By Gloria Lombardi

How should the modern workplace encourage creativity and support innovation? How can the digital workplace support a culture of collaboration and inclusion while improving the bottom line? Microsoft is exploring the Modern Workplace in a series of webcasts, Global Workforce: The new culture of work.

MARGINALIA spoke with Director of Product Marketing for Microsoft 365, Jack Elmore (pictured right), who was involved in the webcasts. In this interview, Elmore shares how companies can successfully overcome generational and cultural gaps, and how diversity can improve team performance. He also describes the critical role of digital workplace technology to enable better, more productive ways of working.

Gloria Lombardi: How can global organisations overcome cultural gaps within teams to enhance innovation?

Jack Elmore: Senior leaders must support the activities to overcome cultural divides; they need to believe and communicate that people are the organisation’s greatest asset.

Companies increasingly need the newest members of the workforce to help shape the culture and direction of the company. The modern workplace has to welcome and support new people, new ideas, and new ways of working. Many of the best, most practicable ideas are coming from the workforce in the field, rather than only from the top of the organisational chart.

Technology is a powerful enabler of change. Digital transformation is playing a critical role in how companies compete. It influences how they hire the most talented people, how things get done day to day, and how products and services get designed and redesigned and sold to customers.

Many product companies are becoming service companies; for example, thyssenkrupp, in the elevator manufacturing industry, is using cloud computing to transform into a ‘people movement as-a-service’ company. That’s a different way of thinking about elevators! They use state of the art sensors and modelling to predict wear and tear and even failures, so they can service their clients in good time. They commit to certain quality levels of dispatch and service so they can reduce and prevent outages. Now when they meet potential customers, they sell their elevator products along with guaranteed reliability, instead of only charging for installation and maintenance.

GL: A typical modern workplace has different generations of workers – from Baby Boomers to Millennials, and even Gen Z. How can organisations ensure that generational gaps are dealt with effectively?

JE: That goes to the heart of why technology plays such an important role in the modern workplace. It’s not the only factor; someone still has to be responsible for the physical spaces and the culture goes beyond walls and screens.

The digital communication methods we’ve all become used to over the decades are not the preferred channels of the newer generations. If you email a teenager, chances are they’ll reply weeks later or try to contact you another way. Their modes of communication are more aligned with social networking, which helps them communicate broadly and quickly – in ways simply unavailable in the past.

In our personal lives, in the consumer space, communicating is informal, flexible, and even ambiguous or downright unclear. People swap channels, move from public to private chats, and run multiple profiles. In business, there’s a focus on clarity and simplicity, and of course companies have to abide by the various regulations that protect people’s privacy and their own security.

But if you only provide employees with the basic, aging systems, communication and innovation will break down. Everyone has a smart phone in their pocket, giving them the apps, the tools, they like to use. Different generations prefer different tools and modes of communication, and you can see that in their app choices.

So the organisation must provide secure, compliant communication systems that work for all generations. Email cannot be the default for everyone in every situation, and you don’t want to drive people to use personal communication channels and shadow tech that fall outside of your compliance processes.

GL: Different cultures, different generations, different preferences in the ways of working and communicating. What are the benefits and challenges of having such diverse teams inside organisations?

JE: There have been enough studies showing that diverse teams achieve more, and it’s time we truly value diversity – diversity of experience, diversity of background, and diversity of thought. When hiring-managers avoid the bias of recruiting people like them, and instead look at assembling teams with different, complementary strengths, they increase organisational performance. The cultures that reward teamwork over individual excellence, achieve more.

Everyone has some sort of unconscious biases – even the people who aspire to be tolerant, accepting, and understanding of diversity. We all have those unconscious biases.

So it’s critical for leadership to support an education agenda that helps employees to be more conscious of their biases. That is the first, important step. Denial stunts personal growth and the culture. If people can’t believe that unconscious biases exist then it can be harder to work around them and improve the team. It’s a cultural issue that must be addressed from the top down. Leaders need to say and demonstrate that the company believes diverse teams make us more competitive, make us a more rewarding place to work, help us have more effective meetings, and help us make better decisions – because we consider additional points of views. This is on top of respecting our colleagues and customers as a given.

The newest generations care about work in a more personal manner than past generations. When looking for work, they don’t just consider the pay – the culture, physical environment, digital toolsets, and opportunities for self-determination are all important. Further, aligning with social causes, they want their work to reflect their values.

GL: How can organisations improve the bottom line through inclusion?

JE: By having more, and better digital communications, companies can save money on physical meetings and even physical space if they reduce the number of meeting rooms. Meetings are still entirely relevant, but they can be reduced and streamlined by having good, open digital communications and keeping everyone involved in the loop.

There are so many powerful, effective communication technologies – virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, chatbots, cloud computing – that drive down the costs of business and, probably more importantly, accelerate decision-making and agility.

Harder to quantify, but most probably more powerful in the longer run, is having access to the data, which enables the company to reduce the cycle time of making and improving business decisions, while reducing errors.

Good collaboration tools improve how data and decisions are used and implemented. People get to work directly or indirectly together under a shared goal, synchronously or asynchronously as suits them and the work. In fact, through efficient working, less time can be spent doing the work and more time can be spent on higher value activities like making decisions.

The modern, digital workplace becomes part of the institutional memory. It helps retain and record knowledge over the days and years. When your team has come to a pivotal decision, perhaps after days of data analysis and several meetings, every member knows the decision and the reasoning behind it. But what happens when a new member joins the team in the weeks ahead? How will they learn about the decision? How will they understand the background so they don’t feel the need to redo the analysis and bring it all up again?

Collaboration systems help provide context, beyond simple meeting minutes. A new member of the team can ‘go back in time’ and read through conversations and see how documents and decisions evolved. There may even be multiple ways to experience the key meetings, using audio and video technologies. With the right tech, meetings become experiences that last, rather than events in the past.

GL: How does Microsoft 365 helps to enable social collaboration and unlock creativity inside the modern workplace?

JE: Microsoft 365 delivers on four pillars: unlocking creativity, being built for team work, integrating for simplicity, and intelligent security.

No single digital workplace tool is going to address all the needs of the modern workplace. Especially given the generational impact that we’ve just discussed. There will always be some people who fire up their emails on their laptop first thing in the morning; there’ll be those swiping through their emails on the commute into the office; and there will be some people who never want to touch email.

Microsoft builds the digital workplace around people. The first step is to define who’s part of the team, and who are the people outside the team yet still involved in some way. For social collaboration across the organisations, there’s Yammer, which we consider to be for ‘outer-loop communication’, meaning it’s for broad engagement and communication. Yammer is the pulse of the organisation, as leaders can assess engagement and sentiment, and people can share ideas and ask for help regardless of the hierarchy.

One of Microsoft 365’s newest additions is Microsoft Teams, which aligns with what we call, ‘inner-loop communication’. Microsoft Teams provides a communication and compact workspace for the individual’s projects and teams; it’s especially suited to work-focused messaging with team members through the day.

These are just a couple of tools in Microsoft 365. To the point made earlier about the new starter, if I joined a team using Microsoft 365 I’d have immediate access to Yammer, Microsoft Teams, Outlook, SharePoint, Office, and my teammates details, allowing me to get to grips with past decisions, and our current work.

GL: Could you share some tips to make social collaboration more efficient and effective?

JE: There are two ‘quick wins’ to immediately improve collaboration. One of the biggest collaboration killers is emailing attachments, especially when multiple people need to contribute and review the work.

The problem with email attachments is that they are copies, not the original file, and each person who makes a change to their copy of the attachment does so to a different copy. Then they have to email their reworked copy to the other team members. At some point, someone is going to have to manually assemble all the different changes across several different files into one single file – and then they’ll probably mail that file back to the team for ‘final review’. We’ve all seen file names like ‘20171110 V4 Jack comments.docx’ and ‘Policy V5 final final.docx’. It’s laborious, inefficient, and risks missing someone’s comment or changes.

Microsoft 365 supports something that we call ‘cloud attachments‘ – you still receive an email, and you get what looks like an attachment. But, it’s actually just a pointer to a single file on SharePoint, OneDrive or Teams. Everyone who reads or edits the ‘attachment’ is actually opening the exact same file as everyone else. Multiple people can edit the same document, or spreadsheet, or presentation, at the same time. We call it ‘co-authoring’. Nobody ever has to worry about having the ‘latest’ version, it’s all managed by SharePoint.

The second ‘quick win’, which is related to the first, is deciding to store your files in cloud services like SharePoint or OneDrive for Business, and is what Microsoft Teams also uses to store and manage files. All of these tools enable secure access to your content regardless of where you are or the device you’re using. This frees individuals to work how and where they like, and it removes the friction of having to sit down at the ‘right’ computer to open certain files. Inspiration can strike at any time, and creativity can easily be quashed by unwieldy file and communication systems. Ideas need sharing with others if they’re to have impact, and Microsoft 365 gives people easy access to their teammates and the wider organisation. Microsoft 365 takes care of the security and authentication, letting people get straight to their work when and where they need.

Watch Modern Workplace, ‘Global Workforce: The new culture of work’ webcast on demand.


This is a Microsoft sponsored article, but the interview, write-up, and final editing was done in-house by MARGINALIA.