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Beyond the Watercooler: How Tech Is Now Shaping Our Workplace Culture

4 Mins read

Not so long ago, workplace culture used to be defined by the ‘watercooler moment,’ named after the place where people congregated to have informal conversations and discuss ideas. Now, post-pandemic and with remote and hybrid working commonplace, it’s largely technology that’s shaping business culture – not the water dispenser.  

Platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Discord facilitate both internal and external communication with organizations turning to ‘employee engagement platforms’ such as Workvivo, Workleap and BambooHR to create a sense of workplace culture from the ‘top down’ with news, rewards and even customized TV channels. 

Rise of hybrid working

While it’s clear that the days of working 9-5, five days a week are over, it’s also fair to say the last 12 months or so have seen a concerted effort, especially by many larger companies, to implement return to the office (RTO) policies. 

According to a survey from Resume Builder last year, which surveyed 1000 company decision makers, 90% of organizations with office space will have returned to the office by the end of this year. Among those who have already done so, 75% say it has improved work culture and 81% claim it has increased productivity. Conversely, worker retention has worsened in 19% of cases because of RTO. 

Barclays Bank and Boots are just two companies that have recently insisted their employees return to the office five days a week. The latter claimed that it eliminated remote work because of its negative impact on company culture. However, other organizations are taking a less hardline approach. 

Last year, the UK’s civil servants were told they needed to spend ‘at least 60% of their working week in the office’ while Zoom – which once facilitated many of us working from home during Covid-19 – now insists on at least two days a week in the office. This is despite its own survey of 4,000 employees finding that 70% would consider leaving their current job for a more flexible working environment. 

Nevertheless, despite efforts to get employees back in the office, hybrid working remains extremely widespread. According to the most recent ONS survey, 44% of UK workers reported working outside the office, 28% of whom were hybrid workers, and 16% reported working from home only.

Strengthening team bonds

Inevitably, one of the main challenges of any organization is strengthening bonds among team members working remotely. In other words, how do you create a sense of belonging to a company rather than just working for it?

One way remote software provider, Plus Docs, suggests is with icebreakers such as ‘how many years of your life would you trade for $1 billion?’ so that colleagues get to really know each other. “Our icebreakers have created many inside jokes, started conversations with friends and family, and most importantly… they bring our remote co-workers to life as real people”, writes Dan Li, co-founder of Plus Docs, in Our secret to building a remote-first culture. 

Good leadership is another crucial aspect of building a strong team. Led by AI veteran Eric Bravick, CryptoOracle’s Collective Accelerator aims to educate business leaders about which emerging technology platforms are best for serving their organization’s culture and connectivity. Indeed, many leaders are now using technology to create a much stronger workplace culture in the digital age. 

Boosting employee engagement

Last November saw Virgin turn to Zoom’s Workvivo service to launch its ‘Virgin Family’ platform. This platform connects 60,000 staff members across nearly 40 Virgin companies with features such as ‘brand central’ where employees can learn how to become Virgin brand ambassadors as well as more fun options such as ‘wiggle room’ where they can share fun pictures of their pets and a ‘cookie jar’ where they can get treats and discounts on Virgin Experiences.

Similarly, Unilever has rolled out a number of tech-based initiatives aimed at improving staff well-being and improving productivity. “All our key processes from recruitment, learning, performance management, recognition, engagement, and communication, to managing exits, have online interfaces,” BP Biddappa, Unilever’s Chief HR Officer told LinkedIn last year. Included is a platform that allows anyone to raise any concern about the workplace and an internal, AI-powered talent marketplace called FLEX Experiences.

Increasing productivity with AI tools 

Providing potential internal job opportunities isn’t the only benefit of AI. For employers, time tracking tools such as TimeCamp use AI tools to monitor remote staff’s working hours and activities while for employees platforms such as PlusDocs streamline the production of presentations, freeing up their time to focus on more strategic and ultimately more rewarding tasks. 

While there are some concerns around the productivity of remote and hybrid workers, what’s clear is that the latest tech tools can help shape the workplace culture for the better as well as boost productivity. For example, by using the latest digitising resource management tools, it’s possible for businesses to schedule a wide range of resources including people, equipment, materials and locations much more effectively than using traditional tools such as Microsoft Excel. 

Final thoughts

Technology is changing workplace culture beyond recognition. Where once people met at the watercooler to catch up socially and in real boardrooms for meetings, now interaction is just as likely to be ‘virtual’ on Slack, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. With this shift comes massive opportunities for businesses to drive productivity using AI tools. For employees, there are advantages too – notably the flexibility to work from anywhere and the ability to focus on less mundane and more creative tasks. 

However, as with any technology, there are pros and cons. Employees need to feel connected to their colleagues and the organization they work for in order to feel valued and, ultimately, productive. Managers also need to ensure their staff are physically and mentally fit by ensuring they are in regular contact with them in person, while leaders have to shape workplace culture using a combination of both online engagement tools and real-world activities. It’s this ‘best of both worlds’ approach that is ultimately most likely to lead to business success. 

Chris Price has been a freelance technology journalist since the 1990s. In addition to editing two consumer tech blogs, TechDigest.tv and ShinyShiny.tv, he also regularly contributes technology, business and marketing articles to various publications including The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Tech Radar, IFSEC Global and AI Business. A passionate outdoor swimmer, Chris is also a qualified lifeguard.

Workplace culture stock image by insta_photos/Shutterstock

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