Part two of Guild's interview with Barney Loehnis, covering the relationship between the digital and physical workplace today.

Digital increasingly means nomads and remote working, but not all companies have embraced this change. Why is it so important that they do?

Some aspects of mobility are right for all companies, but not all aspects are right for one company. However, it is important that companies design their operating system to accommodate these options. Those that don't make conscious accommodations are not only being inefficient, but they are also turning valuable employees away.

There are three employment models that can be very empowering.

  1. Gig economy & contingent worker – this can help reduce on-going overheads, restructures and fixed costs for the business, and create new model of employment for gig'ers who like to choose the type, timing and location of the projects they work on.
  2. Remote working – this can similarly help reduce fixed overheads, give access to cheaper, better quality people, facilitate rural regeneration by putting jobs back into the countryside and villages, and create better work-life options for people who don't want to live in the city or who have dependents at home that they need to be present for.
  3. Flexible time – this can help companies retain great people, and enable those with parenting or dependent care concerns retain fulfilling jobs. All it requires is for managers and companies to redesign jobs, so that people who require more flexibility can remain with the company.

How does the digital workplace experience relate to its traditionally physical counterpart?

The challenge is to fuse the physical with the digital in a single coherent design.

The physical elements – the office, the plants, the receptionist, the hardware, the canteen – is where the theatrical 'dramaturgy' comes in. Everything 'says' something about the company's intent, purpose, and values as well it how it wants people to 'feel' and relate to each other in that space. The Board level offices at Marsh & McClelland, are full of oil portraits of white men. What does that say to people when the company professes to be progressive and diverse? It’s an atrocious disconnect between professed values and how they are manifested in the workplace. These are the details that are becoming important to employees.

In some ways, the physical experience is everything because it can drive so many important behaviors and impressions – like cathedrals, cloisters, monuments and promenades. But in other ways, if the buildings were to burn down then what we'd be left with is 'culture'; the true essence of a company is the relationships and values that are held between its people. The physical space can only help reinforce those values and behaviors.

This is also true for the digital workplace. The tone of internal emails, company announcements and HR policies are normally so dry that most people want to delete them on reflex. So many of our digital platforms lack the human element, this is why SaaS platforms can be both good and bad. They can greatly simplify, organize the unorganized, and empower people to perform their jobs better, but they can also be so generic that they sap the humanity out of an organization. It is the intersection between purpose, people, platforms, and profit that we must now focus on. We have to bring a company's "who (we are)" and "why (we are here)” to life in the digital workplace.

So, we need to consider how to infuse dramaturgy into both the physical and digital workplace. What's the digital equivalent of the CEO taking a walk around the office? Is it dropping into a twitter conversation unexpectedly? Wishing a colleague happy birthday on LinkedIn? Or sending someone a restaurant voucher gift card as a thank you for their week's hard work? I’m not sure exactly - for each leader I suspect there's a different personal touch. My point is that both physical and digital need to be architected to represent the values of the company and drive those meaningful cultural engagements.

And how is that relationship changing?

WeWork is probably the clearest example of the physical and digital workplace coming together in a powerful operating system. For its 'members' the mobile app is the way to control the physical space - book rooms, access the help desk, connect with the network and manage any administration for the office. Behind the scenes WeWork uses sensors and data to drive the impact of the space, reconfiguring furniture to drive the engagement, productivity, and performance of its residents in real time. Every aspect of the experience is designed to make work, work.

Many companies now cannot differentiate themselves from their digital workplace. The 'workplace' experience for brands like Yotel is digitally driven so the brand is the experience they deliver empowers with digital tools. The “digital workplace” drives both the employee and customer experience - it is the red thread across the experience before, during and after a stay - delivering real time feedback on the performance of both parties.

As companies like WeWork and Google set new standards of designing high performing workplaces, corporations are more woke to the fact that spaces designed for collaboration and mobility are more productive than boxed cubicles and faceless factories. These more flexible co-working collectives, powered by clever digital operating experiences, are also redefining how companies can tap into contingent networks, resources and partnerships to fuel productivity, innovation and growth.

How is digital transformation enabling people to work better with each other?

For all of the pitfalls in digital transformation, for all the dangers of dehumanizing the very people we want to serve, the opportunities for digital to be a force for good are incredible.

Never before has it been easier to collaborate across teams, distance and time. Be it through private collaboration and messaging tools like Guild or Slack or through task and project management tools like Jira and Percolate - the open access to information and the ability to automate how it is managed is liberating. The knowledge management platforms are able to surface content that is demonstrably driving most value across the network. The network tools can help identify people that can drive success to connect with. It’s becoming easier to design, code and develop tools to create specific experiences and there are also more tools that can be easily implemented and integrated.

On the other hand, what are some pitfalls to avoid when using the communication tools available at the moment?

The key focus now must be on orienting the overarching design of the digital workplace, not around the needs of functional silos and departments, nor succumb to allowing SaaS platforms to define the human interaction between colleagues, but instead to orient the design around the needs of the employee and ensure that their unmet needs are satisfied. That’s how the customer’s needs have been addressed, and this is how powerful collaborative experiences need to be delivered for employees.

The reason why 70% of transformations fail (according to McKinsey research) is that teams tend to focus on the immediately technology tasks - and forget to think about how to manage the cultural change requirements and engage employees in a dialog on how they need to adapt. So, when it comes to new communication and collaboration tools there has to be a dialog about what’s been gained through their use, as well as what human interaction has been sacrificed. Zoom has enable people to meet face to face vs lengthy travel times. But what behaviors are now missing since we no longer get to go out and socialize after work with traveling colleagues? How can you fill that void?

Employers and employees also need help to think through the implications of digital footprints, data and analytics. The ethical implications are massive, and if any progress is to be made, then companies have to build trust with their employees, as they implement AI and the digital workplace. Ginny Rometty, CEO & Chairman of IBM, argues that companies must develop a set of principles to guide their use of AI and machines to ensure it builds to a better world. She outlines three broad principles:

  • The purpose of AI is to augment human intelligence
  • Data and insights belong to their creator
  • New technology, including AI systems, must be transparent and explainable

These seem to be good guides as companies design their digital workplace to help employees deliver outstanding work and build fulfilling careers.

Do connect with me on Twitter: @Barneylo
Linkedin: Barney Loehnis

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

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