In Part 1
of this two-part “Connected Workspace Reset” series, I suggested that organizations need to set clear objectives for their connected workspace approaches, expressed through their capabilities and principles, and then compare the pros and cons of each option against the agreed objectives. In this part, I explore six main options that companies need to consider.
Options for the Digital Workspace
1. Asynchronous communication technologies – The first of these options is the use of asynchronous communication tools that enable sharing of information that does not normally require real-time interactions. This can include collaborative documents shared in Google Docs, wikis, workspaces such as Confluence and Notion, document libraries like Microsoft OneNote, and file-sharing systems such as Dropbox and Box. Blogs, discussion forums, shared task managers like Microsoft ToDo, and many other tools, fall in this category, too.
Incidentally, email is also an asynchronous communication tool, but I’m not suggesting using this more, or even continuing to use it as much as we do now. Generally, email is rather inefficient and other specific tools can usually do any particular communication activity more effectively.
Traditionally, we have tended to assume everything should get done in the office. During the lockdown, however, we have had to do more digitally, and many organizations have assumed this means doing it live, or synchronously, often by getting everyone together on a Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other video call. However, use of these services brings with it many of the same problems associated with meetings in the physical workplace.
These problems include high levels of inefficiency. In many meetings, whether online or face-to-face, participants end up not contributing for lengthy periods of time. Meetings like this can be improved very simply by flipping them. This means allowing people to share ideas asynchronously and then just bringing people together for a much shorter period of time to discuss their ideas and make decisions, although even this can often be done asynchronously, too.
A related problem is endemic boredom in and related to these long meetings, and asynchronous communication also helps reduce this, improving the employee experience, too. And a further issue is inclusion, with introverts, women, and many people from ethnic backgrounds often struggling to get their voices heard. But the main problem is that meetings often take over, with everything being done (or not done!) within meetings, meaning that people have little time left for deep work.
Asynchronous systems offer opportunities to fix these problems, too.
Asynchronous communication technology provides a particular opportunity to improve the effectiveness and productivity of functional groups, which often act as a collection of individuals, rather than as a real group. I’ve therefore been arguing for some time, starting well before the pandemic, that functional groups do not need to spend as much time in meetings as they often have been.
Organizations, and especially functional groups within these organizations, as well as individual employees working in functions, or on other largely independent activities such as in flow-to-work roles, need to get much better at using an asynchronous approach as their default for organizational communication. As such, digital workspace leaders need to ensure people have access to the asynchronous tools they need, and that they understand how to use them effectively.
Likewise, HR needs to establish guides and norms for asynchronous communication. For example, it should provide guidance on how and when people should aim to present and respond to communications, and on how decisions should be made.
2. Social communication technologies – The second option is to consider the use of enterprise social networking systems, such as Microsoft Yammer, Aurea Jive, and Workplace by Facebook. These systems enable both synchronous and asynchronous communication but are different to the previous set of asynchronous tools in enabling a personal connection. This is not usually necessary within functions, at least not on a regular or ongoing basis, but is essential for people-focused groups, such as communities and networks. These groups should focus on social as opposed to asynchronous communication systems.
3. Synchronous communication technologies – Third, consider tools focused on more synchronous communication. This includes audio- and videoconferencing systems such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams; chat systems including Slack and, again, Teams; and whiteboarding systems such as Miro and Mural. Chat and whiteboard systems can be used asynchronously too (and perhaps should be used like this more often than they are), but do tend mostly to be used in real-time. The systems still are not as good as getting everyone together around a flipchart, but it isn’t always possible to do this, so the systems were increasing in popularity even before the pandemic. And the systems are improving and there are increasingly good prospects for incorporating even more advanced technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality. My own hope is that we’ll see a return to a more modern version of something like Second Life (I can’t wait to go flying again!). But we can also learn how to relate to each other better over technology – helping people with this will be another important new requirement for HR.
Synchronous communication technologies will have value in all types of organizational groups, whenever timely action is required. However, they do not need to be used as extensively as they often are currently. The main exception to this is horizontal (process, project, agile, and product management) teams, which do need to synchronize their cross-functional activities very closely, and should be spending a lot of time working together using these systems. Horizontal teams can also use a range of other asynchronous and synchronous technologies for project management. This includes Astana, Trello, and Basecamp, as well as visual management systems such as iObeya.
Additional Options for the Physical Workspace
Once organizations have thought through how they can use asynchronous, social, and synchronous technologies, they can then look at how use of their offices can be focused on providing the benefits that digital tools cannot.
This new normal solution probably does not continue the old normal trend towards activity-based working, or what I used to call “affinity-based working.” I preferred this term because I found that people often chose to work in various locations according to their own stable or changing preferences rather than based simply on the type of work they were doing. Regardless, this type of flexible seating is not going to be possible until there is a vaccine.
The new solution probably does not include individual offices, cubicles, or workstations either, at least not for many people, as these personal spaces provide little benefit compared to what can be achieved through technology while working from home. In addition, where people are co-located in the office, but also have colleagues working remotely, it will be important that these hybrid workforces act as if everyone is remote, so that those who are geographically distributed do not end up being disadvantaged.
1. Small meeting rooms – The first opportunity for redesigning the office is in providing small meeting rooms in which team, community, or network members can meet others from these groups (if not all the people within them) as well as others still working from home, brought in via video. The same rooms will also enable individual employees from functions or other groups to meet with external customers and stakeholders.
These rooms are not going to be the very smallest from before the pandemic, but possibly what were large meeting rooms, designed for up to twenty people, which will now provide a good meeting room for just two or three.
2. Large meeting rooms – The second opportunity is for using larger meeting rooms which can support an entire horizontal / cross-functional team. Given the need for social distancing, these rooms may need to be much larger than the largest meeting rooms previously provided. Therefore, instead of using these, organisations may need to repurpose entire functional department work areas, removing the desks which are no longer needed and rebuilding these spaces as team rooms. This would enable an agile team, for example, to fashion their space as an obeya room, providing plenty of opportunity for collaborative working at a distance, and task visualisation too.
3. Large meeting spaces – Even larger meeting spaces (maybe whole floors rather than rooms) will be useful to host distributed networks, or even whole organization meetings. This was not something that many old normal offices were designed to provide, but in the new normal, this type of space will be both more possible, and more obviously a requirement.
This sequenced consideration of workspace options I suggest here is not meant to suggest that the physical workspace is a less valuable alternative to the digital workspace. However, it makes sense to focus the physical workplace on what it can do best, by ensuring the digital workspace takes on what it can, and especially, what it can do better. The approach would have always made sense, but is even more important now, while people are distancing themselves, and the office is not going to be able to do everything it did before, at least not as effectively.
However, remember that the best, most suitable approach to your own connected workspace will depend on the attributes of your particular organization – its required capabilities and principles, and also its business strategy, the external environment, people’s skills and expectations, your managers’ capability, the technology infrastructure, and other factors.
As an example, if the focus is mainly on innovation, the company will need to prioritize organizational networks and will therefore benefit most from investing in enterprise social networks and large meeting spaces. If the focus is on agility, then it will need to prioritize horizontal teams, with a focus on synchronous chat, visual management tools, and large meeting rooms.
Following this train of thinking should mean that we do not just end up rotating teams and individuals in and out of the office. Instead, we will plan purposefully for when teams, other groups, and networks need to be in the office, which will be because they are doing something they can’t do so well just with digital tools.