The Intelligent Workplace

The Intelligent Workplace

Episode 9

Gold Medal Winning Teams

Ash de Zylva
Microsoft Gold Club Member & Customer Success Manager

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Something is becoming very clear to me as I talk to my guests on The Intelligent Workplace. A company can load up with the best pieces of shiny tech available, but there must be more than that to build a successful business. That tech must be paired with an engaged workforce who enjoy their time at work, and feel like their input is valued, to set the business up for success.

In this episode I speak with Ash De Zylva, a Customer Success Manager for Microsoft who is very passionate about the human element of the Intelligent Workplace. In fact, his passion for helping his customers recently saw him be awarded a Microsoft Gold Club award. The Gold Club award recognizes the extraordinary performance of individuals who transform and contribute to the overall success and growth of Microsoft. A great reward for all of his hard work.

Ash describes himself as being immensely passionate about helping organizations to transform and meet their digital challenges head on. He believes that technology, coupled with the right leadership, offers us all the opportunity to rethink and improve business processes, as well as offer the amazing experiences to everyone we come in contact with.

Ash:                      

Thanks Chris.

Chris:                    

Cheers mate, this is going to be fantastic. I’m very excited to hear what you’ve got to say today, mate.

Ash:                      

Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.

Chris:                    

You’ve been handed over to me by one of my colleagues and he’s a big rep for you. I think this is going to be great, mate.

Ash:                      

That’s good. Good to hear.

Chris:                    

Now, mate, you’ve got a pretty interesting background in this tech game. You’ve worked in different ecosystems in both technical and customer facing roles. So, why don’t you give us a bit of an insight into your career?

Ash:                      

Yeah, sure. I started on the IT pro side of things and managing servers and storage and things that spin and hum. From there, progressed through to, leading architecture teams, and then had a very interesting run with Microsoft in my first life at Microsoft as a field engineer. That was really fantastic to go out and help people with all the really hard problems and when systems are down and all that sort of thing.  I went away and joined AWS for a bit. Then decided to come back to Microsoft-

Chris:                    

The grass is not always greener, mate.

Ash:                      

Not necessarily. Exactly. In this role as a customer success manager, a little bit of a different take where my technical skills are helpful, but really, my role is to pivot around how it is we actually help customers solve tangible business problems, rather than tech for the sake of tech.

Chris:                    

I’m going to say that this is maybe just a little bit more pleasing for you in terms of you’re really getting something out of helping customers solve their problems, yeah?

Ash:                      

Yeah. Just being able to, you know, go to that next level of saying yes, we now know that this customer is now able to achieve more by doing whatever it is that’s different. It could be re-imagined business process. It could be that they’ve been able to find new ways to engage their staff or build a new product for customers. For you to be able to say that you’ve had a stake in that and you’ve supported it is a really good feeling.

Chris:                    

That’s awesome. Now, today we’re going to talk about modern teamwork in the Intelligent Workplace, which I know is something you’re very passionate about. What is it about the power of teamwork that really excites you in this space?

Ash:                      

Yeah, it’s a really interesting one because I hadn’t personally valued the importance of teamwork until I had been through a number of teams in my career. That led me to start thinking about, well, what does it mean to have teamwork, to be on a team, and what does that mean in terms of me and my relationship with my employer? Because often we think about you go and work for a company, right? If you look at the people who leave companies, they’re usually not leaving the company. They’re leaving the team, leaving the manager.

Chris:                    

Yes, exactly.

Ash:                      

So, it raises all these really interesting questions around what is it about that environment that makes people either achieve their best or not and or leave, right?

Chris:                    

Yeah, absolutely. I think once you’ve been part of a high performing team, you never forget that. I still have friends from 10 years ago, where we were in a high performing team for five years and it was probably some of the best years of my working life. We still talk about those great experiences all these time later.

Ash:                      

Absolutely, it eventually becomes this point of nostalgia, where you remember what it’s like to have that feeling of being that high performing team. I’ve been dedicating a lot of time really over the last year or so on trying to understand more about what that looks like and what the role of the Intelligent Workplace would be in helping us build more great teams and less bad teams.

Chris:                    

Yeah. Oh fantastic. We talk a lot about engagement in modern workplaces these days. Tell me, is it just another buzz word or are we seeing real tangible improvements to productivity when employees are truly engaged?

Ash:                      

Yeah, I think that the buzzword, Monica, in some ways can make sense. Because like any term it can be used as a little bit of a shield or a weapon where people can use it as a catch all to do things and get things done. In terms of measuring engagement and what that means for an individual employee and their team, the research is only ever becoming clearer that when we see employees and specifically teams that are really highly engaged, they’re far more likely to be contributing more to the company’s profitability. And then even in, for example, I do a lot of work in public sector scenario where profitability might not be a top of mind item, but certainly cost savings are. Certainly, things like quality and safety are. There’s really good research now that tells us that employee engagement has a relationship with all of these things. We know that when we help people drive better engagement with the work that they do, make it feel meaningful to them, give them a reason to love their work, then they’re more likely to be high performers.

Chris:                    

Yeah. Employee engagement has really been a focus of companies for quite a while now. What sort of traction are we seeing?

Ash:                      

Yeah, that’s another interesting one. Each different study and survey and research that that you find out there has different ways of slicing it, in the sense of defining what engaged means. It’s hard to get to a concrete number because they all have slightly different interpretations. But when you look at actually, all of the studies, there is a theme which is that we’ve got low employee engagement globally and pretty much in every country there are some countries that do better than others, like India does, surprisingly very, very well.

Whereas we have countries like the United States, which is low at around the 15% mark. One of the things we’re seeing in those studies is this notion that we are not really moving the needle as much as we perhaps would like. There’s a lot of projects that are running today in almost every organization around employee engagement and their wellness programs. There’s all these different things that organizations do to try and make people feel more engaged in their workplace. But despite all of that, the needle hasn’t moved substantially.

For example, one of the studies that ADP did was showing that United States had actually gone backwards 2% in engagement between 2015 and 2018, and Australia, which is where I’m based, only moved ahead in terms of increasing engagement by 2%. That brings them to 15.9% and I think about 16% respectively. But in the scheme of things, the vast majority of the workforce is still not engaged in their work.

Chris:                    

Yeah, that’s terrible. It’s just going to work every day, just pretty much just going through the motions.

Ash:                      

Yeah. They’re just coming to work. To be fair, there’s a whole thing to be said around why that’s a valuable thing in that they may not be looking to be fully engaged in work at that time, but the fact that these surveys are also showing us that people have a desire to have this close alignment with their work and they’re not getting it, tells us there’s more to be done.

Chris:                    

What part do you think the Intelligent Workplace complaint in driving better engagement?

Ash:                      

I think we need to, probably review a lot of the programs and projects I mentioned that are intended to drive employee engagement. I think some of them, the ones that are effective, they’re fantastic. I think there’s this very interesting intersection between the physical workplace and of course the digital and the intelligent workplace and how those things [inaudible 00:09:47] together for people. The real way that we can move the needle on this is going through a little bit of a process I think of what is it that makes a person engaged? What are the indicators that we know that we can try?

One of those key indicators is when someone says they’re on a team and that they feel like they’re part of a group.

Chris:                    

I am part of something.

Ash:                      

Yeah. People who say that they’re on a team are actually 2.3 times more likely to be engaged in their work. If we think about getting people to feel a sense of collegiality with their workmates, that’s a place where we can make a big difference because there’s been a lot of really good work done on how we engineer our spaces at work to create this serendipitous meeting, where you bump into somebody, and you meet them maybe for the first time or maybe it’s a new ad hoc meeting and you exchange ideas.

We need to find a way to make those things happen in a digital world, where people who are looking at the same content can have an intersection there where they can actually be aware that they’re both looking at the same content or they both had the same interests. The other way that we can move the needle here is by reducing the friction on teamwork. That is the work where a person relies on or contributes to the work of others.

When we think of it like that, we know that the amount of teamwork that actually happens is going up. But we know that it’s not getting any easier to do because people are still sending emails to each other and there’s Word documents flying left, right and center and many, many versions of them. We know that we can streamline teamwork, and there are a bunch of tools we have today that do that. As well as helping them be able to do this concept of a dynamic membership, which is to say we know that people being on a team or identifying as being on a team is an indicator of engagement. But what is interesting in the research is that it’s the dynamic teams, not the hierarchy based teams. They’re not my manager and my reports, but rather the team, the one that’s almost like what we would have as that serendipitous type, amalgamation or a quick stand up of a group, and maybe a quick spin down of that group. Or maybe it’s a continuation in the form of a project team with people coming and going.

We need to find ways to make the information flow across all those things work a lot better. The good news is that a lot of what we need to do in this space, we have the tech. Interestingly, tech isn’t the thing that holds us back. In many cases, it exists. We need to land that with workplaces. We need to help them drive adoption. We need to make it real.

Chris:                    

What sort of things are holding us back in the workplace then?

Ash:                      

It’s really around where people don’t have the understanding or the knowledge or even just a desire to actually work in a new way. We can identify this new amazing, brave new world of, of how to work better. But if we’re not making that real for people and telling them why it’s important, and showing them how, then we’re not going to land anything. All they’re going to land is some more technology.

That’s why I think there’s been a really big pivot, particularly in the last maybe two or three years around a very heavy adoption and change management focus in the eyes of the execs and the BDMs at customers where they say, ah, I can actually see the value of landing this with my people. It’s not a case of we just give them the tool and they’ll work with it. It’s, we have to show them what we can do.

Chris:                    

You mentioned change management is just becoming such a common theme through these discussions I’m having on this podcast. So, so important.

Ash:                      

It is.

Chris:                    

What goals do you look toward Intelligent Workplace to address right now?

Ash:                      

I think what we really need to be moving towards is, and this really speaks to that being on a team aspect and the dynamic membership aspect. Which is to say that if we want teams that are dynamically created by people, not by IT pre-scripting them or anything like that, because we know that’s a precursor of engagement, we need to make sure we’re surfacing the talents of our people in a way that is a searchable and ideally intersects with the white space that those people have.

You’ve got a large organization and you want to work on a project together with something. How do you find the right people, when they could be anywhere, they could be your colleague, they could report to the same manager as you and they might not, they might be in a completely different division. How do we surface those talents?

Chris:                    

We need to have better systems to be able to track and control and share those talents with people. Your secondary, tertiary type talents, not just, I’ve got a degree in commerce or whatever.

Ash:                      

Yeah, exactly. Really to think about people entering the things that they have as a talent, and the things that they’re passionate about, that their big, shiny goal they would love to see for their organization and finding a way so that we can pair those up. The good news is we have … Again, with all these things we’ve talked about thus far, we have this technology, there are lots of solutions that do skill mappings or skill databases and look ups as part of maybe a directory service, a really good way to bring those things together.

But what we’re finding is that a lot of customers will actually have a directory, but that directory doesn’t work for them. That directory is this thing that updates from some Excel workbook somewhere once a month. It’s like, it could be so much more. That’s one goal, I think we can move towards.

Chris:                    

Any other goals?

Ash:                      

Yeah, I think if we were at that point where we’ve got the talent surface and searchable, we can find people, that’s great. But the next one is how do we quickly bind these people together in a group so they feel collegiate? Again, we have these tools to document collaboration. We have the ability to create groups of people. We have all this stuff available to us today. Then give the power of who is in that group, who is part of that team, to the people that are in that team. The concept of having an owner that’s close to the coalface of the people doing the work. That makes it the dynamic aspect where people can add and remove and that team can grow and shrink as it needs.

Chris:                    

All of this tech is at our fingertips already.

Ash:                      

Yeah. It’s already there. You combine that with all the modern intranet solutions that are out there. Where we are right now in terms of content, collaboration, technology is phenomenal. The stuff that’s available lets us then over the top of those two things I just mentioned then say, great, we’ve got a team, they’ve got a goal, how do we give them the right information so that when a new person joins the team, they hit the ground running. They know what the team’s about, they know how they work, they’ve got access to all the right information, policies, procedures without having to spend days hunting.

Chris:                    

Still comes back to that change management, doesn’t it?

Ash:                      

It does.

Chris:                    

We’ve got these tools for you and this is how you use them. Let’s get into it.

Ash:                      

Yeah.

Chris:                    

Let’s step through some of your thoughts around how we can achieve higher engagement in the workplace.

Ash:                      

Yeah, sure. I think there’s really the notion of getting people to feel like they’ve got a team that has their back, have a manager that knows them. I think that tech has a really unique role to play in that, which is getting out of the way basically. Which is not having all this time spent on these unnecessary tasks, but instead of focusing on, oh, hang on, how do we make more time for that manager to get to know that person? That might mean streamlining the way that processes work today so that we can get past the processes and get to the people.

Chris:                    

Ultimately, I guess that seamlessness means that we actually enjoy coming to work in that regard.

Ash:                      

That’s the idea.

Chris:                    

That’s the goal.

Ash:                      

The idea is that if you think about say we do all the things around, we’ve got a skills directory and we’ve got the intranet and we’ve got the ability to bind people together into a close knit team and quickly expand and contract it. The real next step in my mind is thinking of them, the ways that we can get people to fall in love.

Chris:                    

Oh hold on, HR [inaudible 00:18:57] are we?

Ash:                      

That is to say, falling in love with their work.

Chris:                   

Their work, yes.

Ash:                      

We know … You look at any of the great endeavors in human history, it’s driven by people that were in love with what they were doing. This clear sense of purpose. Anything we can do to get people to that is really great.

Chris:                    

Can I ask you then, could maybe AI play a little bit of a part in this almost a bit like a matchmaker?

Ash:                      

Yeah, that’s a fantastic idea.

Chris:                    

Thank you.

Ash:                      

Look, I think you’ve read my mind. The idea of a matchmaker service is fantastic, and we talk about AI in the form of bots. I think bots are truly, truly phenomenal in what they can provide.

Chris:                    

Absolutely.

Ash:                      

Then as we go beyond that, we think about, well, what skills will these bots have and what other AI driven experiences will there be? There are all these matchmaking services today. We had one for my team, for the customer success unit, at an event that we’re at here. It just matches me with a random person. That person might be someone that’s right next to me in the organization. It could be someone who I’ve never met before, didn’t even know existed.

Chris:                    

Says, “Hey, go and have a coffee or something.”

Ash:                      

That’s that serendipitous, connecting these people together. I think the organizations that are doing that, are seeing success in doing that.

Chris:                    

I like that idea.

Ash:                      

It’s a good idea. But then if we take an AI for it, it’s like, well as part of that, what is the purpose of matching those people together? Really, what we’re looking for by doing that randomization, one of the key things I should say we’re looking for, is this notion of connecting someone who has a different way of thinking than you are. That’s diversity of thought that we must seek. We have to.

Chris:                    

Absolutely.

Ash:                      

But we also want that person to have some shared goals with us so that we can rally around a cause with them, applying our different perspectives. I wonder if the future looks like having AI, being able to look at the things we talked about before, the skills directory, but also focusing on what people are passionate about. What do they comment about a lot when they’re in these other social tools? What are the things that we know are really top of mind for them and now let’s match that person with other people that also have that shared passion but might be in a wildly different part of the organization, or they might think about that very differently.

Chris:                    

It’s giving them that collegial feel from a long way away, isn’t it?

Ash:                      

Yeah, exactly.

Chris:                    

That’s powerful. I really like that. I really like that. Any other thoughts around this?

Ash:                      

I think that the other thing that, if I think to the future, the one aspect that I don’t think we’re there yet is when we talk about blending our physical workspaces with the digital ones. I think as always, there’s some great tech out there. Where we are steaming ahead with some awesome innovations. But at the end of the day, there’s a couple of limiting factors there. One is around the price of screens and good quality audio gear and just the notion of being able to be able to do better video conferencing, real video conferencing. Not just a person on a screen floating out there at the end of the table. But why can’t we have people join via hologram, for example. Where they’re physically in the room and they get a physical representation of that room.

                               

That’s to me where we start to think about how we could really make a difference and let people who are remote feels still very close.

Chris:                    

Feel like they’re really in the room with you.

Ash:                      

Yeah. I’m hoping that we get to that point sooner rather than later.

Chris:                    

Yeah. We’re sitting here spending so much time talking about humans when we know the bots are taking over the world, according to Hollywood, really. Are they?

Ash:                      

Absolutely. Yes. I think that the number of movies and the references to AI as dominating the world. We create a robot and it’s designed to serve us, but then it decides that serving us actually means that it needs to protect us from ourselves. Horrible things ensue, involving Will Smith.

Chris:                    

Yes, exactly.

Ash:                      

I think that the fear is real in that we are right to worry about AI, and what it means for us. But we’re also in an amazing position to craft that. We have this unique position right now at this point in time, which is that we are actually aware of the risk when we’re aware of what it means to be relying on AI. That gives us this opportunity to think about where is it that in our work lives in particular where the work we’re doing is undifferentiated, it’s copying and pasting from 10 copies of a Word doc we sent out and got 10 replies with 10 different edits. It’s, manually printing out content for important people before meetings. But how do we get to the point where the ability for AI to help us isn’t based on them doing our job for us because that’s based on the assumption that the things we’re doing today or our job.

Chris:                    

Yes, exactly.

Ash:                      

I’m finding as I go around and interview different customers, and speak with them about how they work, you work out that they spend 30% of their day doing job X. You say, is this on your position description? The answer is often, no, I’m supposed to be doing this other more important stuff, but instead I copy and paste for half the day. That’s where I think AI is going to drive those people to not, not exist and not be out of a job, but rather they can go and do their real job. They can go and interact with people. That’s what-

Chris:                    

That’s the power, isn’t it? Yeah.

Ash:                      

Yeah.

Chris:                    

Then again, takes it all the way back to feeling part of a team, collegial, driving engagement. Mate, you’ve come full circle with this chat here today, you’ve closed that feedback loop, which I know is something you’re very passionate about at Microsoft. Well done, mate, without even realizing. That’s fantastic. But thanks for joining me today. You are an absolute wealth of information and I’ve really enjoyed our chat, so thanks very much.

Ash:                      

Thanks for having me.

Chris:                    

Cheers. Thanks for joining me on the Intelligent Workplace podcast brought to you by LiveTiles. If you have any feedback or want to suggest a guest for a future show, email podcast@livetiles.nyc. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you next time.

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