There’s no doubt the world of work is rapidly changing. Here in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology has invaded every part of our lives, and rapidly emerging breakthroughs are disrupting almost every industry in every country. But while the digital world offers new opportunities for success, is the way we work keeping pace with change?

On the one hand, we see high levels of worker disengagement and dire predictions of job loss due to increased use of artificial intelligence and automation. On the other, we’re seeing unprecedented start-up successes.

Fortunately, we have experienced remarkable change before — several times, in fact. We moved from fields to machinery, factories to offices, and witnessed the subsequent process of automation. And now that the convergence of technology, people, processes and places is challenging the notion of the modern workplace — from the physical environment to the type of work we perform and how we go about that work — we see that true digital transformation is possible only with the right business model and organisational structure, supported by mind-set changes about how we work.

A strong foundation for culture, with employees aligned to a digital vision, is essential. Many management teams, however, are simply not embracing the crucial link between leadership, employee culture, and success.

The factors that influenced company success in the past — a national brand, global scale and an identity we could trust — were focused on consistency and reliability. Compared to the predictability of mapping a course and steering towards it with minimal changes along the way, in the 21st century we’re facing increasing uncertainty. We must navigate without a map, and the companies that succeed are those that are agile, regularly altering course in response to market demands.

Your customers want to know whether you can evolve and improve your product or service every day. To succeed, organisations need to be adaptive. Leadership needs to fundamentally change to value people and make digital disruption work for, rather than against, the business. The culture of a successful organisation focuses on a workforce with the power to respond, pivoting quickly and efficiently with autonomy and transparency to address emerging needs — a culture that values experimentation with the flexibility and freedom to make necessary decisions quickly: a “fail fast” and “do and learn” approach.

Employee experience is a powerful influence

It’s only relatively recently that we’ve understood and embraced the importance of experience, but typically the focus has been on customer experience. What many organisations have yet to embrace is the value of employee experience.

Organisations make major investments in people, and experience is emerging as the key to happy and engaged employees in the modern workplace. Addressing this cultural need is one of the biggest challenges for organisations that want to achieve a complete (and successful) transformation.

After all, in their personal lives, employees enjoy rich technology experiences that are interactive, fast, spontaneous, collaborative and intuitive. We have power and autonomy with ubiquitous access to anything we desire, anytime and anywhere. Ten years ago our technology at work was far better than what we used at home, but that is now reversed, and this should not be the case.

The process of work has also shifted from linear and individual to iterative and creative collaboration, a clear move from “me” to “we”. With increased emphasis on remote working, distributed teams and collaboration, work is no longer a destination. And physical work spaces are also changing. Compared to 5 years ago, we have an increased number of teams and a large increase in the number of people working remotely.

While today several generations of workers co-exist — a multi-generational approach that involves different priorities, complexities and challenges — by 2020, it is estimated 50 per cent of the world’s workforce will be millennials.

Companies that recognise all of these developments and put employee experience first will be those that succeed because of the simple fact that it is hard to achieve anything without invested workers. Employees today expect choice of location and device, flexibility in how and when they work, with increasing contingent- or project-based arrangements, and they are demanding greater flexibility and agility.

While technology is completely redefining employee expectations, their ability to fully embrace change and manage for the long term is key. Many employees will be excited by this new world; others, however, will need to see and believe in the culture and process changes in order to engage.

Those changes need to be driven from the top with strong leadership and support. Leadership must understand and communicate how and why change is happening and what success looks like, while also driving the evolution of work practices and culture to support the transformation. It will be mind-set and not toolset that will be the greatest determinant in how organisations navigate this workplace disruption.

Organisations that achieve maximum value from their people will be those that engage their workforce by fostering outstanding employee experiences and keeping up with increasing expectations. In short, a complete change in culture is in order — from the old way to the new way.