all areas of a business, from the frontlines to the back office. As much activity was forced into remote working and social distancing protocols came into play for other areas of essential work, the adoption of many new technologies was inevitably accelerated by the pandemic.
However, these two developments – the onset of a global pandemic and the emergence of new technologies – have also been the source of much anxiety among many workers. The disruption that COVID-19 brought to many sectors of the economy – shutting down production lines, wreaking havoc within supply chains, distorting consumer demand, and creating concerns over personal safety – left people in many areas of the economy fearful about their ability or willingness to generate an income. Longer-term, some have also questioned whether technology will have a detrimental impact on employment prospects, either through replacing people or through other more insidious effects, such as fears of more intrusive monitoring of work activity. For their part, HR organizations have also had to wrestle with challenges – not only in addressing the concerns and anxieties mentioned above but also in creating a positive and engaging environment despite limited face-to-face interaction between colleagues.
A lot of attention has been paid to these potentially negative aspects of technology. At the same time, beyond the benefits touted by many executives in the area of increased productivity and efficiency, many emerging technologies bring clear advantages in terms of the relationship between companies and their employees and arguably the most important competitive differentiator: culture. I see positive impacts in four principal areas:
New engagement opportunities
Virtual conferencing technologies have – quite literally – become household names over the last 18 months. They have allowed employees to continue to exchange, collaborate and co-create from their own homes. And while many companies are looking forward to renewed opportunities for brainstorming, mentoring, and the “creative collisions” that come from face-to-face interaction, the experiences of remote working have equipped companies with new tools and approaches for engaging and training a more broadly distributed workforce. As we return to in-office, hybrid, or remote working models, all companies that value engagement will have developed new best practices in leveraging these technologies to communicate more effectively across their organization. DHL Supply Chain, for example, has significantly increased its use of video technologies and mobile devices as alternative means of communication to engage on a more timely basis with 155,000 employees around the world. We have also enhanced our online learning offering, giving us significantly more reach with consistent training and development approaches. In fact, through virtual instructor-led training and e-learning, over 50 percent of our Certified in-house training and development curriculum can now be delivered without having to wait on face-to-face opportunities. The technology that is now available to support virtual training has been very well regarded by participants without compromising on the quality of the content.
Better working conditions
Digital tools and technologies are enabling better working conditions in two areas in particular – more flexibility and more fulfilling work. Aside from the flexibility afforded by virtual conferencing and collaboration technology, allowing more people to perform their tasks remotely where appropriate, there has been a proliferation in recent years of software applications that allow for more flexible working models in other areas. Our company has, for example, piloted innovative scheduling tools that allow hourly workers to select shifts and sites that meet their needs. This flexibility – enabled by technology – is a distinct competitive advantage as workers, particularly younger generations, increasingly seek a balance on their own terms between their work and private life.
Technology is also contributing to a more fulfilling work environment. Robots, for example, are supporting increased productivity within the logistics industry by either taking over routine tasks, allowing people to focus on more complex, value-adding work, or by providing support for physically demanding activities. In an environment of low availability of labor, such as we see in the United States today, for example, they are also offsetting some of the challenges in finding workers to keep supply chains and production going and support further economic growth. At DHL Supply Chain, we have recently committed to increase the number of LocusBot collaborative robotics within our warehousing operations to 2,000. These robots alleviate the physical burden of warehouse work by carrying orders between picking stations, significantly reducing walking time. Other robotic and autonomous material handling equipment can take on much of the demanding heavy lifting within the warehousing and industrial operations, freeing up employees to focus on other solutions that solve problems for customers and increase business opportunities. In essence, innovations like this will lead to a more fulfilling work environment, which is a key ingredient for a motivated workforce and a strong, positive culture.
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More diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce
One – possibly unintended but very welcome – consequence of more flexible and fulfilling work is that it will contribute to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. The removal of some physical demands from within industrial facilities, for example, can create more equal opportunities for women and people with disabilities to contribute their skills and expertise in new areas. More flexible working options, enabled by software and potentially underpinned by insights from artificial intelligence, allow companies to reach new demographics and groups that may be eager to work and earn money, but during non-conventional or shorter working hours, due to childcare or parental care requirements, for example. By broadening their appeal to a more diverse workforce and creating an equitable and inclusive environment, companies can significantly strengthen their culture.
Improvement of recruitment
Arguably the least obvious impact of new technologies on culture is in the area of recruitment, but it is potentially the most significant. Each of the above benefits of technology, if harnessed in the right way, has the potential to increase the appeal of employers, as well as creating a more competitive playing field for employees. Additionally, the improved insights provided by data analytics and artificial intelligence should lead to improved connections, and a better fit, between potential candidates, company roles, and even cultures. Enhanced recruiting and onboarding tools will make it easier for new recruits to secure jobs and reach their full potential earlier, and also to transition between roles and – on occasions where the fit is not there – even to other companies. This development will be win-win for both companies and employees, contributing to a more competitive, healthy labor market and an opportunity to build even stronger, winning cultures at those companies that can take advantage.