The workforce is continually changing. Gone are desk-bound nine-to-fivers, conference room meetings and catching up over the watercooler. In their place are remote employees and freelancers, instantaneous connection with people all over the country, and the technology that makes it all possible — from laptops and smartphones to new platforms that help employees communicate and collaborate across space and time.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study of full- and part-time workers, 21% say they work outside of their workplace every day or almost every day, and 59% do so at least occasionally.

As the traditional workplace becomes more virtual, companies need to become flexible — and of course, more digital — to best communicate and engage with their employees.

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“Technology increasingly makes us much further apart from each other, but at the same time, it’s keeping us connected.”

“Technology increasingly makes us much further apart from each other, but at the same time, it’s keeping us connected,” says Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum and Willis Towers Watson examined the implications digital communication is having on society — including the workplace. The data shows, not surprisingly, a significant impact.

Nearly 70% of participants agree that the use of digital communication for work-related purposes has already grown significantly, and that it will continue to do so in the future, the report finds. More than half of respondents (56%) say digital communication has transformed the way they work, and half say technology has improved the quality of their professional lives. Meanwhile, 41% say social media improves their work effectiveness.

Technology’s impact on work is so considerable that respondents to the survey rated digital media as having an even bigger positive effect on their work lives than on their private or public lives, with particular benefits to their ability to “find work, do work, develop professionally and collaborate with colleagues.”

“The impact [of technology in the workplace], as we saw in the study, is really significant,” Jesuthasan says. “It’s happening in a number of ways. Basically, we’re online anytime, anywhere today. We’re online for much longer than we’re asleep. The other key thing is that technology is not only changing the way we communicate, but it’s also changing our presence in the workplace.

“Fifteen years ago, we were all gathered in one place at one time for a set number of hours. We worked in a single location; we worked from 9 to 5; there was a lot of human interaction,” he says. “Technology has changed all that dramatically.”

Methods

It wasn’t that long ago that email was a cutting-edge innovation in workplace communication. Today, instant message systems, video chats and social media are also important pieces of the puzzle that make up the workplace digital revolution.

“Email is so yesterday today,” says Bruce Elliott, manager compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Applications like Skype and social media platforms [are being embraced by employees and employers] because this is how millennials communicate and compare products, services and yes, even their benefits.”

Chat and messaging applications are increasingly being added to companies’ suite of communication applications, Elliott says.

Slack is one such tool. The messaging system, launched in 2013, allows users to start and import conversations, links, email and documents from programs like Google Docs and MailChimp. The messaging tool has become such a game-changer in workplace digital communications that it boasts about 1.7 million users, has been valued at nearly $3 billion and is used and embraced by companies such as Yelp, Airbnb and Buzzfeed. Its users claim to have cut email volume by almost half, improved transparency and offline culture significantly, and increased overall productivity by one-third, according to the Willis Towers Watson report.

Slack is not just a great tool for document management and a solution to the endless reply-all mentality of email — to alert someone specifically, you simply tag him or send a direct message — but it’s great for collaboration, especially for employees across multiple time zones, Jesuthasan says.

“[Slack] is a great example of literally re-creating the environment that those of us who are a little older are used to,” Jesuthasan says. “It creates the theme of an office in a virtual sense, and that is exceptionally powerful. As more and more work is distributed, people work from home, people work different hours, and this gives us the means to do that. The re-creation of a truly collaborative team environment is a real challenge for many companies, and Slack accomplishes a lot of that.”

Video applications such as Skype also are an extremely valuable method for boosting productivity and connecting colleagues, Jesuthasan says. Plus, of course, they save employers time and money. Rather than driving across town to meet with a consultant or flying out a job candidate for an interview, workers can have face-to-face meetings right on their laptops.

“Those things have gone a long way in improving productivity and keeping people connected,” Jesuthasan says. “You don’t think seeing someone would make that much of a difference, but it really does for engagement and connectivity.”

Social media, too, is an important piece of the puzzle. Whereas the medium was once considered to be a work distractor, it’s increasingly being embraced by employers and employees.

“Just take a look at today’s company’s intranets,” Elliott says. “Chances are there is some kind of social media application embedded in it for employees to cross-talk throughout the organization.”

Business-friendly social media platforms like Jive, Yammer, LinkedIn and Facebook at Work bring the best aspects of social media — collaboration, engagement and constant connectivity — into the workplace.

“Facebook at Work is really interesting,” Jesuthasan says. “It really helps with keeping people connected to what the organization is doing in terms of messaging; it takes away the formality of email; and it allows progressive organizations to reach employees. If they’re talking about benefit plans or new work arrangements or new policies, [it’s about] getting people engaged and connected with them in a more informal setting and in a way many more people are used to.”

Benefits communication slower to adopt

While new digital communication tools also present big opportunities for HR and benefits managers — digital brochures, chat applications and intranet websites can help get the word out about benefits, and social media platforms like Jive can be used to send targeted communications to employees — those workers have been slower to adopt such methods, research shows.

Though email is the second most popular way to educate employees on benefits, according to a survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, less than half of organizations have tried nontraditional benefits communication platforms like video (29%), social media (23%), texts (10%), robocalls (9%) or games (7%).

“Benefits managers are starting to use new media for benefits communication, but adoption isn’t very common yet,” says Julie Stich, director of research at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. “There are several reasons this could be the case, one being this media hasn’t yet had a long track record to see if it’s an effective method of carrying the benefits message.”

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“Benefits managers are starting to use new media for benefits communication, but adoption isn’t very common yet.”

But those nontraditional efforts may increase as the workforce becomes more and more remote, technology-savvy and hungry for a change. Stich says she anticipates a “growing number of employers will begin to use a variety of digital communication methods in order to meet the interests of their employees in the coming years,” and suggests that benefit managers begin now. At the same time, she says, communication methods need to vary.

“While it seems like all employees are using smartphones, watching videos and tweeting, not all employees want to access benefits information that way,” she says. “Some certainly do — and it could be a great way to catch their attention. Other employees prefer paper, emails or face-to-face meetings. It’s critical to understand preferences and what works for your group.”

However, as technology and the workforce that embraces it continues to evolve, thick explanations of benefits and long conference room meetings about benefits plans may eventually go the way of the dodo, industry experts say.

“The implication [of technology] on benefits is fairly straightforward to the extent that with these new and emerging communication tools, employers can now target the segments of their population that they want to reach,” Elliott explains.

Getting on board

Of course, success in digital workplace communications is only possible when both employees and employers are on board. There are obstacles to doing so, chief among them being information overload and the burden of constant connection to the workplace.

“There are some negatives to the always-on mindset; we saw this when we first started giving smartphones to employees who were then connected 24-7,” Jesuthasan says. “The opportunity to disconnect and the willingness for companies to accept that can be a challenge. Now more organizations are moving the other direction — saying, for instance, that there won’t be email on the weekends.”

But technology, experts say, also can lead to a healthier work-life balance for employees, which in turn, benefits employers with happier and more productive workers.

Busy moms who can do their work and still have time to take their kids to soccer practice in the afternoon? Working a couple of hours poolside while on vacation? That’s made possible now with technology.

For both employers and employees, it’s important to realize that technology, for the most part, enhances productivity, a fact Jesuthasan has witnessed firsthand.

“In my field [of consulting], we’ve gone from something taking a couple of days for someone to root around in reports and calling up different sources and so on to now something being a 20- to 30-minute task when someone is able to access everything she needs off of the Web and collaboration tools like Yammer or Sharepoint,” he says. “With so much of work being knowledge-driven, the access to information like that is increasingly more important. So we’re seeing progressive companies saying, ‘We’re going give you all the tools to allow you to do that,’ and seeing that as a way to empower your employees rather than controlling things that may distract them.”

It’s also important that things remain humanized, he says, despite technological advances that seem to do the opposite. Some occasional old-fashioned facetime might be the way to do that.

“One of the things we did as we moved into a virtual arrangement is once a month, at least, we have the whole team come together in the office,” he says.

“We either have a team-building activity or a client meeting or just get together with the people [they’re] working with so you have that human connection. These little things can really make the difference.”

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