By Gloria Lombardi

The benefits of a well-designed and well-managed digital workplace should be obvious, but it’s not enough to simply invest in the latest, greatest technology. The cultural shift required for embedding new ways of working demands a clear business change strategy, and most importantly, a deep understanding of employees’ needs.

A decent digital workplace enables real-time communication and synchronous, or asynchronous, collaboration that cuts down admin and improves productivity. Social communication tech enables the previously unheard majority to be directly involved with business and so improves agility. And emerging technologies, such as flow technology, pragmatic analytics, AI and chatbots, can analyse masses of data, free people from repetitive tasks, and offer a different interface to systems.

But it’s wise to be wary; all this tech, all these new interfaces and systems and apps can feel overwhelming or intrusive for some people, and may even make them feel disconnected from their colleagues.

While our tech is now ‘always on’ and we are ‘always connected’, we should remember that work belongs to humans. Business belongs to people. Technology must serve our needs, not the other way around. A simple ethos like this is something all organisations need, to be productive while still being focused on the meaning of work and the value of the end result.

The future of work is being created right now by our developing ways of working and by innovators in the field, and will be supported by the evolution of next gen enterprise infrastructure. Our supporting tech will need to interact with individuals in useful and convenient ways, it will need to prioritise people, putting them first. This is what Juliet Hailstone, Head of Marketing at people first, firmly believes.

MARGINALIA spoke with Hailstone to explore how the people first platform contributes to the future of work. Powered by artificial intelligence features, the platform promises to deliver improved productivity and engagement. In this interview, Hailstone shares her views on digital transformation’s impact on HR, the impact of AI on the employee experience, and offers her predictions for 2018.

Gloria Lombardi: Our workplaces have been transformed by technology. How do you see the evolution of HR as a consequence of this digital transformation?

Juliet Hailstone: Looking at the impact of digital transformation on people and how it impacts their expectations within the world of work, it seems that companies are spending more and more money on HR technology and engagement tools; this type of technology stack is growing. But employee engagement, productivity, and the overall satisfaction of employees are all decreasing. So right now, something isn’t working. We need to ask why this is?

One of the reasons is that technology is often applied to the world of work in ways that compromise people’s productivity rather than enhancing it. A recent study by Gallup found 52 percent of employees are going through the motions of being at work – doing what they’ve got to do – but are often not engaged, not happy and therefore not as productive as they could be if they brought their ‘full selves’ to the party.

One of the main impacts of digital transformation is that people practitioners and strategists have a bigger responsibility to try and fix all this. Primarily, it involves considering the world of work from the people aspect: What do people need? How do they work? How can the company help them to be the best they can be, to benefit of their own happiness and productivity levels?

So rather than it being about processes and systems, the responsibility now is to use the technology to put people first. We could continue to let tech dominate human relationships and prompting growing levels of disengagement, or we could put people at the heart of everything, and make digital transformation work for them.

GL: So, what should HR do to ensure they are putting people first when adopting digital tools?

JH: Businesses need to get on board with a new kind of relationship between the employer and the employee. Putting people first involves companies committing to a more open relationship with people. It’s respectful and balanced, and it’s about achieving the best for both parties. For business leaders and their HR teams, it’s about accepting the inevitable culture change, working to embed a new ethos, and considering the different ways employees and employers can work together to achieve the best possible results.

GL: Could you share a concrete example?

JH: I can use ourselves, people first, as an example. We live and breathe the ethos of ‘people first’. We have very respectful relationships with each other no matter where someone would sit in the traditional ‘business hierarchy’ (we have a psychologically flat structure). We know each other’s strengths, and we are decisive on how we want technology to be used. We obviously use the people first platform ourselves. The chatbot’s ‘Focus Mode’ is my personal favourite – it screens our emails and helps protect our moments of optimal productivity.

There’s a great deal of discussion around being in the flow at work at the moment, and that’s what the people first team lives. Our technology complements it and helps us to stay in the flow, and be productive and engaged. We’re strongly connected to our purpose.

GL: How does the people first platform work, exactly?

JH: The people first platform very much contributes to the future of work. It is built on Microsoft Azure technology (PaaS). The app includes the HR management tools you would expect to find in a well-established HR system, but that is only the start. people first applies AI and flow technology to keep people happy, engaged and at their most productive. The system proactively uses data to support managers and employees to do the best job they can – be that during an augmented check-in, through automatic job crafting, or through chatbot briefings, coaching and ‘Focus Mode’. It’s all about keeping people in the happy, productive, energised and engaged flow – where people are energised by their work to deliver the best outputs they possibly can.

So, the people first app is much more than just an HR system; it’s about people realisation.

And technology-wise, the open people platform within which the people first app sits is truly open technology, so our partners can easily link to people first, or build their own apps using the people first development tools and sell them on the people first marketplace.

GL: How does your use of AI impact the employee experience? 

JH: people first is infused with artificial intelligence. It is everywhere – from employees’ ability to undertake transactional HR matters such as booking holiday through their chatbot, to automatic data insights fed to those that need them.

During check-ins, people first virtually coaches managers through the process using insights, almost acting as a third person in the room that is recording the process and making recommendations to ensure that both parties get the best outcomes.

The system learns when employees are at their most productive and helps them to protect their focus time, recommending ‘focus mode’ activation to protect them from interruptions.

There are many more examples – hopefully these examples show how infused and intelligent people first AI is, and how ready it is to help keep employees happy and in the productive flow right now. The entire people first platform is intelligent enough to help any employee to do their best work. But it’s not ‘big brother’; the platform isn’t watching people work – people are working with the platform to create a better work life.

GL: Looking at the year head, do you have any expectations around the future of work. What are your future of work predictions for 2018?

JH: We should assume that AI and automation will continue to impact work, but people will remain the most important focus. Our work systems and tools will take on aspects of our personal tech and our consumer tech, and people will bring their personal productivity tactics to the workplace.

The technology that fails to take on board the people aspect of work, that fails to genuinely help people when they’re new, when they’re busy, when they’re frustrated, or simply when they want to give more of themselves but don’t know how, will not be fit for the future of work.

The future of work is about people. The most innovative and most useful tools will help people find their flow – to be productive and enjoy their work. Such positive engagement benefits both parties, the individual and the organisation; it’s an alliance. Organisations will need to recognise the value of this alliance, building respectful relationships to support a happy and engaged workforce.