After a revolution in the workplace spurred by technology, companies are finding that a balanced approach may be the most effective.

The numbers defining drastic changes in the modern workplace are striking and relentless: five generations all working together, the role of automation in replacing or enhancing physically repetitive tasks (up to 55%) and an increase in telecommuting (115% over the past decade). But how do these numbers reflect the way we actually work and how productive we really are?

Today, the answers are increasingly nuanced, characterised by a cycle of changes in the workplace – in large part driven by technology – that provoke the anticipation of even more change. No longer is there a simple binary view of the old, traditional way of doing work characterised by corner offices and strict dress codes. The new, modern worker does what they want, from wherever they are.

A more enlightened view of how work is evolving takes the cue from more than a century of office culture, while also incorporating cutting-edge advances in collaboration. These forces may seem paradoxical, even oppositional, but they can be complementary.

A look at how some of the most drastic changes in the modern workplace shows it has evolved to redefine what it means to work smarter.
Millennials may have believed the office was obsolete. But too much working from home has left them seeking structure and the benefits of mentorship.

Mobile technology was going to free workers from their work stations – eliminating long commutes and scotching many of the annoying distractions of office culture – all the while facilitating new highs in productivity.
The truth is, except for a glitch from 1995 to 2005, overall productivity in Western economies has been largely stagnant for the past 50 years. Workers may feel freer, but, at least according to traditional measures, they’re not producing much more.

For many workers, separated from the interpersonal exchange of traditional offices, mobility has left them feeling disoriented. People want autonomy but, it turns out, they still crave structure and social interaction.

“That’s the surprise,” said Arvind Malhotra, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina who specialises in workforce dynamics. “It’s a tacit admission that human contact has value in building organisational culture.”
Ironically, the workers who most expect mobility – younger employees – are most adversely affected by it. One of the greatest causes of workplace anxiety, according to Malhotra, is a lack of mentorship.

“Around 2001,” Malhotra said, “I started to hear young employees saying, ‘I feel like my boss doesn’t know that I’m working on really good stuff’ and ‘I’m not getting the one-on-one time with my mentor.’”
On-the-job training is most intense in the early years of a career. Working from a cafe might result in great coffee options, but it robs young workers of crucial learning opportunities and mentorship when they need those most.

Albert Segars, Malhotra’s collaborator and the PNC distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, said he believes that, at least in the case of millennials, there’s a sociological factor involved. One of the things that make millennials different from other generations is a deeper level of parental involvement.

“Parents were deeply engaged with their well-being: the things millennials did or did not do growing up,” Segars said. “When they can’t get that at work, they get frustrated and think nobody is interested in them. When they do get it, it’s amazing what they can do. But they need some of the structure and feedback found in traditional workplaces.”

However, newer collaboration technology can enable the very feedback loops young workers are missing, said Lisette Sutherland, an expert on working remotely.
“You have to make communicating with one another so easy that it’s like talking to someone right next to you,” she said. “It sounds really simple, but most multinational workers don’t even have headsets. Another big part of it is turning the video on. People don’t realise how much team building you can do just by turning on the screen.”

Sutherland said that the richer, real-time interface provided by a new wave of technological advances will help quell the isolation people feel when working at home. Robotic cameras that move through the halls of an office and pivot to look around a conference room will help remote workers feel more connected. “What we’re trying to do is replicate the human experience as much as possible,” she said.

At a minimum, companies should supplement face-to-face leadership by teaming younger workers with digital mentors, someone in the organisation with whom they can chat regularly for guidance and support, to eliminate anxiety fuelled by greater mobility.
Increased mobility magnified another phenomenon unique to today’s workforce. For the first time, there are five generations working together, from the youngest of the Greatest Generation to the oldest of Generation Z.

The arrival of millennials and other digital natives in the workforce more than 15 years ago triggered some anxiety among older generations, wondering how they could catch up, but simultaneously generated high expectations.
Indeed, 15 years ago young people entering the workforce had their own ideas about the future of work. They assumed their fluency with mobile devices and remote communications would free them to work on meaningful projects at their own discretion.

In fact, the democratisation of data has allowed younger employers to fuel their ambitions with information. Before digitalisation, the ability to access information signalled power. In the new workforce, it signals ability.
But as young workers forged new pathways, older managers struggled to evaluate their performance. The younger employees’ autonomous, remote work demanded new schemes for effective monitoring. 

Historically, much of how work got done depended on who knew whom in the organisational hierarchy, Malhotra said. But new ways of working meant managers had to promote group performance while also recognising individual rewards, a dynamic most companies still struggle with.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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