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The Future of the American Workforce is . . . . Something Else, Part III:

How Changing Communication and Collaboration Technology Is Impacting the American Workforce

Posted on August 19, 2016

A small group of 50-somethings were recently overheard chatting about the old days over an office lunch. A few talked about dictating memos for the office typing pool, while one busy sales executive recalled her first computer arriving at the office and how the newly arrived facsimile machine was viewed as an intrusive, stress introducing device.

When personal computers and email capabilities arrived in offices, they began a steady transformation of the workplace that’s continued unabated. Those events (taking place about 30 years ago) seem like only yesterday to a baby boomer, but eons ago to millennials, many who can’t even imagine a world without instant technological access to customers, vendors, co-workers and friends.

How Technology has Changed the Workplace

Since almost the beginning of time technology has changed how we do work. From movable type to the cotton gin, to the invention of other mechanical devices such as ladders, the wheel and the pulley and the complex machines and systems they enabled, technology has driven changes to how people lived and worked. Eventually, better farming and manufacturing technology led to the migration of workers from the farms to urban centers.

And that innovation never stops. It accelerates. And that’s no more apparent than what we’ve seen in the last 30 years.

That change has been driven by computers and personal devices that enable us to be connected to each other and to the latest available news, research and business information and some of the changes that connectivity has let to in the ways we work, collaborate and innovate.

The elimination of whole classes of jobs

Much workplace communication even as late as the early 1990’s was based on typewritten letters and memos and landline telephones. These technologies required a secretarial staff to type letters, answer phones and schedule meetings for the teams of executives and professionals they supported.

With the advent of personal computers, email, voicemail and eventually the cell phone, most mid-level professionals and salespeople are now expected to type their own memos, send and respond to their own email correspondence and schedule their own meetings and travel. In today’s business world, generally only the most senior employees enjoy the support of an executive assistant.

In the manufacturing sector, we’ve seen many jobs replaced by robotization of the assembly line. May basic assembly jobs have been replaced by machinery.

The flattening of the workforce

Historically, the office workplace of the past had more levels of hierarchy. As personal computers and automation became prevalent in the late ‘80s, organizations began to flatten. Once the more basic, support jobs were largely eliminated (and technology enabled people to communicate their ideas across the organization more effectively) leading formerly siloed departments, often only connected at the top by managers, to work together on projects as they benefitted from the ability to share information at all levels, not just at the most senior positions..

Empowering employees of all classes and backgrounds

Technology, as it improves our ability to connect with colleagues across the organization, has empowered employees to be more vocal, to share ideas more freely in what is rapidly becoming a more open marketplace of ideas within organizations.

Prior to technology that connects us so effectively and immediately, individual employee ideas could be squelched or stolen by managers who saw threats or opportunities. In a corporate world where most topics were discussed in face-to-face meetings, often, the ideas that became “winners” were not always the best ideas, but the ideas that were promoted by the most influential, outgoing or talented presenters.

Technology has given a voice in the idea marketplace to employees who may be more introverted, less influential or from different backgrounds than the typical thought leaders of the past.

The elimination of technologies once thought to be groundbreaking

Fax machines, voicemail and, yes, even the desktop telephone, while not completely phased out, are becoming less and less commonly encountered. Recently, both J.P. Morgan Chase and Coca-Cola phased out voicemail.

Better tools for collaboration

Email and document sharing advances were some of the first advances to enable larger groups of cross functional teams to communicate as groups, share work product and collaborate on projects and goals without needing to be in the same meetings together. Now, we’ve advanced to technologies like Slack or Skype, that have enhanced the traditional conference call, allowing remote meetings with “face-time” so employees can gain a deeper insight into their colleagues’ ideas with the added value that participants engage in real-time, spontaneous interactions that can lead to more candor, more genuine innovation and brainstorming opportunities than may be the case with the time delay and introspection involved in emails and document sharing.

Implications of all this change

As organizations have eliminated many entry level jobs, trimmed out layers of management and embraced better, faster technologies, it has enabled them to involve more people in the innovation process, giving voices to ideas that may have been missed in the past. This has facilitated better decisions based on the application of more knowledge and experience to organization problems.

It has led to more transparency in an open marketplace of ideas.

While managers still hold the authority for ultimate decisions, the inclusion of more voices at the table helps insure such decisions are more informed and less likely good ideas from unlikely sources are simply dismissed out of hand by colleagues and managers. This inclusion of cross-functional and multi-disciplinary feedback into the decision making loop has led to a creative renaissance in technology, manufacturing and business with no end in sight. Additionally, it has enabled the increasing ability for corporations to “globalize” as technology connects their interests quickly and seamlessly across the world.

The Challenges Ahead

Decisions driven by many voices at the table can be frustrating, even enraging at times, but they are also some of the most rewarding as they enable each stakeholder to participate in a process that ultimately addresses the organization's challenges.

So, while it’s certainly easier for a group of senior executives to get together and pass edicts, the more informed and collaborative decisions make more sense for the organization; they truly engage your employees and take advantage of the collective wisdom of the team.

As Tom Lawson, the CEO of FM Global points out, as a company leader you should be creating a culture where collaboration is valued because, “collective wisdom will help you get to the right place.”

Since collaboration can be a messier process, it makes sense that the next generation of technologies companies invest in need to be designed to give employees a voice and include built-in workflows and communication channels to facilitate the collaboration, evaluation and decision making processes. These kinds of feedback tools are the next horizon in business technology because they can deliver timely and actionable feedback to increase the speed of decisions and initiatives.

If you’re looking for ways to engage your employees through their ideas and connect them in a collaborative process that runs across both horizontal and vertical layers, the team at Vocoli would love to speak with you!

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