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Remote working in the digital workplace. It’s the future, but what does it mean?

Jonathan PhillipsJonathan Phillips·

Business loves a buzz phrase and “remote working” and “digital workplace” are two of many doing the rounds in c-level conversations as evidenced by Marissa Mayer, former CEO at Yahoo!, and IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty

Digital workplace technologies, culture, experience and process have been my business for the last 15 years and with a recent move to private consultancy, I’ve had a great opportunity to learn by building my own digital workplace.

What can we expect? Let’s consider the evidence.

What is the digital workplace?

There are as many definitions of digital workplace as there are digital workplaces – Google Images will return many models for you to consider. My definition is therefore up for considerable debate but I find it a useful framework for client conversations.

I describe it as follows: “The devices and services, company provided or employee sourced, that the employee chooses to use to do their job”. This definition outlines a few home truths: the digital workplace is a hardware and software consideration; that the digital workplace will include tools that are not company provided and that it’s the employee who really chooses what to use.

For clarity, the services in question will cover communication, collaboration, business transactions such as HR self-service and expenses, and knowledge repositories. This also means that the digital workplace is not the sole-preserve of one team in your organization – it’s really, the sum of all the technologies that an employee uses, regardless of who provides them.

Work and the Workplace is changing

We’re at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution that, much like the three revolutions before it, will see some dramatic changes in the work that we do and the nature of how we work. The fourth industrial revolution is characterized by 4 co-operative factors.

  • Information Transparency: Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, big data, open data
  • Interoperability: Internet of things, internet of people
  • Technical Assistance: Machines helping us work; machines doing roles we don’t want to do
  • Decentralized decisions: Machines making decisions autonomously and escalating only when needed

Luddites will no doubt exist (see this amazing article about people trying to scupper autonomous Volvo cars), but the consensus is that these factors will drive some significant workplace changes with some implication for the digital workplace. Other factors also prevail. Office-space, a huge business overhead, is rising in cost which means that workers are encouraged — financially incentivized, even — to work elsewhere. Automattic (the company behind WordPress) describe themselves as being “fully distributed” and give their employees money to work wherever they desire.

We also read about the flexible work demands of millennials, but as the Harvard Business Review rightly points out, the work-life balance demanded by new workers is one that all of us would cherish.

Modern offices with large open plan spaces for the majority and small private offices for the senior minority are increasingly shown not to be the most productive way to work. As Joel Spansky, CEO of Stack Overflow points out, some work tasks require quiet spaces that are not readily available to the majority of employees. The ability to move work environment, facilitated by digital workplace technologies, help employees find the balance.

Lastly, at a time when some countries are looking for ways to close borders, the Boston Consulting Group remind us of the significant labor shortages that some developed nation economies can expect in coming years. We can increasingly expect skills gaps to be filled from elsewhere and these new hyper-remote workers will need digital workplace technologies to connect.

These technology, economic and social factors mean that the digital workplace is a vital way to connect employees and provide them with the right freedoms to get the job done in the right way.

Lessons from the smallest collaboration unit

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Sharon O’Dea — an esteemed colleague on Intranetizen.com — on a project for a large professional services organization. It was fascinating to practice what we preach and work together digitally. The smallest collaboration unit (just the two of us) built our own digital workplace, workflows and practices to service our client and we learnt a great deal about what’s possible and the power of flexible working.

What will glue us together?

Recently, some silicon valley companies including IBM and Yahoo announced moves to bring employees back to their offices in stark contrast to the macro-trends observed above, citing concerns about corporate culture and productivity.

Not all business leaders agree however. In this excellent Jacob Morgan podcast, Monika Fahlbusch, Chief Experience Officer at BMC, describes how her organisation works for their employees. Her view is stark and challenging. She rightly connects the employee experience to corporate culture and values, and believes that businesses will evolve from working in one big office building, to working remotely from any location with the clear demand on digital workplace technologies.

Fahlbusch notes the heightened sense of culture, values and brand that employees experience at big corporate events and thinks that the future of work might mean bringing remote workers together four times a year for events to connect them with a sense of ‘company’. Her view is that we shouldn’t do employee experience on low volume all the year round in large offices but we should save the money on large offices, invest in technology and high volume experience events.

So what glues us together? Aligned culture, common values, singular “high volume” employee experience and brilliant technology.

Summary

Technology, economic and social factors mean that the digital workplace will be an increasingly important factor in business. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that it might be a  critical factor in recruiting high skilled individuals.

But with an increasingly distributed work model, with employees choosing home working, remote working and other flexible working patterns, the technology can connect, but it doesn’t necessarily align and engage. Investment in the employee experience, in developing culture and communicating values will help employees work together and get the best from the platforms. As ever, regardless of the technology, it’s really still all about the people.


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