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HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
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Minhaj Zia

Why Southeast Asian businesses should foster a collaborative workplace

BY MINHAJ ZIA

While we have been 'collaborating' since the dawn of time, today's collaboration takes place in many ways and over many mediums, anywhere in the world. Driven by globalisation, ubiquity of access, and the consumerisation of communications technologies, workplaces have been evolving to suit how people want to work.

In Singapore, a number of organisations have already moved towards collaborative working environments. The Singapore government recently announced that all public servants will be using Workplace by Facebook, a social and collaborative service designed for enterprises. Another move towards workplace collaboration was by DBS Bank, the first bank in Singapore to adopt cloud-based productivity technology in the workplace in hopes that it will enhance collaboration and facilitate working on the go.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Thailand government has begun developing the island Phuket into a high-tech startup hub, with the aim of incubating at least ten thousand startups by 2018. Similarly, Malaysia is set to introduce the world’s first digital free trade zone and digital hubs, which will provide additional online and digital services to facilitate international e-commerce and invigorate Internet-based innovation in order to support Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and digital entrepreneurs. The move is an initiative to empower Malaysians to use digital technologies to enhance the workplace, foster collaboration, and inspire innovation.

We’ve seen many collaboration trends come to life – particularly when it comes to technology solutions that put the user at the centre of innovation and design, by reducing complexity and enabling more natural collaboration across environments and locations. With that, workspaces continue to rapidly shift; for example, the emergence of the ‘huddle room’ (or small group meeting spaces) not only encourages more impromptu catch-ups but also better use of real estate. Market forces are at work to transition organisations from a traditional workplace to highly collaborative organisations in order to tap into the best talent, to be agile, and to provide a superior customer experience.

In the same way, the workforce is transitioning too, driven by the same forces. It’s symbiotic and if built right, your workplace and workforce of 2017 and beyond will be the catalyst for success.

The essence of highly collaborative organisations
According to a recent study by Accenture, more business owners are recognising the benefits of having a highly collaborative workplace environments fuelled by technology. However only 48% of Southeast Asia organisations encourage employees to use internal social media platforms for greater knowledge sharing.1

Today, effective collaboration is the make or break difference in collecting and sharing knowledge, pooling together skills and resources, and working towards shared objectives over any geographic distance or cultural barrier. Indeed, in a business and organisational sense, collaboration also means optimising budgets or improving productivity, hastening a product launch or project completion, or putting your company at the top of the innovation game, but ultimately it’s the human connections that will matter the most.

With this in mind, I see the following major hallmarks common to highly collaborative organisations that are essential in establishing such a culture.

• Bridging the generational divide: Organisations are placing a lot more emphasis now on bridging the quad generational workforce, an amalgamation of Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennial. To be successful, businesses have to identify the unique technology and workspace needs of each demographic. Equipping the workforce with the right collaboration tools will be the crux of establishing a more connected and engaged organisation, and this is certainly the direction organisations committed to innovation are heading.

• Non-verbal cues are important: Understanding cultural differences has become a crucial component in successfully conducting business internationally. In Malaysia, for example, meetings often start with small talk and appropriate business dress is considered very important, whilst in Singapore small talk is not widely observed until good rapport is established and decisions are made very quickly. To be effectively inclusive in a highly globalised world, organisations are engaging technology to collaborate across borders visually to have the ability to see when team members in another country may not quite understand or be too polite to speak up over a phone conference.

• Embrace a culture of inclusion: A supportive environment breeds the best teams and to be truly collaborative, organisations need to embrace a culture of inclusion. Meeting face-to-face or being a key participant in a meeting should not be limited by location, job or contract-type, or device. From home-based workers to freelancers, a collaborative organisation will offer the same opportunities to them as to employees based at an office or project site to be valuable contributors and consultants in any communication. The same principle should be applied in extending the collaboration experience to employees at every level, department, or site.

• Allow employees to work the way they want: We are also seeing a major cultural shift in the blending of work and life in collaborative organisations. With the proliferation of video and the right collaborative technology, people can still enjoy family holidays but still be connected to meetings, view presentations, and join meetings when called for. In a collaborative organisation the individual is as important as the team, and this type of work/life harmony goes a long way in making employees happier and more fulfilled.

From good to great collaboration in 2017
In my frequent interactions with customers and partners around the region, I have identified five themes on collaboration that will be important to organisations:

1. User experience
As more people in the organisation get access to collaborative technologies, they expect it to be as easy as the personal applications and devices they use with friends and family. It should just work in the same way across any device, in different rooms, as they move from desk to a meeting room – seamless, effortless. It should be designed for the way we work. Let’s take the example of a manufacturing facility: when people on the production floor wish to meet with remote experts to troubleshoot issues instantly, they want visual technology solutions that would enable them to zoom in on a piece of equipment, block out extraneous noise of machines and generators, and record best practices in real-time. That’s the difference between point solutions and fully integrated, unified collaborative environments.

2. Customer experience
Organisations realise that to create loyal customers, their experience is everything. According to research firm Gartner, by 2018 the world’s largest companies are expected to exploit intelligent apps and utilise big data and analytics to improve customer experience. In an age where information is available instantly, customers are more empowered and seeking instant gratification when it comes to their needs; listening through several menu options to speak to someone, and filling in forms to seek assistance is no more endured. Employing collaborative technologies for more regular and engaging human contact allows the customer to be more closely connected, develop rapport, and have open dialogue, which can lead to even greater innovation as well as loyalty.

3. Digital transformation
Digital transformation has been ongoing for a number of years now and, according to research firm IDC, worldwide spending on technologies will grow to more than US$2.1t in 20192. There is also increased focus on digital transformation beyond the enterprise level. In fact, digitising economies and public services is high on the agenda for many governments in Southeast Asia through highly ambitious national initiatives – Digital Malaysia, Smart Nation in Singapore, and Digital Thailand are some examples. With a rising workforce that has grown up as digital natives, harnessing the right technology to be better connected to societies will be crucial in successful implementation of government initiatives.

4. Workspaces and workstyles
The mix of cloud, mobile, and desktop collaboration apps are characteristic of the modern workplace – but what becomes fundamental is the proper integration of a user’s chosen method of communication. From what I’ve seen, customers aren’t too bothered about having the latest product, they just want employees to be able to work seamlessly and naturally and the technology has to match that expectation. With a growing emphasis on hot-desking and activity-based working, the approach to designing a workspace will also refer heavily on new workstyles – such as individuals who prefer to bring their own devices, sit with colleagues in an open collaboration space, or work remotely.

5. Startups and entrepreneurs
This has largely contributed to workplace transformation and brought innovation to cities and communities. These trends have led to co-working spaces, crowdfunding, and the hiring of freelancers to become the very essence of company culture, identity, and business operations.

Unfortunately, there is huge risk attached to startups which has led to high failure rates, largely blamed on lack of market and product awareness, no knowledge of pricing, and insufficient financial responsibility3. An article in the Harvard Business Reviewreally mirrored my sentiments in this regard; it pointed out that startups and established companies would both improve their success rates if they collaborated instead of competing, by bringing their distinct skills together.

Collaboration technology and platforms will continue to drive the spirit of innovation, keeping ideas and business concepts alive through the right connections and transfer of knowledge. However the longevity of startups will rely on strong collaboration.

True collaboration can deliver real value in 2017
Businesses of all sizes and industries of all types have a common thread, and that it is to bring people together to get things done, have meaningful and productive exchanges, and work towards success. If all organisations, governments, and individuals collaborated more in richer and meaningful ways, innovation accelerates, ideas come to life, and more can be done to create a sustainable future for generations to come.

Collaborative technologies have the power to democratise the global playing field and give all a voice. But we should never lose sight of strengthening human connections, and that is the epicentre of why true collaboration should matter to all organisations in 2017 and beyond.

1https://www.accenture.com/t20150523T051820__w__/us-en/_acnmedia/Accenture/Conversion-Assets/DotCom/Documents/Global/PDF/Strategy_1/Accenture-Dealing-with-Digital-Technology-Disruptive-Impact-Workforce.pdf
2https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS40978116
3http://www.statisticbrain.com/startup-failure-by-industry/
4https://hbr.org/2016/02/big-companies-should-collaborate-with-startups  

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Minhaj Zia

Minhaj Zia

Minhaj is responsible for leading Polycom's growth and revenue share in the region, and driving new opportunities in the company's key South Asian markets. Minhaj also took on the role in 2016 to lead growth and expansion plans as Vice President for Polycom in South East Asia. Based in Singapore, he will focus on accelerating growth for the SEA region.

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