Want a more digital workplace? You’ll have to overcome resistance to tech

Younger and older employees tend to be more receptive to new ways of working than those in the middle, according to Gartner.

Group of workers collaborating around a table with mobile devices
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With more employees turning to collaboration and mobility tools to do their jobs away from the office, the way companies work is clearly changing.

The range of technologies available to support an increasingly fragmented workforce, from team chat tools such as Slack to video conferencing and content collaboration platforms, continues to evolve and grow. And while the potential benefits of these tools - namely, greater productivity across teams, no matter where they are situated – might seem obvious, achieving widespread adoption across large organizations can be problematic.

A recent Gartner survey of 3,120 workers in seven countries highlighted enterprise desire to use new and existing technology for “better business outcomes” – what the research firm calls “digital dexterity.” Criteria include an inclination toward team-based collaboration, the ability to work anywhere and a desire to adopt new tech as it emerges.

Gartner surveyed workers in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Singapore and Japan to size up how they feel about today’s increasingly digital workplace. It found that only a small proportion of users are actually prepared to adopt products and services that support new ways of working - between 7% to 18%, with variances across regions, industries and age groups.

Low adoption of new technologies is a perennial problem for tech buyers, said Craig Roth, Gartner research vice president and author of the report, and can mean that businesses miss out on the benefits of new tools.

“From a certain point of view, when you look at all of these technologies individually, they seem like they could be such a fantastic boon for any organization: Why would you not want to work together on the same document, instead of having all of this version skew and emailing documents around, for example? And yet that is what people do,” he said. 

Youngest, oldest workers most open to change

Despite the general inertia found in many workforces, certain groups of workers are more open to change; the Gartner survey highlighted variations in the willingness to adopt new ways of working.

Age is a key factor. Companies often assume that younger employees are keen to embrace change; that was borne out by the Gartner survey: workers between 18 and 24 were most receptive to newer technologies and new ways of working. They rated highest for openness to consumer technologies, are the most ‘tech positive’ and are more open to working outside the confines of an office.

Notably, the report also showed that older workers between 55 and 74 rated the second highest in Gartner’s “Digital Dexterity Index,” though for different reasons than their younger counterparts. This age group rated highest in their willingness to work in teams and tended to like more non-routine tasks.

It is those around middle age – between 35 and 44 – that struggle the most with new technology and ways of working, said Roth. “The real laggards in all of this were unfortunately the middle-aged folks; it seems to be the age of drudgery,” he said, adding that the findings reflect academic research around happiness around mid-life.

This age group is the likeliest to perceive work as “routine” and were least inclined to toil away outside their office. They also had the least positive view of technology. “There is something happening in middle age that is not conducive to acceptance of new technologies,” Roth said.

The good news: the situation tends to change as workers get older. “The surveys all show that as you get past that hump, things do wind up getting better and work becomes more enjoyable.”

Another area of variation can be seen across different countries. The U.S., U.K. and Germany rated highest of the developed nations surveyed for digital dexterity, while Australia and France fared less well. Respondents from Singapore and Japan rated lowest. There are a variety of potential reasons for the disparity. For example, it may be less attractive to collaborate with colleagues from a home office in more densely populated areas.

Industry type can indicate an openness to new ways of working, too. Retail industry staff were most open to change, while highly regulated sectors such as government and insurance were less so.  Organization size can play a role as well, possibly reflecting the fact tha larger businesses may be better able to afford the hardware, software and training required for digital change.

Overcoming resistance to change

There is no shortcut to encouraging workers to adopt technologies, but there are ways to increase the likelihood of success when deploying new applications, said Roth.

“There are teachable moments when you can actually get people’s attention and have a chance – no guarantee – but a chance that you will change the way they work,” he said.

One is when hiring a new employee. They have not been indoctrinated into old ways of working and can get a better grip with new tools.

Another is to introduce several applications at once as part of a large project of change. This might mean rolling out an office productivity suite alongside an intranet overhaul and other tools,” Roth said.

“You bundle this together and have a bigger rollout and, if you are lucky, you will get people’s attention for maybe 30 minutes that you wouldn't get otherwise,” he said. “You can actually tell [staff] that there are new ways that you want them to work.

“You have to take advantage of those opportunities when they come; it is not easy.” 

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