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Now, every employee needs a seat at the table

By YAZAD DALAL, head of strategy for Oracle HCM Cloud EMEA.

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If the pandemic has brought us anything, it is focusing more than ever on each other. Companies are investing more and more in their workers, prioritising their happiness and productivity, and in turn feeding the success of the business. This journey hasn’t progressed at the same pace in every country or industry. But the impact of the past year will be to accelerate it everywhere.

Companies achieved years of digital progress in a matter of months. This revolution will continue because it has to. Digitised workers are too valuable, too integral to success. While these changes came about out of necessity, it’s not just about outputs and business survival – even more important is our experience.

For a long time, employees have looked to the CEO as ‘having it all’ – now, they can get in on the action. Digitisation is the great leveller. Enabling instant access to technologies from home, on the go, and in the office is creating a ‘work lifestyle’ once only enjoyed by those at the top. This isn’t about making every employee feel like an executive. It’s about how technology can give us all the best parts of the CEO’s job – flexibility, independence, prioritisation – and ensure the business flourishes.

Enter the virtual assistant

Despite the collective stress we’ve all faced lately, workers have become more independent, and more free to make decisions. Many of us even enjoy the luxury of working from home when we want – and will do for the foreseeable future. Just a year ago, all of this was reserved for the C-suite. But now, this independence and autonomy is being granted to a majority of those who work behind desks around the world. 

Going forward, the next step will be giving employees access to personal assistants. Or, to be more exact, virtual personal assistants. Where once every office worker had their own secretary, taking the admin out of their to-do list, we’re now at the point where AI and apps can liberate all knowledge workers from mundane and repetitive tasks.

Imagine a brief comes in last-minute for the next day. Putting a proposal together would usually mean some staff having to burn the midnight oil with little warning. Now imagine an AI assistant that can create an entire presentation from a verbal description of what you need – financial reports here, a research report there – recorded on a mobile app. Advances in AI and cloud computing mean this is now entirely possible. 

On the business side, employees will be more free to focus on customer relationships, innovation and strategy. On the experience side, there’s simply no longer any reason to stay in the office until midnight – work/life balance can be prioritised, without an impact on the business.

That’s why this won’t stop at task automation and delegation. Virtual assistants can greatly improve our working lives beyond simply the work we do. Think about the fitness app installed on your phone. It monitors you throughout the day and proactively congratulates you on steps walked, suggests when you might need a short break, and more. We can apply these same practices to the workspace.  

Digital assistants can embed ‘nudge’ practices, suggesting positive actions that improve our working lives. Coming back from annual leave, an employee could receive an alert on their phone to check in with a colleague or customer they haven’t spoken to in a while. Walking into a meeting room, a manager could get a buzz that it’s one of their team’s birthday that day. The effect is subtle, but the impact can be big. Social isolation has made many of us feel disconnected from our colleagues and the organisations we work for. Digital assistants can encourage us to be more collaborative, and to put each other first.

Leadership is changing

So what does it mean to be a CXO or senior manager when your employees have access to the same digital tools and insights? What does a leader add to the equation? Company leaders will still oversee their departments, and have many of the same responsibilities, but we’ll also see their roles change and adapt to suit the new 9-5. 

As employees have access to more technologies, they’ll be empowered to make better decisions. If an employee is out in the field with a customer or working from home away from their managers, they can’t always check-in or get a second opinion quickly or easily. They need the power and confidence to make a decision there and then.

Enter the ‘cybrarian’. We’re starting to see companies, especially large, multinational ones, creating executive positions with responsibility over all company data. Their job is to help every employee access it and make the most of it – whether it’s finding financial reports for that proposal, or pulling up information on work being done across other parts of the business.

Another entirely new senior-level role we’re starting to see is one focused on the remote working experience. For example, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider, Safaricom, has created the position of Chief Energy Officer. Their role is to keep teams engaged and energised even when employees are working remotely and can’t be together physically. Moreover, some companies are appointing Chief Medical Officers to look after workers’ physical health and safety at a time when it’s more critical than ever.

Existing roles will also be under the spotlight. Under huge pressure, the CHRO stood up to the plate and came through for everyone this past year. As we head into the post-pandemic world, mental health looms larger – and it will continue to need special attention. CHROs will likely take a more proactive role when it comes to looking after employees’ emotional and physical wellbeing. Their role may morph into one focused on Happiness, or Employee Experience, encompassing culture, wellbeing, and more on top of payroll, performance management and recruitment.

Such roles may only be on the fringes for the moment, but they prove that every board has to be agile, ready to pick up new responsibilities and create new roles when needed. Leadership roles will now revolve around supporting and empowering those around them.

Empower and engage

We all know the best businesses are those that put people at the centre. This means empowering them through technology, and leading with employees front of mind. Putting workers first is now the best way to beat the competition and strengthen the bottom line, in a global economy that’s more digital and interconnected than ever. For CEOs, looking at their own to-do list is the best place to start. 

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