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Inspire Employees to Own Their Productivity With a Bottom-Up Culture Letting employees choose their own tools and devices creates an ownership mentality among workers.

By Andrew Malcolm Edited by Dan Bova

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There's an adage that advises you shouldn't design your organization around people, but organizations are comprised of people -- unique people who expect to retain their individuality. Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce today. They've brought different priorities and work philosophies compared to previous generations. They are mandating a new bottom-up culture that's more democratic to replace the old model of top-down direction. One of the most drastic examples of this change is in choosing what tools to use and how to share knowledge with teams as end users dictate how they work.

"Shadow IT," the term used when describing solutions that are implemented in organizations without formal organizational approval, is the reason why we've seen small team offerings like Dropbox and Slack (which started with personal use cases) go viral through entire organizations. What started as bringing my iPhone to work in a "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) trend has morphed into Bring Your Own App (BYOA), as companies see the benefits of allowing employees to choose their own work and productivity tools. Studies have even shown that allowing flexibility in the workplace increases employee retention and their sense of accountability for their company's success.

Related: Employees Feel the Love When Companies Embrace BYOD

One size does not fit all.

Not too long ago, when companies wanted to begin implementing system-wide tech services like email applications, mobile devices or other communication channels, it was typically up to the IT department to identify the right product on their own, sign the contract and roll it out systemwide with employee training sessions in a top-down approach. The hope was employees would modify their work habits to a one-size-fits-all tool, without giving them the option to choose what methods help them work best. If you preferred Gmail over Outlook, Mac over PC or iPhone over BlackBerry, too bad for you -- you were forced to adapt or, more frequently, work outside the IT policies.

This approach extended the ramp-up time for new staffers, as they would have to relearn the new company's software and systems every time they started a new job. It's important to bring in smart people who feel connected to your company's mission, then give them room to work in their preferred style. As long as you're clear on the expected outcome, your team should be able to figure out the "how" on their own.

Related: All the Common Excuses for Not Delegating Boil Down to Lack of Confidence

A change of direction.

About 20 years ago, consumer-friendly SaaS products like Salesforce initiated a seismic shift in this structure, and then the iPhone's emergence a decade ago further laid the groundwork for the new, modern workplace. Widespread adoption of the iPhone was the catalyst for a new wave of tech adoption in the office and the beginning of the consumerization of IT and the (BYOD) movement. Rather than using company-owned devices like the IT-friendly BlackBerry, workers began demanding the option to use their iPhones for both personal and professional use. If you remember the days of carrying a personal iPhone and a work BlackBerry everywhere you went, you'll remember what a ridiculous hassle it was. Apple created a product that was the epitome of user-friendly for business purposes. When it infiltrated companies at the ground level, BYOD became the new norm.

This sort of bottom-up implementation is how today's workforce operates. Clunky workplace technology platforms that were popular with IT departments but disliked by employees have simply been pushed out by lack of enthusiasm and use. As far back as 2013, 38 percent of millennials said outdated collaboration processes hindered innovation at their company.

Allowing employees to choose their own tools and devices leads to an adaptive, employee-centric workplace culture that creates a positive ownership mentality among workers. This could mean giving them a choice of checking email on their iPhones or Android devices, offering both Mac and PC laptops, providing budget to purchase the headphones of their choice to encourage focus, or letting them choose between sitting and standing desks (at Evernote HQ, we do all of these and even have some treadmill desks).

Related: 6 Things I Learned After Switching to a Standing Desk

Work imitating life.

Companies like Slack and WhatsApp deploy a consumer-centric, employee-first approach to provide teams with tools that, quite simply, just work. In many cases, these tools cross over from business usage to also being used in employees' personal lives, or vice versa. We've found that 70 percent of Evernote users use our products for both business and personal purposes. A big part of a bottom-up rollout across a democratic office is user experience and accessibility -- there's no need for time-consuming employee training seminars to learn how to use this new software.

SaaS companies disrupted the software landscape by offering user-friendly products and freemium models that allow workers to get started and try out the product at no cost. Even junior employees are able to use premium products through a quick download with little-to-no budget. Because CIOs are no longer necessarily the earliest adopters of enterprise software, SaaS companies have moved from employing a sales-first strategy to building a marketing force. When trying to engage many potential customers (all of a company's employees) instead of one (a CIO), SaaS companies needed to shift their outbound messaging techniques and underscore a product that's easy to try without much commitment.

These marketing-driven go-to-market strategies are effectively lowering the barrier of entry and changing the paradigm for how companies speak to users. These work apps catch on virally across organizations and bubble up to the top naturally, so once a company hits critical mass with a product's usage, those in charge will look into business accounts for access to administrative control, upgrade capabilities, and premium features and reduced costs. When companies let employees use tools that are effective for them, productivity and happiness increase. And as a positive consequence, companies stay profitable and healthy.

Related: The Legal Implications of Expecting Employees to Work After Hours

Where do we go from bottom-up?

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 90 percent of software spending will be outside of IT. Trends like bottom-up structures will continue, because the modern workforce and workplace will continue to change. New technologies that complement and boost productivity are valuable to both employer and employees and, in a culture where customization is king, a one-size-fits-most approach won't cut it.

That said, while the BYOD and BYOA workplace has brought us this far, it can only continue to expand to a finite point. If every single person at a company uses a different app or tool to accomplish something, it can become impossible to collaborate -- you'll understand this pain point if you've ever tried to work on a deck with some teammates using PowerPoint, some using Keynote and others using Google Slides.

We've found that 10-person teams are the atomic unit of decision making on which tools to implement; anything beyond this tends to convolute the process. Teams buy tools, companies do not. What's important to identify is who the "maven" of your product is within these teams. Learning how to appeal to your target customers is one thing, but actually building them into brand advocates goes another step deeper, and creates long-lasting value.

But gone are the days of legacy product suites that are only compatible with other apps made by the same company -- devices and apps need to play nice with others by integrating with various APIs instead of living in separate ecosystems. The IT department's job has morphed from being a gatekeeper and selector of products to the role of keeping employees updated on best practices for a multitude of apps and operating systems, in order to ensure success and security.

We all work in different ways, and what works for one person doesn't work for another. The key is to build satisfaction throughout an entire company through options and trust. Autonomy and flexibility are everything, now and in the future.

Andrew Malcolm

Chief Growth Officer of Evernote

Andrew Malcolm is Chief Growth Officer of Evernote, where he leads branding and communications, marketing operations and product marketing. He previously held roles as VP of Product Marketing Mobility at HP and Head of Marketing at Skype.

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