Millennials drive digital engagement in the workplace

The need to be ever-connected is convincing employers to be flexible while catering to those requirements

Millennials are having a profound effect on the workplace and driving technological changes within business.

Those born in the late 1980s and after are unaccustomed to a world without the internet and they expect technology to accompany both their working and social lives.

Known also as "digital natives", these young people currently make up half of the world’s working population, according to Citrix, and by 2020 they will comprise 75 per cent of the working population.

Their mentality is one of flexibility, from time and physical space to platforms. Digital natives expect to have access to information at any time, anywhere and on any device. To remain competitive, businesses will need to adapt to the inevitable changes that millennials will bring to the workplace, says Citrix.

“The workplace of the future is going to be different,” says Sherif Seddik, the vice president of sales and services of Europe, Middle East and Africa at Citrix. “If you look at digital natives, they’re always ‘on’ whether it is on SnapChat or WhatsApp or any of the other social platforms and email is just another version of that. They have this built-in obligation to respond. They work perpetually.”

Many firms are taking advantage of this innate need to respond by enabling greater virtualisation of work. Simply put, virtualisation moves the physical aspect of work into the digital space. Files or programs and software need not be saved on a physical computer but in the cloud, a form of online storage, which can be accessed anywhere and usually on any smart device.

One of the main benefits of virtualisation is flexibility. It enables employees to work outside the office and beyond normal working hours, helping firms to cut back on fixed costs and encouraging greater productivity no matter the time or location.

According to the global market researcher IDC, the total spending on information communication technology (ICT) in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa will reach US$243 billion by the end of this year, of which the UAE accounts for $6.2bn.

About 70 per cent of chief information officers in the Middle East have already adopted some form of virtualisation within their organisations and about a third are considering adopting virtualisation for client services, experts say.

“The Middle East is on a quest to achieve maximum productivity, efficiency and sustainability while minimising cost,” says Louay Dahmash, the territory director for the Middle East and Turkey at Autodesk, a US-based multinational software corporation. “Government leaders understand the significance of emerging technologies and the exponential benefits they bring to building smart cities, smart countries and a smart region of the future.”

Cloud computing in particular has been identified as one of the main ways to achieve such efficiency and productivity. According to the technology researcher Gartner, the Mena region is set to spend $1.2bn on public cloud services this year. Moving sensitive information into the digital sphere requires a greater level of security and many organisations have come to the realisation that a public cloud is sometimes more secure than a private one, which can also be more expensive to maintain.

“We are seeing that connectivity and ICT solutions are a major component bringing around this transformation, which is being driven by connected workspaces, translating into a nimble and agile workforce,” says Ibrahim Nasser, the chief human capital and administration officer at du in the UAE.

Virtualisation has also been bolstered by the growth of global business. Companies that have offices in other countries or contract work to people or businesses on the other side of the world need effective means of communication and presence on the same network with access to the same files and services.

Many firms in Silicon Valley have championed flexible working hours and designed their headquarters to cater to such a working culture and it is a trend that is also reflected across other sectors.

Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Middle East operations have Flex@Work initiative enabling employees to work from home on Sundays.

“In our UAE headquarters, most of our employees work from the office just four days a week and work out of their homes on [Sundays],” says Deepa Vaidyanathan, the senior communications manager for the Arabian Peninsula at P&G. “This gives every one of us a powerful opportunity every week to step back from the day to day, reflect and focus on innovation.”

Studies suggest that giving employees a choice, flexibility and trust, results in more motivated and efficient staff.

“It requires a shift from managers,” says Mr Seddik. “If we allow [employees] to balance things and allow them to work when they’re most productive, we will have happier employees and will get more productivity.”

But this sort of flexibility is beginning to draw some negativity. Working remotely makes it difficult to create a shared cultural experience or team spirit. Valuable “water cooler” chats cannot be replicated virtually.

Perhaps most telling is IBM’s decision to end its long-standing remote-working perk earlier this year. Employees were told they would have to work from the office only or face being fired in a bid to increase collaboration and ensure better response times.

Many managers across the Middle East are also reluctant to embrace an open world of freedom and flexibility, particularly in the region’s public sector institutions and more traditional businesses.

Instead, Sanjukta Ray, the chief executive of Dubai Leading Technologies, says she has seen rising demand for its attendance tracking technology. The system encourages, or rather expects employees to work onsite with entry to the office or worksite recorded via fingerprint or other biometric data.

Her company has also registered greater interest in its beacon monitors, a technology that tracks movements around desks and calculates how many breaks staff take throughout the day. It effectively takes micro-managing to robotic levels.

“The idea is to catch out the truant person and the person not carrying out their responsibilities,” says Ms Ray. “From a business or management perspective, this tool is essential to run their business.”

Whether such technology increases productivity or quality of work remains to be seen. Some sectors might benefit from more intrusive monitoring, others from more flexibility or remote working. Both, however, involve virtualisation.

“Technology has a very sneaky way of forcing productivity,” says Mr Seddik.

“We’re all becoming forced to become digital natives, we’re being forced to move with the times and technology and ultimately, people will have to adapt to a modern style of working.”