Leadership & talent

The hyper-connected Asian workforce

01 May 2017 by Fiona Liaw

Already, from calling a cab to finding a new home, from buying groceries to paying bills – and even managing our health – everything is increasingly being done online. This state of hyper-connnectivity, a situation where the internet, mobile technology and the Internet of Things have made people and organisations increasingly intertwined, only looks to increase in the future.

Asia, in particular, boasts the largest number of hyper-connected devices, with the majority of people – ranging from 42 percent in India to 77 percent in Taiwan – having access to three or more devices. Almost half of smartphone users in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand access social networks and online videos via their phones on a daily basis, and in countries with lower internet penetration rates like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, smartphone subscriptions are predicted to double by 2021. Tablet ownership, too, has risen significantly and is predicted to reach an 18.3 percent penetration rate by 2019.

The importance of a mobile-first workplace

The impact of hyper-connectivity, especially through smartphones and tablets, is far reaching, extending into the workplace where it increases collaboration and productivity significantly. Replacing paperwork with mobile forms simplifies the data-collection and retrieval process. Third-party platforms like Dropbox and Google Drive help improve file sharing processes; collaborative cloud project management tools like Basecamp or Asana smoothen the planning process; and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Skype – used by as many as 31 percent of organisations and 66 percent of companies in Singapore – speed up communication both between employees and customers.

The ease and efficiency that these platforms bring have the net effect of reducing costs and improving profits, making it no surprise that in 2015, enterprise mobility was predicted to be a huge priority for CIOs, with a survey of 3,500 companies in Asia showing that the largest priority was to use mobilise iOS or Android platforms to help improve business processes.

But beyond profits, the mobile workplace also contributes to employee satisfaction, helping companies attract and retain talent. Harvard Business Review found almost 89 percent of employees today are reliant on mobile and remote technology and 51 percent are pushing for more connected work processes. Almost 65 percent of millennials – a group that will soon form the majority of the workforce – rate having technology like smartphones the most important perk to them. In fact, 29 percent expect to be provided with a mobile phone, and 70 percent expect to be able to bring and use their own devices for work.

And in a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a full 40 percent of early adopters of technology declared that they would never work for a company that didn’t allow them to use their own mobile devices at work. On the flip side, those who rated their employers favourably at using mobile technology also reported higher productivity, satisfaction and importantly, loyalty.

Crucially, employees appreciate the freedom that smartphones, tablets and laptops offer them: it untethers them from their desks and allows them to make choices about the ways in which they operate. This has given rise to the “bring your own device” - or BYOD - trend across multiple organisations.

Bimal Shah, CEO of Leo Tech Services, a Singapore-based software development and services company that has embraced BYOD explained: “a traditional organisation may equate the quality of an employee with the number of hours worked, and thus prize those that respond to e-mail at three in the morning.”

In contrast, the BYOD policy, he said, allows the company to “lay emphasis on outcomes and productivity levels, and thus allow employees free rein in choosing how they prefer to work.”

Lim Hwa Choo, Head of HR for Southeast Asia at Cisco Systems – a company which has implemented BYOD since 2013 – has likewise found this to be beneficial. “The flexibility allows our employees to be in control and this in return motivates them to perform better,” she said.

Barriers to overcome

But despite the potential that hyper-connectivity brings, there is still a portion of firms that find it difficult to leverage that for a few reasons.

A 2015 study by Microsoft that surveyed 13 Asian markets including China, Indonesia, India, Singapore, and Vietnam – to name a few – found that 52 percent of respondents still needed to be in the office to access special tools or equipment.

Those under 35 years old are more likely to feel they lack the necessary tools for connected working, while those above 50 years of age feel they lack the skills to do so.

But perhaps the most pressing issue is that of security. Without clear regulations, mobile devices in particular are vulnerable to cyberattacks or leaks in confidential data.

And although companies without an official BYOD policy may choose to turn a blind eye to the use of devices, even in companies with restrictions, research by Forrester found that 27 percent of respondents in Asia continued to use unauthorised internet-based services for work – choosing functionality and convenience as their priority.

Recognising this, BYOD pioneer Intel, ensures that it is quick to answer any questions employees have regarding BYOD. Also, German engineering multinational company, Festo, has taken a stance of providing employees with IT support, even for applications or services that were obtained without the knowledge of the company. Measures like this helps keep the communication open for staff to quickly resolve any issues and remain connected, even while maintaining the necessary standards.

In a move to improve security at Standard Chartered, 3,800 of its employees can access internal systems for information and collaboration via their personal devices – but this is done through custom-built apps from the Standard Chartered app store. Legal agreements also need to be signed before employees qualify for the BYOD programme.

Global software company SAP has a similar system, and has managed to bring security a notch higher by ensuring that company devices can be disabled within a minute if ever lost.

But creating a successful BYOD policy is not easy – as Sanjay Poonen, SAP's global president for Device Solutions explained, it is never a one-size-fits-all model, rather, it is something that requires a combination of the expertise of business, legal, HR and IT departments in each country – a policy developed to meet the needs of the region the company is in.

No doubt, there are risks, but for companies that are able to succeed in treading the line between flexibility and security, the benefits that await are immense. They will gain access to better, more motivated talent, smoothen their work processes to increase productivity and, in turn, profits, and leverage the potential of the digital world for a brighter future.

Edited by Liew Hanqing and Tan Yi Xuan