One of IBM’s core values is to create “Innovation that matters, for our company and for the world”. Diversity is critical for innovation and therefore we aim to create an environment where diversity and inclusion is an integral part of our cultural DNA - and a flexible approach to work is an essential part of this.
IBM offers a range of flexible working packages to all employees across all levels. Our Work Life programmes and Flexible Work Options help increase choice, reduce stress and enhance productivity.
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IBM’s workforce needs to be flexible enough to respond quickly and effectively to the changing needs of both customers and IBM. It allows us to solve skills shortages, increases our ability to operate 24/7 and helps to retain key staff with knowledge and client relationships. Our flexible working policy is not just about being nice to people, it is a business imperative.
IBM’s flexible working policy offers a unified set of flexible working options to over 400,000 employees across multiple divisions, geographies and all major business units. This includes everything from standard part-time working to compressed hours, term-time working, job share, annualised hours, mobile working and working from home.
Aside from these formal arrangements, employees are also encouraged to adopt a flexible approach to working. A distinction is drawn between those on a formal flexible work contract and those who manage their working hours flexibly, eg working in the office on some days, at a client site or at home on other days - or perhaps working early in the morning or late in the evening to accommodate business or family commitments.
Flexible working is not just for parents and carers - all employees have things outside work they are passionate about and by allowing employees to manage their time, it can help increase satisfaction and drive employee engagement. Similarly, emergency situations can arise and allowing employees to take unscheduled time off is not only the ‘right thing to do’ but also helps drive employee loyalty.
Encouraging a culture of flexible working has enormous benefits, including better employee morale and engagement. It is highly valued by employees and a great retention tool. In our Global Work/Life Survey 80% of employees said that they feel in control of where, how and when they work.
Employees are further supported by access to emergency care provision for childcare and eldercare.
The journey to developing an intelligent Easy Button began with investigating various technologies and platforms to better understand what kind of software was currently available and what it was capable of doing. Cognitive computing surfaced as the most exciting technological advancement.
“When we started looking into cognitive solutions, a senior product manager who is also very technical took it upon himself to demo the Watson platform,” recalls Bartley. “In a single afternoon, he put together a simple but powerful conversational platform. It was a wake-up call for us—that cognitive solutions are real and the tooling around them [is] powerful. That’s what got us really interested in Watson.”
To be thorough, the team examined other cognitive platforms from major market players and tried to project where those platforms might be in 1 – 3 years. The IBM Watson Developer Cloud platform, with its extensive set of services, tools and support, stood out. “We felt that IBM had, by far, the largest lead in terms of where cognitive was going and that the Watson team would be in the best position to help our business users,” says Bartley.
Today, the enhanced Easy Button is part of a larger Staples Easy System, an intelligent ordering ecosystem that allows Staples’ business customers to order supplies quickly and easily from a variety of devices using voice, text or email input. The system takes advantage of the natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning capabilities of the Watson platform as well as numerous Watson services. The technologies work in unison to understand and process customers’ spoken words, translate speech to text, extract the nature of their requests, and use voice feedback to provide order confirmations and product recommendations.
The Easy Button itself is outfitted with sensors and wireless networking technologies that communicate with the company’s ordering, commerce and customer data enterprise systems through an underlying integration platform. The IBM Watson Conversation service, a platform as a service (PaaS) technology, puts a conversational interface on the button so that customers can interact with it using natural language. The Watson Speech to Text and Text to Speech services work together to process customers’ utterances and enable utterances from the Easy Button device.
When a customer speaks into the Easy Button, Watson Conversation works to understand the customer’s intent and entities referenced. Currently, the system is trained on five intents, or skills: product ordering, product reordering, shipment tracking, checking on reward summaries and processing back-to-school lists from scanned images provided by customers. Entities are office products contained in the company’s vast catalog, such as pens, toner and paper, each of which has its own stock keeping unit (SKU).
After Watson Conversation recognizes the intent and entity of a request such as, “I want to reorder black pens,” it calls the Staples personalization engine. That engine uses the Watson Retrieve and Rank service and custom-built analytics to comb through the customer’s purchasing history and identify the specific SKU, or in this example, pen, the customer historically orders. If the system is highly confident it has identified the correct SKU, it uses voice feedback to confirm the purchase with the customer, and the transaction is complete. If the confidence score is medium, the system suggests a variety of pens based on past orders so that the customer can select the correct product.
To provide customers with anytime and everywhere service, Staples is also using its Easy Button software platform with Watson Conversation to support all of its chat experiences across its many channels, including the Staples website, the company’s chat and mobile app, and third-party messaging platforms such as Slack and Facebook Messenger.
“Watson Conversation helped us immensely and changed the trajectory of the project,” says Goodwin. “The visual tooling around it made everything significantly easier—easier to train Watson on our product catalog and intents, and easier to see where we were having issues. It’s fantastic.”
The Staples Easy System with Watson also learns over time. For instance, if it cannot confidently return a customer’s request—perhaps because it hasn’t been trained on the intent or the customer makes a request it can’t understand—it forwards the request to a live agent who can help the customer. In cases like this, Staples feeds the agent’s conversation back into the Watson system so that it can learn the dialog and successfully manage similar requests in the future. “We’ve set up an end-to-end learning system so that we can continue to improve all of our chat and voice channels around specific intent,” says Bartley.