It’s time enterprises harnessed technology to drive emotional engagement at work.
The enterprise technology marketplace is currently booming with more tools than ever to optimize every work process. Josh Bersin’s 2017 analysis of industry technology trends shows solutions for everything from talent acquisition to knowledge sharing to employee well-being are on the rise. Even HR, a profession once so mired in soft skills it was considered nearly impossible to measure with precision, is progressively incorporating hard data into its practice.
To many, the proliferation of these tools marks this as the age of the “modern, digital company.” In this era it’s assumed technology will empower the company to become more nimble, innovative, and connected than ever before. But while business technology certainly enables us to do more, the end-user is the ultimate arbiter of whether a tool is or isn’t useful.
Although we’re surrounded by more digital technology than ever, we’re barely getting better at doing actual work. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows productivity growth has slowed to a crawl since 2011. The tools developed in the past seven years have provided the lowest productivity improvement of any technology era. Bersin neatly summarized this deceleration, saying, “We really aren’t more productive, we just feel like we are.”
It is true technology will enable companies to reach every employee and become the highest-functioning version of itself. While important, the tools designed and optimized for productivity aren’t doing enough to reach employees and help companies become the highest-functioning versions of themselves. They do little to drive employees’ emotional engagement at work.
A true modern, digital company is one that will embrace technology to support the human relationships at the heart of a highly engaged workforce and strong culture.
How does technology support relationships?
How doesn’t it? Unless you’re living off the grid, chances are you use technology in your personal life for reasons other than performing rote tasks. We are now a mobile society. Every year we use our mobile devices more than the last. In 2016, people spent 5 hours per day on mobile devices, up 20% from 2015. The trends will only continue to head in this direction.
Related: How Technology and Culture Impact the Employee Experience
Convenience is, of course, a factor. It’s easier to share a photo or send a message from your mobile phone than other devices. But beyond speed, our mobile devices offer a stronger emotional touchpoint between us and those we care about, a touchpoint that can ultimately foster greater emotional engagement at work.
Real-time connectivity, speed of use, and the increasing depth with which we can create content and express ourselves all is driving digital communication towards a closer approximation of in-person interactions. As Jenna Wortham of the New York Times describes, each development offers a new way of “regaining the layers of meaning we lost when we began digitizing so many important interactions.”
We spend the majority of the time on our mobile devices engaging with other people and/or the content they create. Half of all mobile device use is spent in social media, messaging, and entertainment applications. Arguably humans are developing an emotional relationship with their mobile phones.
Spending nearly a quarter of every day engaging with these devices speaks for itself, and the research shows that we can’t stand the thought of being separated from them. As a recent study from Florida State University documents, when we can’t access our devices this emotional connection manifests as separation anxiety and unpleasantness, and even temporarily reduces our capacity for cognition.
This technology wouldn’t produce these kinds of reactions and responses if it were merely a more efficient information delivery-mechanism. We know that’s not the case.
Mobile and social technology offer an emotional experience for us that have buoyed the way we maintain modern relationships. Yes, it’s true we’re spending more time than ever using this technology, but that time is spent forging new connections and maintaining old ones.
Bersin says the boom of enterprise technology tools (particularly HR tools) is working in service of a shift towards enriching the overall employee experience. But no amount of tools designed for productivity will make us truly feel better about work until our emotional needs are met. Emotional engagement at work needs to be driven in today’s world just as much by business technology as they do by in-person interactions.
Digital communication that creates emotional engagement at work
Knowing how important digital communications are to building and maintaining relationships in our personal lives, becoming a modern, digital company requires adopting technology to serve a similar role in the workplace.
But can’t you share chats, photos and videos with work-centric tools? Yes. But just like there is a variety of social networking channels we use in our personal lives—each with its own purpose—tools designed to perform work are characterized as such. From the feature set to the nature of conversation, work-centric tools are designed for a different purpose. And although many have mobile applications, they are designed and used predominantly at desktop computers.
One of the most striking examples of this can be found with “non-wired” employees—those who don’t have a company email address and/or access to any corporate digital communication tools. Given the nature of their work—manufacturing, frontline field work, and brick and mortar retail for example—work-centric digital communication tools were deemed unnecessary for them.
But that decision has come at the cost of greater emotional engagement at work. For these employees, the gaps between their expectations around workplace digital communication, relationship building, and what they experience at work have become chasms with companies still relying on verbal announcements and bulletin boards to distribute information.
These employees are often also the most disengaged, known for high turnover, low engagement and friction-filled relationships with their employers. It’s no surprise that the prospect of introducing digital communication amongst these employees is often met with fear and resistance. What will employees say? What if they say something about the company?
The reality is, employees are already talking about the company amongst themselves and with each other on social media and group texts. They’re just doing so through channels that the company has no visibility or control over.
The most important question companies with non-wired employees should consider is: Do they want their relationship to change?
Trust goes both ways and, from the non-wired employee’s perspective, it goes a long way to be empowered and trusted to use a company-sponsored digital communications tool responsibly. In our experience working with a number of global organizations with large non-wired employee populations, we find that adoption and engagement are extraordinarily high, despite innumerable challenges (e.g. not being allowed to use phones at work, no compensation for their time on the platform, language barriers, and more). People want to build relationships with their coworkers and have a modern, digital communication medium akin to those they use in their personal lives.
To go a step a further, employees need to have a real sense of agency in these digital spaces to foster emotional engagement at work. They need the unfettered ability to communicate, connect, and share their ideas with peers and leaders alike. The direct value organizations receive from this space is just as important as what having it in the first place says: employee voices are valued.
Beyond greater emotional engagement at work, research from McKinsey & Company shows that the organizations that break down these communication barriers see improved operations throughout the company. Businesses reported that social communication tools (i.e. message-based platforms that reflect the way we consume content today) enabled greater results from digital processes in areas such as product development, procurement, and supply chain management.
They also report that employees using social tools are quicker to adopt newer forms of technology in other areas of their work experience. Communication, in this case, is literally driving digital transformation.
Business leaders believe the modern, digital company is innovative, but innovative companies must foster innovative thinking. We’ve spent centuries trying to figure out how to turn 15-minute processes into 14-minute processes, and so on. That narrow view of performance improvement isn’t getting us as far anymore.
The next wave of innovation comes from tapping into the emotional commitment employees have to their work. The modern, digital company will recognize technology’s potential to connect with employees on a personal level. It will use technology to foster that connection and strengthen employees’ emotional engagement at work in every respect: their ties to the company, their peers, and their jobs.
A true modern, digital company is one with its people at the center.