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· Management,Digital,Workforce,Leadership,Strategy

For many of us office junkies a digital workplace means the ability to: Yammer, make video calls, conduct webinars, Skype, and use cloud-based tools like BaseCamp and Dropbox.

These relatively new technology tools allow us to work beyond the traditional office space. But is this the complete digital workplace story?

Is the narrative simply about technology fueling our working lives through the digitisation of the workplace? Or perhaps something else is happening beyond this digital hype?

For most of us, our working day consumes an astonishing 70% of our waking hours. For something as important as our working environment, shouldn’t we be asking what we are REALLY gaining from trying out new technologies? And specifically, are we gaining anything from what we had before?

What preceded digital workplaces?

Ok, hands up for those of us who is or has worked in those open plan floors with stale, generic cubicles. Nearly everyone I know would be raising their hand. As the years have ticked by we have come to accept and work under this decor, yet in many cases many of us still loath it.

Open Plan Floors (or OPFs as I’ll refer to them) are still in offices today and despite going digital, they still largely exist. It’s as if there was nothing wrong with OPFs in the first place. So then just give us some cool technologies and now we have a digital workplace, right? Not quite. We need to go deeper to better understand what brought on the OPF concept.

In the decades-long, cost competitive business environment of outsourcing and automation, companies warmed up to the idea of cramming more of us into OPFs to save costs in office space leasing. What was the people rationale? We were told we were all equal at the workplace. OPFs promised a way to break down those stubborn business silos. C-level would now sit beside the worker bee. Everyone would benefit, they said. But are these OPFs with their cookie-cutter cubicles really that effective?

Instead of feeling empowered and trusted, many of us feel more constricted and isolated. As a result, OPFs have stifled human conversation in the workplace. We now communicate more through emails and other text forms of communication that ever before. And many of us now choose to sit at our desk with our ear pieces on, staying largely quiet – too quiet in fact.

The OPF environment has become a hollowed-out shell of who we should be, and could be. We’ve become slaves to our own working spaces. Digital or no-digital, where’s the humanity in that?

Contrast this environment to many law offices today; perhaps the last bastion of the ‘old’ workplace that did not get completely gutted out by the OFP juggernaut. I’ve become a bit addicted to the U.S. television series ‘Suits’. For those who are not in the know, the show is awash with plenty of office workers moving into and out of closed office spaces to chat about serious stuff. Everyone is always moving about; the office vibe is buzzing. Although there is an OFP for more junior staff, the bulk of the office space is still laid out according to a hierarchical importance to the firm, including floor numbers. Additionally, staff still have a library and case-filing basement to escape to find other places to chat if need be.

For most of us who are not in the legal field, what options do we have when we want to talk in private? We can opt for using those new digital communication tools, but everything digital is now recorded and kept on file somewhere. There’s always the option of visiting our local café. Coffee shops in urban cities have never been so popular!

The OPF may have achieved those cost reductions but it has done very little to engender a great working environment. In fact, it may have done more harm than good for us office workers.

It’s time to de-emphasize the ‘D’ in digital

No one would argue that adding new forms of digital communication has allowed workers to remotely connect and work share with their peers. This means a plethora of business activities can be remotely performed that once upon a time could only be done while at the office. The modern office no longer has any geographical barriers.

But on the flip side it has two knock-on effects: a) it creates an uneven playing field as to who gets to work remotely versus who doesn’t, and b) it has a negligible effect in promoting a better working environment within the office.

The benefit of working remotely can mask the larger problem of why there is a continuing downward trend of employee engagement scores and overall levels of happiness. Here are some insights worth sharing:

  • Performance reviews are always focussed on the individual, but rarely make an association between the individual’s performance and their workplace environment as a cause/effect correlation
  • When management focusses on the workplace compliance related outcomes, such as workplace safety issues, tends to get the bulk of attention.  Documenting the pulse of how people may feel about their work environment is an infrequent occurrence. 
  • Workplace data, where and when it is collected, is rarely tied to meaningful HR stats such as retention rates, bullying incidents and well-being metrics

Shouldn’t the aim of the digital workplace be about bringing workers back into the office to have informal chats, feel good about the environment they work in and encourage discussion about their organisation in constructive and meaningful ways? And shouldn’t those companies wishing to change their workplace to be more digital consider these critical points mentioned above BEFORE taking action?

It’s time to re-introduce our humanity into work

As mentioned earlier, an OPF was supposed to deliver us a greater sense of transparency and equality. Yet, do these two values instinctually live within each of us, or perhaps our shadow values of opaqueness and inequality are what drive us more? (A shadow value is an opposing value to the one described.)

Here’s the dilemma. What we aspire to be (transparent and equal), we may not want to be (opaque and hierarchical). And yet this dilemma is a part of who we are – our humanness; a flawed representation of our espoused values versus the ones we choose to practice and/or accept.

Perhaps we swung that ‘values pendulum’ to heavily to one side when we attempted to create open plan offices and monotonous rows of desk cubicles. And perhaps we have come full circle to appreciate that sometimes it is ok to have a bit of inequality in our work environment, but not too much.

The digital workplace promises a return to our old office practices, before the dawn of OPFs, that offered a place to truly socialise as human beings. Those walls and closed office rooms created conversational safe zones for us. It was a time when commuting to the office meant something beyond a pay check. And despite physically displaying our office ranking, there still existing a level of civility and openness in the air.

In a sense the digital workplace, through a range of collaborative tools now available, has the promise of reintroducing a greater sense of social context than what preceded it. The potential of creating a more balanced approach to our humanity in the workplace exists. Perhaps this is the foundation in which to build a better digital workplace.

I was inspired to write this blog from attending a leadership panel at a University of Sydney. The panel discussed the nature and importance of our digital workplace. The event was sponsored by the Digital Disruption Research Group, chaired by Kai Riemer. The panel consisted of Euan Semple, Simon Terry, Sandra Peter and Anne Bartlett-Bragg

For those interested to learn more about my reasons for writing this blog, Chapter 4 of my book, Flipping for Success: Rewiring Business Strategy to the New Consumer Age, provides deeper insights into why it is paramount to elevate our human condition as a strategic pillar of businesses.

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