Innovation is a buzzword we often hear as it relates to work. The problem with innovation, however, is that it is an abstract concept, which can make it difficult for people to understand when it's effective or how to implement it. The opportunity to speak with Cisco's Irving Tan has provided me with a clearer picture on workplace innovation.
Being the largest networking company in the industry, Cisco is a leader in innovation, as its business is about transformation.
Irving's role at Cisco
Irving Tan is President for Cisco Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ). He is the leader of five organisations operating across a diverse set of markets and countries including India and SAARC, ASEAN, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. In this role, Irving is responsible for developing Cisco's strategy, accelerating business growth, and ensuring that Cisco provides the most trusted and relevant IT solutions to its customers.
What does workplace innovation look like at Cisco?
At Cisco, we live and breathe innovation. For us, it's our ability to empower our people by offering flexible work arrangements — this includes employee schedules and the physical locations our people choose to work. This empowerment is important because it increases our level of collaboration and workforce productivity.
Our Cisco work profile survey, which was conducted about eighteen months ago, showed 55% of staff felt that they didn't need to be in an office to be productive, and 48% collaborated across time zones. Understanding this is the way people now work, we have made changes to facilitate their work patterns.
I also see this flexibility as a great tool to drive both talent attraction and retention. As a result, we have a very low turnover rate. We also have employees that left and eventually returned because they said they miss it here.
I consider this flexibility and empowerment to be the 'fabric' of our organisation.
How does this impact your customers?
Customer requirements are more complex these days; our agility allows us to offer innovative solutions to customers faster by cutting across traditional boundaries. We have a customer-centric culture at Cisco; we are able to offer our customers flexibility in responding to their needs and this results in a more holistic collaboration between the customers and us. Because of this we see a higher level of customer satisfaction.
Does this impact the future growth of Cisco?
Absolutely! I see our success tightly tied to two factors. Business is a battle of talent — this is probably the most important challenge we face. By offering an innovative workplace, we attract and retain talent at Cisco. This is a very important factor for growth and success.
The second factor is that the business environment changes quickly; the abilities to be agile and react with high responsiveness are expected. Our way of working harnesses capabilities across functional teams and answers these expectations.
What are the key challenges in implementing a workplace that supports innovation, and how did you address these challenges?
The challenges we face are around changes. There is the change of physical location, but more complex is a move from a setup that reflects traditional hierarchy to a functional layout that offers full mobility.
There is no more fixed space that traditionally delineates positions in an organisation. By breaking down the physical structure, we can move in quickly to work together, leveraging the power of the team. The challenge is about changing the paradigm of an entitlement mindset of leaders. To address this challenge, a solid change management strategy is critical.
What are the keys to success?
It's important to partner with the HR organisation to fully understand employees' personal, social, and professional needs.
There are more millennials in the workforce. They have different expectations; work-life tends to have a more blurred line than the previous generations. With this understanding, we created an environment to combine areas of work and play. We transformed the workplace to better fit their interests. We know people spend more time at work than at home during the week. It is important that they feel excited coming to work.
As a leader, what is your role in driving workplace innovation?
My role is to represent all stakeholders and to take into consideration the different requirements and needs.
We also use ourselves as an example to show other organisations what is possible. When our customers are moving to new facilities, we have invited them to come and look at our office, and I would have an HR or real estate representative explain the structure and the impact on our people and business.
How do leaders need to change to manage better in this environment?
In a traditional world, we, the leadership along with real estate, tend to make decisions on behalf of most staff when it comes to workplace structure. Here at Cisco, we have a "Sustaining Management Team" in which not all members are managers. The team represents stakeholders; they make decisions and drive changes.
In this environment, constant, regular feedback and a coaching style of management are expected. Since there is less of a physical boundary, there is a higher demand on managers to offer feedback and coaching compared to what takes place in a more formal, structured environment. Leaders have to understand that these are the expectations that come with a less formal hierarchy.
What advice would you give to other leaders on workplace innovation?
I see that there are four important points:
The first is definitely a strong partnership established among the HR, IT, real estate, and business teams. It is critical to consider the human elements combined with both the digital and physical environments.
Second, having a robust change management and communication strategy is important. Leaders have to prepare to focus time and energy on communicating the change.
Third, I believe we lead by example. We, as leaders of the organisation, set the tone as role models. I often remind my leadership team that our behaviour has a strong impact on the rest of the organisation.
Last but not least, is my belief in creating a workplace culture that facilitates effective collaboration, a culture of agility that enhances employee experience. It is critical in terms of attracting and retaining talent in an organisation.