The EACD Dialogue on 8 May 2020 was an opportunity for EACD members to explore the themes raised in the recent online Conference on ‘Changing Culture and Climate: the role of CommTech and AI’ and share their own experiences.

 

The Conference, held on 16 April in partnership with Cisco Systems and the Nordic Alliance for Communication & Management (NORA), had explored the latest research into the impact of new ways of working and used cases of technology and AI that are driving the workplaces of the future.

 

Dennis Larsen had facilitated the event. In the Dialogue with Inge Wallage, he explained what stood out for him: how quickly technology was changing corporate culture and its impact on employees. He mentioned that Prof Sut I Wong, one of the NORA researchers, had found that even before the pandemic lockdowns, those working remotely reported feeling more isolated and had less communication with their colleagues and management than when working in a co-located environment.

 

How do we break through that and engage employees? Frequent web/video meetings were found to be as burdensome and unproductive as the too many face-to-face office meetings of the ‘old days’. Being “Zoomed out” was rapidly replacing being “meetinged out”, one participant noted. We need to apply the right technology to the right tasks and keep it simple so we can blend informal chats and online huddle spaces with more formal structured meetings.

 

The need for ‘human’ moments was also found to be important. We all need offline time when working remotely, so that we can just check in with one another on how we’re feeling – what another of the NORA researchers, Prof Gillian Warner-Søderholm, had referred to as ‘digital water cooler’ time.

 

Cisco’s Sandeep Mehra, Vice President & General Manager – Webex Devices & Telepresence, had made a strong case for transforming the workplace of the future. Tech-enabled work and integrated tools, AI and VR were considered basic requisites for many millennials and Gen Z employees who were already choosing which job offers to accept based on an organisation’s tech provision and flexible working style.

 

The flip side of this agile, disruptive technology world is that neither employees nor employers seem to feel the same sense of long-term loyalty to one another as before, which has major implications, including for the communications function.

 

For some of the Dialogue’s participants, more pressing matters during lockdown were the change in the team dynamic and practical problems. This was particularly stark for parents who were now having to supervise their children’s home schooling and childcare on top of their own work. So, the ability to participate in digital water cooler chats or virtual happy hour socialising with colleagues is even more curtailed than usual.

 

Another discussant agreed, who had surveyed staff twice in the past four weeks where this aspect was strongly cited. However, they also wanted to keep some home working and they and their organisations were navigating how to do that. This has led him to further work on an integrated EVP/CVP/TVP model (employee value proposition/customer value proposition/technology value proposition) to explore how to accommodate these often conflicting strands and their implications for the communications function. (To be reported on later in Communication Director.) One aspect is seeing a much more agile relationship between the various stakeholders: core staff, occasional collaborators and longer- or shorter-term partners.

 

On the positive side, managers were reporting feeling more empowered to make better decisions by having more private space to think and time not spent in commuting or travelling.

 

Values and culture were discussed. The problems for parents working from home having to supervise both childcare and schooling was also a cultural issue. Inge raised her international experience stating that in some countries taking children into the office was considered perfectly normal.

 

For those already working remotely or flexibly it is obviously easier to adapt and a side benefit of the lockdowns has been the social and environmental benefits of a slower economy. For one participant who works for a sustainability NGO with 25 staff these are not issues she is encountering. As a millennial she is used to flexible working arrangements and is organising a totally digital General Assembly where members like and expect smaller tech breakouts as well as larger group meetings and conferences. The added bonus of digital meetings is increasing access and participation among stakeholders who otherwise would not be able to take part due to travel costs.

 

Ethical concerns were also raised – the ‘algorithmisation’ of work processes so that some customer services functions, for example, are now routinely handled by chatbots. But what happens when there’s a tech-generated blip that causes reputational or actual risk? Who’s accountable and responsible?

 

Final thoughts ranged from how we take the best from the new realities we find ourselves in and build in long-term, multi-stakeholder collaboration into our businesses. Embedding sustainability was felt to be key to survival and equally important was the need to hang on to the regained sense of balance many of us have found in lockdown through reassessing what is important in life and re-examining our values.

 

This mirrors the EACD’s longer-term aim to create a community platform which is open and flexible to allow members to connect with one another on whatever topics or projects they like in open forums and/or private breakouts.