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Everywoman Forum 2017: Diversity, digital and the impact on the working world

Technology is driving change throughout the world and enabling increasing diversity, so how can organisations deal with their changing way of working?

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Technology is disrupting all industries at a rapid pace, with artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, robotics, augmented reality (AR) and automation all changing the way people live and work.

During the 2017 Everywoman Forum, Maxine Benson, co-founder of the women’s network, said technology is shaping society so rapidly that it “would have been seen as science fiction” just a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the world’s political landscape is changing. The election of Donald Trump as US president is already having an impact on the IT industry and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has caused uncertainty in the sector.

Diversity is becoming increasingly important in businesses to give them a competitive advantage, and the Everywoman Forum addressed some of the areas that firms must consider to stay relevant in the modern age.

Everywoman found that 70% of its members think women are more risk adverse than men, and are less likely to take an opportunity if they think there is an element of risk involved.

Nick Telford-Reed, director of technology innovation at Worldpay, said organisations should create an environment where people feel “comfortable” taking risks.

“It’s got to be OK that a lot of the things you try will not work and to celebrate that those things didn’t work,” he said.

Learning from mistakes

To promote a good environment for failing fast and learning from mistakes, Telford-Reed suggested using technology to increase collaboration between teams. “If you can create that collaboration and constant communication between people, it is incredibly empowering,” he said.

Research shows that only one-fifth of small businesses are started by women, and this is often because women do not feel they are well-equipped enough to take the leap into the startup world.

But Elspeth Briscoe, founder and CEO of MyOnlineSchool, said failing at something is seen differently by entrepreneurs than it is by larger businesses. “Unless you are prepared to put yourself out there and fail, you can’t innovate properly and you can’t be an entrepreneur,” she said.

The agile “fail fast” ethos is often attributed to startups, and many of today’s larger businesses are still referred to as startups because their internal culture promotes this behaviour.

Ariane Gorin, senior vice-president and general manager at Expedia, said resilience is extremely important for entrepreneurs because they often have to rely on themselves to keep trying after a failure.

Failures should be looked upon as a learning experience, and by choosing not to take risks, firms are putting themselves in more danger by not innovating, he said. “The price of doing nothing is higher than the price of doing lots of little things and having one succeed and the rest fail.”

Future of the workplace

The growth of entrepreneurship and the embracing of a startup-like culture within organisations, combined with increased adoption of technology, is changing the way people view the workplace. In some cases, the traditional workplace no longer exists, replaced by using technology to work from anywhere.

Nicola Millard, head of customer insights and futures at BT, said this new environment, with people “untethered” from their desks, has resulted from technology and workplace diversity, and is killing the era of the “Dilbert” – the stereotypical IT guy who has to be at his desk at all times.

Millard said tech adoption and concepts such as flexible working are driving trends such as more diversity, a breakdown of the “computer says no” attitude and the death of the nine-to-five job.

Offices need to be redesigned to become “dynamic spaces” built for collaboration, rather than somewhere that must be visited – and the office can no longer be a “one size fits all” space, said Millard.  

She pointed out that firms know they have to increase the diversity in their workplace because a lack of diversity often leads to a lack of innovation.

Growth of diversity

Growth of diversity in the modern workplace is also driving flexible working. For example, by offering workplace flexibility, BT sees 98% of its female employees choose to return to their roles after maternity leave.

Thousands of jobs are likely to be automated in the next 20 to 30 years, but research shows that people with jobs requiring emotional intelligence have less chance of their role to a computer in the future.

Millard said the future of automation and robotics for the workplace lies in using technologies to take the stress out of work while still being creative.

“We are versatile, we can be innovative, we can be creative – all of those things are difficult to programme into a machine learning engine,” she said.

But the problem of distance between workers – which technology aims to tackle – is “not dead”, said Millard, because nothing beats a face-to-face conversation.

“Face-to-face is by far the easiest way to build strong ties and trust, but it is increasingly becoming a luxury,” she said. “I work for a telecoms company, and we’re trying to kill distance.”

Communication in the digital age

But even if distance is not dead, there are many other things to consider when using technology to communicate.

More employees are interacting digitally through emails, conferencing systems or communications software, and it is increasingly important for brands and individuals in particular industries to have a social media presence.

Anna Lawler, director of marketing at VMware, said that when using social media, it is helpful to have a strategy behind the channel you are using and the message you want to get across.

To ensure engagement with others through social channels, Lawler emphasised the need for “relevant content” and actively participating in the community, rather than letting your online presence stagnate.

Different channels require slightly different approaches, she said. For example, people on Facebook are more likely to be your friends, whereas LinkedIn is more for professional connections.

But in either case, Lawler suggested being “genuine” and to “put yourself forward” to make the best impact when communicating in the digital landscape.

“Even if you are posting in a professional capacity, I still think there is room to have a bit of your personality there,” she said. “Ultimately, you are always going to be yourself, but just be mindful if you are representing a corporate brand.”

Face-to-face communication

Moving the relationship from online to offline is important, especially in a business context. But where technology has to be used rather than face-to-face communication, Niki Dow, senior director of technical communications at ARM, suggested using some form of video for important communications.

Between 50% and 90% of communication is non-verbal, made through hand gestures or facial expressions, so care is needed when deciding the best way to put your message across.

Dow said: “You can’t use [non-verbal communication] in a tweet, you can’t do it in email and Facebook, so when you think about the future of communications, I think we’re going to look at tech driving gesture-based comms.”

When communicating through non-gesture-based means, Dow suggested speaking out loud what you plan to write online to hear what it sounds like when read and make sure it comes across as you expect.

“We need to be ready for that and mindful that we are communicating all the time without saying a single thing,” she said.

The younger generation are so adept at using technology that they are often referred to as “digital natives”, so there is a concern that in the future, people will lose their aptitude for traditional communications skills.

Dow said: “When we are teaching our young people how to engage and have a conversation, you have to do it at home and you have to teach them – you have to teach them the art of conversation.”

Younger generation in the workplace

As people born after 1995 – known as Generation Z – enter the workplace, organisations will have to adapt ways of working around this tech-savvy group.

This generation have grown up with technology, they cannot remember what life was like without the internet and they are beginning to outnumber the rest of the population.

Because they are tech-savvy and already have technology at home, they often expect better technology in the workplace than firms can provide.

Tara Beard-Knowland, senior director of Ipsos Mori, said there are many misconceptions about the younger generation that firms need to be aware of so they can properly adapt the workplace to the future workforce.

Common myths surrounding Generation Z include the suggestion that they are lazy, but 61% of 14 to 16-year-olds say being successful involves hard work.

“They want to be successful,” said Beard-Knowland. “The number one thing they say they want out of a career is opportunities for advancement.”

The misconception that Generation Z would rather skip university is also untrue, with 92% of 15 to 18-year-olds believing university is important to getting a job.

Beard-Knowland added: “This is a pretty sensible group of people.”

Read more about women in technology

  • The proportion of women choosing to work in the IT profession is set to increase over the next four years as businesses adopt digital technology, according to a major study by the CEB.
  • Sophie Deen of Bright Little Labs, Annabel Sunnucks from CA Technologies, and Elissa Morris from the Isle of Man Department of Economic Development, discuss their journey into the IT industry.

Diversity is also important to the younger generation, who differentiate less between gender, ethnicity or orientation, and many think opportunities should be equal for all.

To cater for this generation, employers will need to provide excellent technology, opportunities for advancement and collaborative working environments.

Two young women currently working in the technology sector, Marie Foster, junior DevOps engineer at BP, and Jumainah Munim, project manager at Lloyds Banking Group, said technology seemed like a natural step for them because they are always using technology.

Munim said her father had suggested she should pursue a technology career, and had told her: “You are glued to your phone all the time – so why not go into IT?”

Gender imbalance

After entering the technology industry, Munim discovered a gender imbalance, but said having some other women around her made her feel more empowered.

“It just really soaked in that this place was full of men,” she said. “In schools, they try to put you in a 50/50 female/male ratio. Although I’m quite fortunate in my team, when you look across the floor, you realise a big, big difference in ratio.”

Foster said it was “unintentional role models” that led her into the industry, and through these role models she learnt women can be successful in the workplace.

“I wanted to go into the industry and I saw [women] being successful and I guess that normalised it for me,” she said.

A lack of role models is often cited as a reason why young women do not choose to go into the technology industry, but where role models can be found, girls are encouraged to reach for the top.

Laleh Nassiry-Mahjour, chief operating officer at Modern Muse, encouraged Everywoman Forum attendees to make a profile on the Modern Muse application to make more role models accessible to young women and encourage them into the industry.

“With technology ingrained in their DNA, you can imagine how valuable those skillsets could be in companies,” she said.

Resurgence of Girl Power

Research has found that 70% of executives are concerned that within the next two years, their companies may no longer be relevant.

Karen Quintos, executive vice-president and chief customer officer at Dell, said firms are increasingly recognising the role of diversity in keeping businesses relevant. “People are noticing and we are clearly having an impact,” she said.

“The old perceptions are gone. Technology is in every company and it is a catalyst for growth – it’s the reason behind all we can do and enable, and the disruption that is happening.”

More students are choosing to study computing in higher education and Quintos said that not only are more women graduating from university than men, but they have many skillsets and traits that lend themselves to the tech sector, such as flexibility, collaboration and effective communication.

“I am absolutely convinced that, going forward, we are not going to have a pipeline problem,” she said.

After urging more people to start their own business and insisting that “it’s a great time to be a girl”, Quintos said the world needs women “more than ever”.

“As women in the tech field, it is ours for the taking and a brill opportunity,” she said. “Now is our time to step up, now is our time to believe in ourselves, now is our time to embrace all the change happening around the world.”

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