CEOs Discuss How to Navigate the Digital Transformation of their Workforce

The proliferation of digital technologies already has led to fundamental changes in how people work, innovate, engage and produce. Increasingly, we live in an era where more and more roles are becoming automated, not only routine menial tasks but—thanks to digital versions of human intelligence—traditional white-collar jobs. As a result, the jobs of the future will be defined by qualities and skills that technology cannot replicate.

Ironically, these include things like empathy, intuition, teamwork and social skills—the very qualities that growing up glued to devices and screens have stunted in our nation’s younger workers. As George Brooks, Americas Leader, People Advisory Services at EY, put it at a recent roundtable discussion co-sponsored by EY, “Technology is robbing us of empathy. We send out one-way information in social media to be liked, to look good, or to be the first one to share something, but we’re not receiving information back. We have a whole generation that has no concept of a conversation, of getting disappointing feedback. So, there’s a massive lack of empathy.”

At the same time, those young employees have expectations around their roles and their work environments. They seek out companies with a purpose that resonates with them and with work environments that offer them flexibility and the freedom to be who they are—not who the company wants them to be—in the workplace. These expectations are coming at a time when the employment model itself is changing, with employers embracing new sources of labor, including contingent employees (who come and go on an as-needed basis), digital employees (robots) and mobile employees (who work without a designated office space).

What’s more, as the digital revolution streamlines value chains, organizational boundaries are beginning to disappear, with siloes being broken down so that work is being done collaboratively across functions. Collectively, these changes take a toll on employees, who must cope with 24/7 streams of information coming from all directions at once.

These are just some of the megatrends companies must adapt to in order to navigate digital transformation, noted Brooks. “There’s a whole new set of levers to drive business productivity and be an employer of choice today,” he explained, pointing to things like collective purpose, mind clarity, physical environment, technology experience and performance and rewards as talent-management issues that companies need to get their arms around. “Whether you’re trying to create better ‘teaming ability,’ to move into digital or to improve innovation, these are the new levers that will take you to the results you need.”

Already, more and more companies are recognizing that new ways of working call for rethinking both workspaces and work methods. Many are responding by adopting open-plan offices designed to foster collaboration by removing barriers between employees and biophilia-inspired work spaces, incorporating natural light and materials to foster creativity and reduce stress. Others are looking for ways to help employees increase productivity by taking proactive steps to address work-related stress and anxiety.

Ford Motor Company, for example, recently launched mindfulness classes aimed at helping employees cope with overstimulation in the workplace. “We received feedback from our employees that they needed some kind of outlet to help them focus to concentrate,” recounted Michelle Puccio, global HR leader, who said the company responded with mindfulness classes and coaching. “It’s been a tremendous benefit to our employees, and another byproduct has been innovation. The clarity they’re getting from mindfulness actually helped them stimulate innovative new concepts.”

In introducing mindfulness training, Ford joins an impressive roster of companies conducting similar programs, including Google, Target, General Mills and Aetna. The classes and coaching offered are geared toward improving employee productivity, helping employees stay on task and reducing “techno-stress.”

While formal programs for meditation, yoga and breathing exercises might be out of reach for some, there are less ambitious ways for companies to introduce mind-clarity concepts. Simple practices like putting a time limit on meetings and asking participants to check their devices at the door can make profound differences in the tenor of discussions—and, ultimately, underscore the importance of mindfulness.

“When I meet with my management team, I refuse to have computers or iPads or phones [present], and we actually shortened our meetings and [moved away] from those long days that stretched from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” commented Ilham Kadri, president of Sealed Air’s Diversey Care division, who found the change refreshing. “In the past, I was running after time and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, when am I going to do this and that?’ Now, I’m much more relaxed.”

Those efforts to address device distraction and over-scheduling had a positive impact across generational employee groups, she added. “It’s not just about millennials. We need to unlearn and relearn ourselves.”

Investing in helping employees overcome overstimulation ultimately improves customer relationships, noted several discussion participants. “Building self-awareness among your employees is something that can really help them not only be effective from a teaming perspective but in terms of being able to listen to your clients or prospective clients,” asserted John Kronenberger, COO of Vega Americas. “On the mindfulness front, there’s a big benefit to being able to get rid of all the clutter, so that if you’re going into a client call, for example, you’re focused on that conversation.”

Over time, coaching millennials on mindfulness can also help address the empathy gap, noted Michael Lopez, executive director of EY, who pointed out that, ultimately, empathy is taking active listening to the next level. “Active listening is based on listening and, at the end, repeating back what the other person said,” he said. “The next phase of that is when the person gets another five minutes to finish the story and you say back how you think they felt and are feeling. That’s empathetic skill-building, which can be tremendously powerful.”

Typically applied to customer relationships, that process is transferable to employees, posited Puccio, who says that Ford is now applying lessons gleaned from its customer-centric business model to help it identify and address employee needs. “With our Ford F-150 customer, we understand the jobs to be done, the problem to be solved and the tools and processes that support empathy for that customer,” she explained. “Now we’ve taken that framework and shifted it to our people space, to think about the needs of our employees. What are the problems to be solved and the tools and processes to address them? That process has made a tremendous difference in terms of the value we are bringing to our employees.”

At IBM, performance evaluations are used as tools to ensure that millennial employees get the continual feedback they crave. “Our managers are evaluated on how much feedback they give,” said Adriana Gamboa, senior project executive at IBM, who noted that previous generations need to be nudged to adapt to the needs of their younger peers. “We’ve all seen the stats on how positive feedback impacts employee engagement. Older generations need to get used to the fact that, yes, now you have to communicate. Feedback and coaching weren’t automatically given when we grew up.”

Bolstering engagement is also a focus for Covenant Retirement Communities, which had success with an initiative that integrated frontline employees, who provide care for seniors, into team efforts to improve processes. “It’s not glamorous and people aren’t exactly clamoring to be our employees, so we’ve really had to focus on turning our organization upside down and engaging from the bottom up,” reported CEO Terri Cunliffe. “It’s been really interesting to call a nursing assistant up and say, ‘Hey, can you come to Chicago and spend three days on a work team?’ It’s super powerful because it has national influence on our organization and they see their names on the authorship.”

Bringing employees into projects that involve creative thinking and social interaction and that tie into an overarching corporate purpose is an ideal way to address the megatrends redefining employee-employer relationships today, noted Brooks. “Employees need to feel that they will be used and used for their best purpose,” he said. “Work is blending into our lives, and it seems that folks want to wake up and go and do something that they’re really excited about that has meaning. It’s something that millennials started, but the reality is we all want it.”

Jennifer Pellet :As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.