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Asynchronously connected: the important elements of a Digital Workplace in the post-pandemic era.

It's no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the trend of remote and hybrid work like an afterburner dumping fuel into a jet's exhaust. The pandemic did not create the idea of remote work, however - many companies were already moving towards this model pre-pandemic - but it became the catalyst for mainstream adoption. Unfortunately, instead of using this opportunity to improve the way in which we work, companies who felt pushed into the new model simply took their offices online, essentially working the same way, in the same teams, with the same tools, while swapping the cubicle for a home-office. This is Level 2 of Matt Mullenweg's five levels of of distributed teams and I worry that these companies will continue in this position post-pandemic.


All we've done here is swapped running from one meeting room to another, for hanging up one video call before dialing another. We've swapped the annoying interruptions of colleagues walking up to our desks to talk about unrelated work or personal matters, for the same colleagues sending us unnecessary emails or chats. What's worse, we have taken away the one escape we had - leaving the office at the end of the day. The blurred lines created by working at home (or living at work?) for when we are available, working, online has created an additional point of stress for employees and this needs to be addressed.


This is not a sustainable way of working in the new normal. Employees need to be empowered with the right tools, processes, and organizational structure to work in a digital, distributed, secure environment for a hybrid or remote workforce to be successful.


Most importantly, employees need to be able to work asynchronously. Forcing synchronous work (expecting all employees to work from 9 am to 5 pm, for example) on remote employees is the wrong way to approach remote work and is highly inefficient.


One of the ways to avoid the mistake of simply taking the office online is to embrace that each individual contributor needs their freedom to decide when and where to work. This can help remote workers optimize their productivity and work-life balance, which are great things for the company. But in order to do this, we need to move from real-time communication to better asynchronous management.


Enter the Digital Workplace. Much more than an intranet, the Digital Workplace is the internal hub that allows multiple users, working remotely, asynchronously and securely, to still collaborate as a team. Companies that struggle to implement Digital Workplace tend to look at the concept is merely investing in Microsoft 365 and using Zoom or Teams.


In fact, if a company proudly posts a screenshot of an all-hands video call with 50 people in a tiled grid, I immediately assume the company has no idea how to work remotely. (Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)


Elements of a digital workplace will vary with organization size, resource skillsets, and line of businesses, but there are a few useful tools that can help almost everyone, whether they are core features of a Digital Workplace tool or separate applications in your landscape.


Communication

Communication should be broken down into two forms; top-down and peer-to-peer. Top-down communication does not refer to a manager-to-employee communication necessarily, but rather broader broadcasts of information. This could be company updates from the CEO, it could be employee policy reminders from HR, or it could be timesheet notifications from a department head. In all cases, it is communication originating from one person or department, shared to the broader company, division, or team.


The challenge with this type of top-down communication is that we tend to tune them out. Most of them end up as emails that sit in our inbox; we might glance over them, and then promptly ignore them if they do not have a notion of urgency. The volume of such communication has only increased during the pandemic, and we need to manage how we send out broadcasts of information. A Digital Workplace news hub would provide a single source of broad, non-specific company information to all users, and clever filtering could ensure that important headlines are highlighted and remain in a prime page location for a set period of time, unlike emails that quickly sink to the bottom of the inbox.


Peer-to-peer communication generally comprises of phone calls, instant messaging and email. What is scary is that, according to Forbes, "office workers receive at least 200 messages a day and write 40, and spend about two-and-a-half hours reading and replying to emails." On average, we check our emails 15 times a day (I feel like I check mine WAY more often than that). The linked Forbes article has much more information that highlights how inefficient our email habits are.

To have a successful digital workplace, we need to make our peer-to-peer communication more efficient.


Collaboration

One way to make our peer-to-peer communication more efficient is by having better collaboration tools in the Digital Workplace. This could mean a few different things:

  1. Document Collaboration allows multiple users to work on a document at the same time without having to email copies around, and without having to worry about document versioning and merging of changes.

  2. Project collaboration can be done through numerous tools where people can add status and progress updates, raise issues, or trigger different Work Breakdown Structures to commence their part of the project.

  3. Brainstorming, virtual whiteboarding, or graphic design tools allow groups of people to collaborate ideas in real-time or asynchronously.

See my writeup of Microsoft Loop for more on collaboration in the digital workplace.


Task Monitoring

One of the worst emails with respect to wasted time, in my opinion, is the status email. This is the one when you get a one-liner, "Can you give me an update on .... ", or "where are we with the .... project?" and especially the "So what are the next steps from the .... meeting?"


None of those examples should require an email. Tasks that require reporting should be monitored on task boards. There are over a dozen enterprise tools that all follow similar principles of task management and allow sharing of information. If someone needs to know the status of the financial projects that Bob from accounting was working on, they should be able to check Bob's task card and his last updates. Since everyone who needs this information can see it, Bob only needs to update his card once for multiple people to get the information. If Bob has to reply to every "status" email he receives - that's a multiplier of wasted time.


Of course this assumes that Bob is updating his task card, and this brings up the topic of updating processes to work in a digital-first office environment.


Office hours and meeting scheduling

In the world of asynchronous, remote work, we cannot make assumptions of office hours or meeting times anymore. Personally, I have colleagues with whom I have discovered the optimal time for a call is between 6 and 7 am. With others, I have IM chats about projects after 9 pm. This was never a plausible scenario during synchronous office work, and it has opened up a lot of flexibility for ideal working times.


However, this has become a nightmare for scheduling calls. Back-and-forth emails to find available meeting slots while being unsure whether to suggest non-traditional hours late in the night or early in the morning wastes a lot of time. There are some great apps and Outlook and Google Calendar plugins that allow you to set your meeting availability and allow people to schedule meetings with your directly, without having to coordinate beforehand. This should be integrated right in the Digital Workplace when someone looks up a profile and wants to set up a meeting.



Conclusion

The digital office we have today, this remote or hybrid situation we are trying to figure out, is still anchored to the way we were working before. But the way we were working before was also mistakenly anchored to the factory work model where more hours meant more output.


In creative problem solving work, this does not compute; it isn't the number of hours that matter, it is the quality of attention during those hours. Our current office culture of always-on, always-connected, hyper responsiveness has left us filing our day by being extremely busy, but not proportionally productive.


The Digital Workplace concept is more than just tools, more than a fancy term for a modern intranet, more than just another aggregator of systems - it is a fundamentally different way of working that organizes information for us, makes them available in an efficient manner, and - most importantly - allows us to focus on the real work we do.

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