Collection No 6

Future of Work

Software Design for the Autonomous Employee

Enterprise software to support new management hierarchies.

There is a libertarian scent in the office, and it offers a glimpse into a future workplace with more employee autonomy.

Almost 10 million people have viewed a 126-page deck on SlideShare about the culture of work at Netflix, in which CEO Reed Hastings dismisses process and control in favor of “a culture of creativity and self-discipline, freedom and responsibility.” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called the deck “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” In his new book, “The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization,” Jacob Morgan suggests turning an organization on its head: rather than asking employees to adapt to their managers, managers should adapt to employee needs.

Most of what we do at work is mediated by—and rendered through—technology. If we are indeed entering a new bottom-up management paradigm, with less hierarchy and control and more freedom, what does this mean for enterprise software?

The following recommendations flow out of frog’s recent work and offer considerations for the design of software that promotes creativity, accountability, and self-organization at work.

1. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is the gateway drug to increased employee accountability. When employees are allowed to work on their personal devices, they will be more productive. However, BYOD also exposes businesses to new security risks. Will employees sufficiently protect sensitive business data on their smartphones? What happens if the IT department detects an illegal file-sharing service within its network that originated on a personal laptop? For every organization, there are interesting test cases to calibrate the balance between employee freedom and organizational control, with ramifications well beyond the use of personal devices. To what extent can a business allow employees to “work their way,” and to what extent does it need to maintain presence, supervision, and security? Companies should work through these challenges with flexible BYOD policies and use the findings and feedback from different users to take the right steps toward increased employee autonomy.

2. The enterprise is not a social network. A few years ago, businesses began rolling out social media tools for the enterprise. According to research firm Gartner, however, 80 percent of social business efforts will fail through 2015, due to a lack of both user engagement and a clearly defined business case. A business is not a social network. Reporting structure, monetary compensation, and disciplinary power produce a social construct that is fundamentally different from Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media behavior can influence and even inspire the future of work, but a literal translation into the business will fail.

3. Connect enterprise IT buyers and users. In the twisted logic of IT procurement, individuals often buy systems and tools that they will never actually use. For example, a finance professional who rarely travels may purchase expense report systems for the company. Similarly, architecture teams often lack a real-time feedback loop from users and support teams to validate and refine tool selection. In a more decentralized and empowered organization, software will increasingly be selected and deployed by groups of power users. Giving users administrative rights to their laptops and personal computers can be a simple way to enable more user autonomy.

4. Understand the difference between procedural and creative tasks. Submitting an expense report, responding to a help desk ticket, or answering a customer inquiry—these are the types of tasks that demand efficiency. However, the comprehensive features of many ERP or CRM systems produce a complexity that stands in the way of getting the job done. A mobile-first approach can help to prioritize core use cases and strip clutter and waste.

By contrast, creative tasks are characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability. Even tasks that may look procedural, such as financial audits, require teams to constantly reorganize themselves. Creative teams benefit from systems and workflows that can easily be reassembled and discarded. Nothing is more frustrating for motivated employees than having to force their ideas through the bottleneck of poorly designed, rigid software.

5. Create connective tissue. In traditional knowledge or talent management systems, employees connect with one another based on predefined profiles and metadata. Compare this to the modern use of the hashtag, which enables connections to emerge spontaneously based on user input. In today’s complex workplace, collaboration requires fluid connections across organizational structures and reporting lines. For example, when frog partnered with GE, one of the world’s largest corporations, to create a collaboration platform, we connected employees by project rather than organizational role. Within the system, updates from across the network appear in a visual waterfall of photos, video, comments, and information. Profiles, likes and comments help disseminate valuable content widely and easily throughout the organization.

Today, our work is more dynamic and unpredictable than ever. A new generation of workers is expecting companies to make them more productive, using the devices that they know and love. We need to design a new class of enterprise software that can serve the changing needs of employees and businesses. To keep workers and teams engaged and productive, we must design for the autonomy they desire.

Carsten Wierwille

Carsten has over 15 years of experience in digital design, technology, and innovation strategy.

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