How would you define the digital transformation of the workplace? Prior to the pandemic, many had begun incorporating some remote work into their schedules, and virtual meeting platforms were helping to keep distributed teams connected; cut to the present day, the transformation has been accelerated, and these practices have become daily standards. Today’s guest, Dr. Amy Loomis, describes digital transformation as “the intersection of technology and organization - a cultural change that is reshaping how location is approached in the workforce.”
Dr. Loomis is research director for IDC’s worldwide Future of Work market research service. Her research looks at how varying technologies influence workers' skills and behaviors, organizational culture, and worker experience, and how the workspace itself enables the future enterprise. Prior to IDC, she spent 15 years at IBM and was the co-founder of IBM’s Think Academy, a global digital learning platform and program designed to engage employees and partners in learning about emerging technologies and digital transformation.
In addition, Dr. Loomis is an independent analyst and founder of Loomis Digital Learning, consulting with a range of clients from Fortune 100 organizations to startups on digital transformation, learning, and employee engagement. She speaks candidly with Paul about the importance of education and how organizations can best navigate the accelerated transformation during the pandemic, offers insight on how leaders can effectively shift their operations while keeping their teams empowered and connected to their work, and provides examples of companies that are successfully leading the charge.
Transcript of this episode
As you build up those relationships, using those technologies—the use of Slack, the use of Jira, the use of many other tools—really facilitate what has become a common way of collaborating in absence of being present, side by side. It works when you have a culture that accommodates that, when there's a culture of trust, when there's a common sense of purpose, really, regardless of what the employment status is for any of those individuals.
There's a revolution taking place right now. Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. The talent economy, the idea that at the center of work is the talent, is the individual.
Companies today face a global war for talent, and high-skilled talent is demanding flexibility around the way they work and the way they live. This podcast brings together thought leaders, staffing experts, and top freelancers to talk about the evolving nature of work and how companies can navigate these changes to remain competitive, drive innovation, and ensure success.
Welcome to the Talent Economy Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Estes. Today, I'm speaking with Dr. Amy Loomis, research director for IDC's worldwide Future of Work market research service. In her role, Dr. Loomis' research looks at how varying technologies influence worker skills, behavior, organizational culture, and worker experience, and how the workspace itself enables the future of the enterprise. Dr. Loomis spent 15 years at IBM and was the co-founder of IBM's Think Academy, a global digital learning platform designed to engage employees and partners learning about emerging technologies and digital transformation.
Hi, I'm Amy Loomis. I'm worldwide research director for the Future of Work at IDC. I've been covering Future of Work for about a year and a half there now. My primary focus at the moment, as one might imagine, is on what's happening with remote work and the return to the office, or as I like to say, the re-imagined office. So those are two areas that I focus on, but I'm also bringing to bear what this has to do with education because you can't separate work from education. Everybody is not only concerned about how to work remotely but how to work with their kids in the background and helping their kids to learn remotely. So really, that is a bit of my background: the scope between the future of education and the future of work.
Well, I'm really excited to talk to you about all of those topics, but before we get into those, I want to talk a little bit about your background. You spent a lot of time at IBM and you were selected to lead their first MOOC: massively open online course. This is before the pandemic and before online learning was at the top of everybody's mind, and the course was called Think Academy. At a large corporation back then, what was driving this idea of massive online learning?
I think it's interesting that you asked the question that way because, in fact, while we call it a massively online open course, Think Academy was so much more than that. We started way back in the fall of 2013, if you can imagine, not with the purpose of developing online learning, because there were many others at IBM at the time that had great expertise in doing this and there were numerous different programs afoot. Think Academy was really designed to facilitate the digital transformation and the cultural transformation of IBM at the time because they were really going through a transition around cloud computing and moving from a traditional hardware/software services model to one that was much more focused on cloud computing and cognitive computing, or AI, as we call it much more recently.
So I think that understanding that integration between education and cultural change is an important one. It's not that one is isolated from the other, as I think people are finding out very quickly now.
One of the things that we talk about often on this show is the digital transformation of the significant contingent or independent workforce that is growing by the day. That transformation is, in many ways, a cultural transformation for people who traditionally have worked with full-time employees on location. What was the learning, or the challenges and the opportunities that you learned in Think Academy when trying to get a group of people who had spent most of their careers in a specific space to realize that the world would be different and there was opportunity at the end of the tunnel?
At the time, even then, IBM was unique in having a very distributed workforce, and the pendulum swings and everybody comes back into designated office spaces and then they swing back out. Obviously, now everybody is remote. But the challenge, I think, is to think of it at the intersection point between technology and organization. So it's not simply a matter of adopting digital practices for doing jobs, whether that be collaboration, whether that be development, whether that be finance, whatever the case may be, it's also about ways of thinking about enabling those employees and getting them to feel like they're part of a team, even if they're not physically co-present.
So some of the elements of that, and part of what we were trying to do with Think Academy, is create a common home base, if you will. So a single source of what's changing: How does it affect me in my geography? How does it affect me in my day-to-day life? Does it really even matter if I'm a full-time or a part-time person? Going through this experience, we're unified by that experience, it helps everybody have a common language to speak about whatever the transformation might be. It could be an organizational transformation, it could be a technological transformation, it could be both, and that sense of community really gets fostered in doing a number of things.
One is obviously that you have access to everyone on a day-to-day basis, both synchronously and asynchronously. So you can send them a note when everyone's busy and hope that you get an answer back, and if things are going well, then likely you would. You might need to get an instant response, and so that's a synchronous back and forth via instant messaging or a comparable kind of social media that allows for that as you build up those relationships using those technologies, and those are just two of many. I mean, the use of Slack, the use of Jira, the use of many other tools, so I'm not picking on anyone, really facilitate what has become a common way of collaborating in absence of being present, side by side. It works when you have a culture that accommodates that, when there's a culture of trust, when there's a common sense of purpose, and a common sense of belonging, really, regardless of what the employment status is for any of those individuals.
As we're talking about the transformation of the workforce, give me an example of a company. You work with many companies at IDC and really dig deep into the statistics and data. Give me an example of a company that you've encountered in your research who's really doing a great job of digital transformation, especially maybe even in the pandemic.
Well, it's interesting. I'm going to refer actually to an [Inc 00:07:33] article—and forgive me that it's not an internal client, but I think it's important because people can actually look at the article and see some of the specifics, and this was profiling Siemens. What I liked about what they are doing is to, instead of hunker down and track every keystroke, or every action, or every task that employees are doing, they're shifting to a much more trust-based, outcomes-driven approach to doing transformation. So that shifts the emphasis on the outcomes from tracking and all of the tasks, and the specific things that people are doing from one minute to the next, one hour to the next, where are you and what are you doing kind of a thought process.
And then, the other is that they are empowering employees to make their own decisions. This is very comparable to the ethos of doing agile development, of putting people before processes, of looking at having running code rather than documenting every little, last bit. It's a mindset, and I think it's a mindset that lends itself very well to doing digital transformation. Because part of what happens there, as the example that I'm giving for the question, is a way of enabling the employees to have a sense of self-efficacy, to have a sense of autonomy, a sense of agency in the work that they're doing, and yet still holding them accountable for the outcomes of that work. So it's not that you're not holding people accountable and saying, "Oh, we're in a pandemic. It's difficult. Just do the best you can." Quite the opposite. It's saying, "We need now more than ever to stay afloat, to be productive, to work as one towards this common goal. We trust that you know how to do your job and do it well. We trust that you're aware of these outcomes, we're going to remind you of them, but we're not going to micromanage your day-to-day work." So that's one example of one company.
I see elements of that kind of transformation and successful digital transformation happening at many companies. So without naming their names, I can give you another example of a company that is focused on developing software for project management, and they use their own software to, for example, make sure that people who are strong contributors but not very visible in the company have their efforts recognized. Because if you didn't have the capacity to track the outcomes and the contributions that they offered, you might miss that. I've spoken to them about how they've been able to promote people who would have been invisible to more senior leaders had it not been that they had the capacity to see that work.
I would say part of the success of any digital transformation, if you look at that maturity, is the capacity to be able to collaborate across functions, to have those functions and the collaboration between them be financially invested in by senior leadership. So it's necessary, but it's insufficient for senior leaders to say, "Yes, we very much endorse a cross-functional approach to getting us to our next strategic goal, and we're going to invest in giving you an ongoing budget line item that is dedicated to doing that exact integration."
I would say another element of success is one that essentially weaves education into the day-to-day processes that are happening. That can be the adoption of new tools, it can be the continuous learning of new skills. So I've spoken to, for example, a leading insurance company where their COO was ensuring that people who had been in jobs for long periods of time had opportunity to learn new skills around development because at the time, and this is pre-COVID, there was a shortage of people who could do low code, no-code development, and automation of tasks that were repetitive. So she put in place a program that essentially identified people who had potential to be leaders, who were excellent at their jobs but needed to be able to find ways to teach not just people how to do those jobs but bots and other automation tools to take on those repetitive tasks so they could focus on really important things like problem resolution with customers.
So I think any organization that is aware of what needs to happen in the way of continuous education with their employees, that's aware that they need to be driving cross-functional integration, and not only supporting it from an executive standpoint but from a budgetary and a consistent budgetary standpoint, those are the ones that are being successful in their digital transformation.
It's a powerful example when you talk about an executive having awareness and looking at people who have been in jobs for a long period of time and helping them by giving them the opportunity to reskill and learn new things that will make sure that they're relevant and valuable to the organization long term.
I want to talk about education. Prior to COVID, in a corporate setting, you'd go to a conference or you may attend an in-person class, and right now, all of our experiences are screen-based and you hear a lot about Zoom fatigue, but I think it's just computer fatigue in many ways. How do you think are examples that you may have heard of where companies are trying to figure out how to keep people engaged in learning while also doing their jobs sitting in front of a computer?
I think that's a really interesting question because it's evolved. When everybody first went to remote work, the big challenge was: How do I get comfortable being in front of a camera? How do I get comfortable accessing all the functions and features of collaborating so that I can continuously get access to the people that I need to learn, as well as the more traditional, canned learning modules, if you will? I say that because I think there is a movement afoot, by necessity, of going from a content-based mentality of how we learn in a digital fashion to being a context-based approach to learning.
This matters because if you're in a setting where you're in a classroom and you're sitting with other people, there's all of these ways in which you learn that are not part of the curriculum. You find out the person next to you had a similar experience and they share their... for instance, you find out that you are good at explaining certain things, or maybe not good at explaining certain things. There's a degree of social self-awareness in the process. If you're standing in front of a screen and you're just absorbing video after video, or reading white paper after paper, or taking a quiz after quiz, it's absolutely exhausting, and the research indicates that it's also not particularly effective. If you know about the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, it really takes at least three instances of engagement and re-engagement that are spaced apart for someone to actually remember what it is that they saw. So the question is, can I do it? And then, the second question is, does it have an effect? The traditional ways of doing this, digitally, don't particularly have a good effect.
So your question was, how do you mitigate between the need to have continuous learning and the overload of screen time that is just a matter of doing one's day job? I would say, pragmatically, there are a number of things that you can do. One, ensure that your day job does involve continuous learning, that it's not an isolation of learning from doing your work, that those two should be commensurate with one another, should be complementary to one another. So that's an important distinction.
The second is that there is a pendulum swing to have less camera time so that people can essentially let their guard down, they can have a degree of informality, and their engagement with the material that is much less stressful. It allows people to start to have some quiet downtime to think. So you build in, on the one hand, the learning into the work experience so it's not a plus one, it's a part of a whole. You then find ways to make sure that you've isolated that learning elements in ways that don't overtax the person. It's very hard to learn when you've got instant messaging popping up, you've got appointment reminders popping up, you've got bells that say that you've just gotten a message or an email that's come in, or there's 15 minutes till your next appointment. That's not conducive to good learning.
So part of it is the practice of how you do it, part of it is how your organization looks at the work and the learning experiences as part of an integrated whole. And I think part of it is going from being oriented towards, "I've read the white paper. I took the quiz. I watched the video." That, again, is documenting action, it's not looking at outcomes.
So we talked before about being outcome-centric in the way that you manage teams to help them to be more able to focus on digital transformation and perform digital transformation; the same is true for learning and remote learning. In particular, you need to be focused on the outcomes. What is it that this person can do following their educational experience that they couldn't do before? That's why learning in the flow of work, using applications like WalkMe or Whatfix that essentially build that learning into the use of the tools themselves and to the experience itself, that makes it a lot easier to absorb what it is that you're trying to learn. So it's both the technology and the mindset and the pedagogical approach.
When you were talking, it really resonated with me because one of the struggles I had when I was working in big tech was I wasn't able to find time to learn. I wasn't able to find downtime because I would show up to work at seven, and there would be meetings all day long, and then you'd have to take your assessments and all of that sort of stuff. When I left that environment, I found that there was great power in being able to shut down the computer and go for a walk and listen to something, or take some time and really, like you said, go back to a topic and then leave space in between. So I think that's great advice.
One of the things I've noticed from former colleagues, and my inbox is filled with this, is this is a radical change when we talk about the type of employee empowerment and digital transformation for managers. Traditionally, in hierarchical organizations, the manager's job was to supervise. I mean, there's a term called supervisor. And so, managers are now having to rethink their job, and in some ways, that makes them feel less safe because, "Now what is my job as a supervisor in an organization that is digitally transforming, where employees want more empowerment?" How do you think, or advise a manager that used to have the job of running a bunch of meetings and checking people's work, and that starting to evolve and it's scary to some?
It's very scary. We have gotten so many inquiries around this very topic. I think it's one of the unexpected and unintended consequences of the shift to remote because traditionally, managers would walk around the office, they could see who was in and out, they could see who was busy or not. They had that sense of an important role to play in monitoring and engaging spontaneously. That's much more difficult to do in a remote setting. So we get lots of calls saying things like, how do I get my managers to be able to effectively engage remote distributed teams who are in different time zones or are in different geographies, that are operating in different ways? Those people weren't always in the office together initially, but oftentimes, there was a segregation between the people who were remote and the people who were on premise. Now, with everybody off premise, the people that were used to being in the office together, they have a culture, but the manager's role is less clear.
So there are a couple of things that seem to be happening. One is, on the extreme side, there are organizations that are trying to "manage" by instituting all these draconian tools that look at the number of keystrokes or have the camera always on to see what people are doing. Those don't work for the same reason that I mentioned before—you're not measuring the outcome, you're measuring the process and the tasks at hand.
We think that there's a real opportunity now for there to be much more empathetic management. What I mean by that is not sympathy, not: I'm so sorry that you're having a hard time because your relative is sick, or I'm so sorry that it's difficult because you've got three kids at home and they all need to be homeschooled. It's not sympathy for the other person, it's empathy. It's understanding what it is like to be in the position of the person that you were managing and getting a better recognition of how your actions are directly affecting them.
So for example, if you're a manager and it's four o'clock on Friday, and you clear out your inbox and delegate all the things you need to do for your team and you close up shop at five, those people are trying to close up shop at five, and all of a sudden, their inbox is filled with a whole bunch of things to do. The implication is by Monday, so you've just eaten into that person's weekend. That doesn't work very well over time, it starts to burn down teams and so forth. So what do you do? We've been advising organizations to build in training for their managers, not just their employees, on how to work effectively to have the same kind of leadership and camaraderie and engagement with their teams that they would if they were in person—using different techniques, of course—but such that it has an effect of everyone feeling like we're all driving to the same outcome. Not like, "My manager is riding my butt."
So I think that that is a difficult conversation to have because so much of the HR focus has been on employee engagement or leadership development, but not management development. There are a lot of interesting VR tools now that are in play that allow managers to get a sense of what it's like to be, for example, the only female in a room of very tall executives when you're short, or get a sense of being the only person of color in a room full of white people, or getting a sense of what it's like to be in a situation where you're being told that you're being let go. That's a hard road to hoe if you don't have practice doing those things. Think about how difficult it is to offboard someone when you're not looking at them face to face, except through a screen. That's a very difficult conversation, and managers aren't particularly well prepared to do mediated management. So I think that's a real area for opportunity.
We used to come through in the difference between someone calling up and saying, "Hey, IDC, how do I make my teams collaborate?" As opposed to: How do I help my teams to collaborate? Those are two very different sentences, even though they sound very similar.
It's one of the things I've noticed is there's two types of managers that are approaching this pandemic. One says, "Hey, let's change the way we work because I want to find some time to reskill or some downtime so that I don't burn out." So they're reducing meetings, they're working a lot more transparently, they're focusing on outcomes, and those sorts of things. There's another set of managers, and I can't tell whether it's the majority or the minority, that are trying to keep the same cadence as they did in person, meaning, "Here I have my staff meeting, and then I have my directs meeting, and then of course we have our all-hands, and then this group has their whole, and the days are just filled with people sitting in a chair, staring at a screen. That, I think, is more taxing than even going in person and interacting with people and sitting in meetings all day.
Actually, this is something that a lot of the software vendors that we work with are well aware of. They're doing things like building in downtime into their applications so that you can set the full meeting times to not be back-to-back so that you can be aware of when your team members are being pulled into too many meetings and not able to get the work done that they need to get done. So that's a very interesting turn of events, and this is not just happening for project management software but also document management and sharing. You see vendors being able to offer managers tools that help them be better managers by giving them insight into who on their team is isolated and not collaborating with others, because that might be a problem. If they're heads down on a project for a day, for example, no worries. If they haven't collaborated or popped up for three, four, or five days, that might be a sign that you need to reach out to them and see is something going on.
On the other hand, there are people who are in these, as you say, back-to-back-to-back meetings, they're not getting anything done but meetings. That's not helpful. There needs to be quiet time carved in, and that's the role of the manager to protect your team from being over-taxed, over-interrupted, and it's a delicate balance. What's interesting about the meetings themselves is that in times of crisis, it's very true that people need more meetings, more contact of a certain kind to give them a finger on the pulse of what's going on and what's changing organizationally with corporate rules, regulations, with policies that are new and upcoming, and that'll only increase when we start to gear up to go into an office space again. But I think that the nature of those meetings is definitely needing to change.
As Dan Ariely would say, he wrote the book Predictably Irrational, there's some predictably irrational elements to it. So more meetings, but shorter meetings, not more meetings that are all about business, shorter meetings that include conversation at the beginning. People are isolated, people need to be able to have those informal discussions, be that about the weather or their kids or somebody's health or whatever the case. That is just as important to productivity as the business at hand. So it's counterintuitive because you'd say, "Well, we don't want to eat up everyone's time. We're just going to get to brass tacks and then we're going to leave off." This is where I think a lot of the practices from agile development are super helpful because they look at checking in on the health of the team, what they're thinking, what they're feeling, how they're coming to work that day, how they're showing up. Not in some long and exhaustive way, but in a way that acknowledges we are multidimensional people. We're all human coming to this very human experience, and I think it's very important to affirm that. And for managers who don't do that naturally, giving them the tools to remind them to.
Yeah. I think that one of the things that I always advise people that reach out and organizations is really question the word “meeting.” I think one of the things that you said was, hey, it is important to be transparent during this time, to give people insight into what you know, what you don't know, what the outcomes are, how things are changing to give them a sense of safety, and that comes with transparent knowledge. I think sometimes, organizations default to trying to pull everybody together into a meeting room or a call to do that versus some companies that are remote-first, that's done transparently in asynchronous tools like Slack, or you can even do an email and stuff. So managers have a responsibility to share that information, it doesn't always require a meeting, but it does require more work on the case of the manager to pull that narrative together and that information together.
What are some statistics you are seeing as people gear up to try to figure out what does 2021, 2022 look like?
I think that is always a challenge, to predict the future, but that is what IDC is here to do. To give you a feel of some of the research data that we've gotten back, so pre COVID, only about 20% of organizations had at-home workers, but over half the organizations that we've surveyed expect to have their employees working from home at the end of 2020. That said, 40% indicated that they currently don't have any plans for employees who are working from home to return to their facilities. So it's a real split here as to what it's going to look like starting in 2021.
What is clear is that hybrid will be much more of a business-as-usual model for working. Whether the hybrid is manifest by having some people working full-time remote, some people working full-time in the office, and some people working two-three days a week in the office and the other days at home, which is a model that we're hearing more and more about. But it's interesting because what we thought was impossible to do, whether it be for employees or students, having that kind of remote or hybrid model is now considered the default, and certainly our data points to that. I would say that they are workers in the office. There's really high rate of absence as the most concern: 49.5% of our US respondents in a quick poll that we did back in May said that high rates of absences were the biggest challenge that they were facing for people getting into the office physically. I think that is not surprising given the health concerns and given what's going on currently.
The other element of it is that you think about, well, what technologies are going to help to enforce things like social distancing, contact tracing, all of that, that's one of the hallmarks of what we can expect to see in the next 12 months. Really, we get phone calls every single day focused on those questions. So what are the most important ones that people are looking at now as far as a return to the office? About 50% are focused on touchless technology, temperature sensing, and heat monitoring, thermal imaging, that kind of thing. Those are very much top of mind for people who are focused on that work, bringing people back to work.
That gives you a sense of what the immediate next 12 to 24 months are going to be like. We'll be in a situation where we have a lot more monitoring going on certainly within our physical environment. Some of these things are evolutionary, like increased cleaning and disinfecting in offices, which isn't a very sexy thing to talk about. Others of them are going to be much more revolutionary, so you think about bringing in AR and VR into an office space so that the people who are physically there can collaborate with the people who are remote. It gives you a whole different dimension of what it means to be a worker at an organization when your coworkers are visually being manifest through avatars and things like that. So will that happen next week, next month? No, not likely. I mean, it is happening in certain commercial settings today.
We're also seeing it in the MBA. I know Microsoft just teamed up with the MBA, and now fans are showing up in the stands. So I think not only are our workplaces trying to figure out what this looks like but you have sports and the arts and other places that are trying to figure out what a virtual world looks like. Because that connection, that experience that comes from being together is critical.
Absolutely. So I think some of the things that we talked about are going to be, and have already started to become, part of the fabric of what we are seeing for the next, say, three to five years. So things like embedded learning, that is going to be the way that we wind up having the difference between skills gaps that are insurmountable and the ability to compensate for those skill gaps. So for example, I mean right now, there are quite a few consequences to not having the right people on board with the right skills to be able to get the work... Especially when there isn't budget to hire people. I mean, that's a big deal. So what do you do when you can't hire them? You have to start using tools like virtual reality, using tools like embedded learning to be able to upskill and cross-skill your teams that you have currently. I think that that is a practice that we're beginning to see was there and is being accelerated. So that's an important shift in at least the degree to which these things are being adopted at a broad scale.
I think we're starting to see a lot of leaders invest in things that were sort of nice-to-haves or things that, hey, I'll get to one day, are now in the forefront. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and your experience of what you're seeing at IDC. If somebody wants to get in touch with you or learn more about the work that you're doing, what's the best way to follow it?
That would be great. Email, you can reach me at [email protected], and I'd be happy to answer questions. I'm also on LinkedIn, so you can reach me through LinkedIn as well.
Sounds great. Well, we'll put all that information, of course, in the show notes. Thanks so much for sharing what you're seeing in the market. I think the advice that you provided was very specific so I hope it's helpful to those trying to navigate digital transformation during a pandemic.
I'm your host, Paul Estes. Thank you for listening to the Talent Economy Podcast. Learn more about the future of work and the transformation of the staffing industry from those leading the conversation at Staffing.com, where you can hear from experts, sign up for our weekly newsletter, and get access to the best industry research on the future of staffing. If you've enjoyed the conversation, we'd appreciate you rating us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or just tell a friend about the show. Be sure to tune in next week for another episode of the Talent Economy.