Virgin brand director: finding new ways to work is essential for our businesses to thrive

Mobile working and advances in technology promise great benefits to businesses - but we also need to remember to unplug sometimes, writes Virgin's global head of brand.

One of the biggest challenges facing the industry today is how we use technology to improve the way we work and ultimately improve our wellbeing.

It’s the dawn of the five generation workforce (5G); this means many of us will be working in the most generationally diverse workplaces we’ve ever seen.

According to The Future Lab’s report in partnership with Morey Smith, workers will be employed into their 70s by the early 2060s, thanks to the current focus on mind and body that employers are adopting.

But the 5G workforce brings many challenges and opportunities. How do we make sure our workforce is mentally and physically fit for the future? How do we harness technology to improve intergenerational working and how can we introduce innovation which supports all generations?

The inflexible need to limber up

Something like three quarters of UK employees are now favouring jobs which give them the option to work a flexible work schedule, picking and choosing the hours that work best for them. But this means businesses must make sure they have the right instruments in place and leaders who encourage flexible working behaviours.

In Virgin’s podcast series Future Visions, we looked twenty years into the future to better understand what our future gen workforce will need. In the podcast, neuroscientist Araceli Camargo argued that despite increases in remote working (37% of the current global workforce is mobile), we will not see the death of the workplace.

Instead it will be redesigned to help businesses address their most important issues face-to-face. Camargo cites Google, Tesla and NASA as companies which are encouraging in-person discussions to discover solutions to the company’s biggest problems.

This encourages flexible working through the acknowledgement that not every problem needs to be sorted out in the office, but that there are times when it’s needed.

Digital detox

The dawn of flexible working means that many employees are connected 24:7, but that’s not always good for employees’ wellbeing and we need to make sure we’re giving them a chance to disconnect.

At Virgin management, we also have one eye on the future.  We’ve embraced a number of innovations over the last few years including flexible working, unlimited leave and more recently a digital detox – all emails are switched off over a period of time every Wednesday.

This helps employees remember that it’s OK not to be connected to your inbox every hour of every day – and it’s worked. A number of groups have formed and we often have people arranging for guest speakers to come in for talks.

Employees have formed a running club too; the club has beginners and marathon runners across all generations who all head off down the towpath during every detox – and who now all cross paths more often in the office.

Innovations like digital detox and flexible working environments are boosting inter-generational working, allowing the 5G workforce to thrive in the same environment and create greater overall diversity across companies.

The ease of working remotely removes the restrictions of the outdated 9-to-5 structure, which traditionally is beneficial to the stereotypes of white-collar males.

Instead we’re creating a rich environment for everyone – who can work when, where and how it suits them. It becomes a setting which inspires collaboration, mentoring and disruption.

Look after your employees and they’ll look after your customers

I’m going to quote our founder on this one but it’s something Richard Branson has said many times: look after your employees and they’ll look after your customers. And that’s even more relevant today.

With flexible working and remote employees, there’s sometimes a risk of lower overall colleague engagement but now through technology such as 24-hour human resources chatbots, we can support employees wherever they are in the world and this encourages engagement regardless of where people are working.

Take health tracking on the move - more and more people are adopting fitness trackers to fundamentally change habits to improve their health.

This is something that can happen both at home and at work with companies like Virgin Pulse supporting over 2,200 businesses with their employee wellbeing programme.

I use Virgin Pulse every day to track everything from steps taken, if I’ve had a walking meeting, been outside, what I had for breakfast or whether I took the stairs – the app then rewards me with points towards monetary or wellbeing prizes.

Virgin Pulse is seeing phenomenal engagement around the world; last year they ran a global challenge which involved over 300,000 employees in 185 countries.

And we’re not the only ones prioritising our employees. Google has a People and Innovation Lab (PiLab) which is purely focused on finding innovative ways to improve employee health to understand the way the working world is heading.

Technology is a force for good

Throughout my time in the industry I’ve seen technologies come and go, and often a technology has failed because we’ve not taken the time to understand its benefits.

We are in danger of heading down that path again; our trust in connectivity is probably at a very low point considering recent headlines relating to our data.

But, given the challenges ahead of us around the need for more flexibility and a greater integration of the 5G workforce, we have to see the positives which can come from technology.

It’s not about letting it control our lives, but introducing it in ways which help us to live life better. Whether through health apps, remote working or even detoxes to boost good digital decision making – technology can be a force for good. Let’s harness it as such.

Lisa Thomas is global head of brand and managing director of Virgin Enterprises and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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