Workplace of the future: digital technologies

6 December 2016

Digital technologies are an indispensable part of business today. Through them, many new forms of cooperation within teams and across companies are available – and this has been dubbed ‘workplace 4.0’. Stephan Leschke, CEO of Ferrari electronic, explains how a workplace no longer needs to operate from a fixed location, and can be aided by technologies such as Unified Communications and cloud computing. For companies and their employees, this new working environment harbours many opportunities but also some challenges – key to success in the future is the company’s IT.

It is almost impossible to imagine an office, a production facility or a car workshop, for example, without a computer, laptop or tablet as part of the operation. After all, in 2015, over 280 million PCs were sold and the world has more mobile phones than people.

According to the Gartner presentation at Microsoft Ignite 2015, the transformation of the workplace can be divided into four generations. The first three are:

  • First: this includes original computer technologies, which increased productivity and simplified communications. The most prominent component of this generation was the email, but electronic calendars, forums and fixed conference systems come from the same period.
  • Second: virtual team rooms, instant messaging and portals. Collaboration tools were developed from this phase. The focus of this stage of development was cooperation, preferably in real time, and a transformation of the workplace, away from the desk, towards the now ubiquitous online digital files.
  • Third: a phase in which many companies of all sizes are likely still located, and which is driven by trends from the consumer sector such as social networks, mobile devices and cloud storage like Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive, and are frequently used as a ‘shadow IT’, thus falling off the grid of the IT departments. Security risks, a loss of control and increasing complexity are the result of this.

Poised for the fourth generation

The fourth generation, or workplace 4.0, is all about data-driven processes, smart machines and the internet of things (IoT). Mobile technologies, including one’s private phone, have found their way into the workplace. The physical limits set by desks, LAN cables and or landline phones have increasingly dissolved as cooperation has become more targeted and efficient. Even the indispensable email is currently undergoing a change: instead of creating static mailbox dashboards, they are now dynamically controlled by data and automated processes. As part of this digital transformation, two groups come into focus: general staff and the IT department. The former because they now use these new technologies, and the latter because they control and administer them.

Digitisation of privacy as a model for the CIO

Whether video conferencing, or using team collaboration tools such as SharePoint or Yammer, these solutions all have the goal of improving cooperation, and letting the employees work more productively and efficiently. However, there is often one major challenge: staff members are using technology in their private lives that has surpassed that within the office, and will demand flexible solutions from an employer so that they can be used in a fast and simple manner.

More and more, private devices are becoming the solution; offering greater flexibility, a more democratic decision-making process and a closer community. These personal benefits help companies increase productivity, improve performance and optimise working practices. However, this requires the responsible use of shared data, as well as an understanding of the sensitivity involved. All these factors contribute to the successful transformation to a workplace 4.0 environment and rely heavily on the IT department.

With progressive digitisation, IT specialists have new tasks for their remit. Through collaboration with the human resources (HR) department, they manage to create a positive user experience and an acceptance of new IT solutions, and they participate in strategic decisions and act as role models for this collaborative corporate culture. New roles such as the ‘user experience designer’, ‘digital ethics advocate’ or ‘community manager’ arise.

Cloud computing as a key factor

Private devices are becoming the solution; offering greater flexibility, a more democratic decision-making process and a closer community.

To fully embrace the new possibilities of workplace 4.0, it is time to say goodbye to old habits of the past. This is true for existing processes, as well as for the hardware. Cloud computing, the use of resources and applications over a network as a service play a key role. The advantages include that hardware costs are reduced and the number of licences can be managed flexibly per the user base. In addition, the applications are always up to date, which is very important.

Cloud applications can be scalable and largely independent of location. Growing a company in this manner, the IT must grow with it. There are a few requirements for cloud computing to be successful though; a sufficient data connection, site selection and server location, and their specific laws are essential. Most IT manufacturers, having recognised the benefits of the cloud, offer their solutions as a flexible service.

Unified Communications brings together that which belongs together

Corporate communications contain countless components – from the fax machine, the telephone and email to conference solutions or access control – and are therefore a key element of workplace 4.0. Unified Communications (UC) has the objective of pooling all the channels together to facilitate cooperation and communication in the best possible way.

The focus of UC is usually on email programs such as Microsoft Office Outlook. On this platform, one can run emails, send a fax, SMS or voicemail – telephony and instant messaging are other essential functions. The user is no longer forced to constantly switch from one application to another as one can, through UC, receive all messages in any format, into the inbox.

Archiving all documentation becomes hassle-free as this is now done automatically through the UC email system. Technically speaking, UC protocols today are becoming more standardised and have great potential in the future within IP communications – in which the signals are divided into data packets and sent via IP. Even older telephone systems that transmit using analogue signals or via ISDN can be retrofitted with special media gateways. This enables companies to modernise their processes, while protecting existing investments. Even UC solutions from the cloud are already available. This will open up new opportunities to reduce costs and improve the stability of, for example, the components of a fax transmission. Cloud solutions are fast becoming the method of choice for today’s leading-edge businesses.

Outlook: the workplace of the future

Despite all the advances in technology, the unification of telephony, fax and messaging UC has not yet reached its limits. In workplace 4.0, new solutions will have a role to play. Gradually, the network will be able to access other areas of the world of work – such as heating controls or security systems, as seen in ‘smarthome’ models. Businesses are also able to use this technology in areas such as access control; for example, a security camera, of which the signal is controlled via IP, can deliver images to the inbox of a designated member of the team.

The possibilities go on to include applications such as lighting, and signing in and out of meeting rooms via UC providing a locking mechanism solution to one’s inbox. The advantage to this, as many companies have devices for building control and a UC solution, is that now the two are able to communicate with each other and take a step further towards workplace 4.0.

The world of work is changing – it is now familiar with email, instant messaging and social media, and will soon be followed by the next stage, in which more and more devices or building elements will be linked. This gives employees and companies great opportunities –workplace 4.0 promises more productivity, flexibility and simpler, location-independent collaboration at all levels. Companies must equip their workforce, particularly the IT department, with these new capabilities and invest in new technologies to succeed in the modern market.

Workplace 4.0 is all about data-driven processes, smart machines and the internet of things.
In 2011, Stephan Leschke joined the management board at Ferrari electronic...