Collection No 6

Future of Work

Hypercontext Workers of the Future

Empowering the context-aware employee will drive businesses forward.

Common wisdom holds that for a business to increase production efficiency, human beings must behave like part of a larger machine. But certain jobs—many of which are in growing industries—favor workers who call on their very humanness in order to succeed. These context-aware employees, who understand nuances, employ discretion, and act as advocates for their customers, are the solution for organizations hoping to increase production efficiency in the future. Business leaders must begin preparing for these workers today.

Political economist Adam Smith’s seminal analysis of the workings of a pin factory in 1776 showed that to conquer production, one must first divide the labor force: a factory of 10 workers, with labor divided, could produce more than 4,800 pins per person each day, while an individual artisan might produce 20 pins per day. In today’s innovation-driven economy, jobs that can be compartmentalized are being broken into pieces, automated, or eliminated through careful design. One day robots will carry out most of these jobs, and what remains will be done by pieceworkers who operate on demand through companies like TaskRabbit or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

These are low-value, low-pay jobs, and they are likely to become more plentiful. But they are not the only kind of job that the workplace of the near future will require. As product life cycles get shorter and the need to personalize the customer experience grows more critical, we will need employees who can combine big-picture systems thinking with a developed understanding of specific cultural contexts. In other words, we will need people who think and behave less like machines and more like human beings.

Consider Uber, the ride-sharing service that uses a smartphone app to connect people with drivers of vehicles for hire. The service is available in multiple countries and ties together more than 20 web services and countless individual contractors. If you are a customer, an independent contractor, or a B2B partner and you have a problem with a service that is structured like this, with whom do you discuss it? Or perhaps the better question might be, with whom would you ideally prefer to discuss it?

You might envision someone who is both an ombudsman and an advocate for you—someone highly knowledgeable about both the high-level and the street-level intricacies of the service and fully empowered to take action on your behalf. You want someone who can jump right in and get things done, rather than someone who passes along a package of work to five other people, each of whom has little or no understanding of what the others are doing. In order to realize this type of experience, employees must have the tools and access required to fully understand each part of a complex system. And they must be empowered to act on that knowledge.

You can see this kind of thinking inside Apple retail stores. An Apple “genius” is hired first for personality and flexibility, not for technical knowledge. As shown by the Apple employee training manual leaked a few years ago, the company empowers its staff to make customers happy—or, as the manual puts it, to “take personal initiative to make it right.” Employees are commended whenever a customer leaves the store feeling “enriched” by the experience. At Apple, this metric of success is codified well beyond the culture—it is built into the company’s customer survey results, which are used to evaluate both individuals and teams.

Forward-thinking businesses must hire for flexibility and then provide tools that enable their employees to act in a variety of contexts. To do this, some companies will need to adjust their evaluative criteria so that employees are measured using company-wide metrics rather than rewarded for minor, department-level productivity gains.

Imagine a customer service representative who does not have to patch someone in from tech support to diagnose and resolve a customer’s frustrating technical glitch, and is instead authorized to follow up the call with a generous service discount. Or consider a software experience provider who could help B2B partners in different offices communicate more effectively by integrating disparate SaaS environments on the fly, without the need for IT intervention and ponderous, expensive oversight.

This kind of future is already evident in the development of products and services such as Zendesk, a customer service platform designed to bring the company and customer “closer together,” or Unify’s Circuit (a frog client), which aims to help companies integrate their communication channels into a single seamless experience. Platforms that integrate various tools into simple interfaces give workers access to a variety of data points and enable them to act quickly and efficiently.

How can your company meet the demands of tomorrow’s increasingly empowered and sophisticated customer? Ensure that your employees are equally empowered with the tools and access they need to understand the entire business. Rethink hiring practices to attract employees with a track record of flexibility, and tweak performance metrics to favor big wins. By finding the right formula, your company will rewrite the common wisdom about production efficiencies to favor the human over the machine.

Patrick Kalaher

Patrick is a vice president of technology strategy at frog. He has an extensive background of product ideation, product strategy, and implementation in a number of business domains across North America, Europe, and Asia.

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