Bricks, Bytes, Behavior, and Branding: Four Pillars of the Digital Workplace

The Edge, Amsterdam

When thinking of a digital workplace strategy, you might—understandably so—expect that it primarily involves technological change. However, at last week’s European Conference on Information Systems, a panel of academic and industry experts led by MIT CISR research scientist Kristine Dery pointed out that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Technology can be potentially disruptive and is therefore an important consideration, but the key success factor of a digital workplace strategy is a holistic approach to the workplace that revolves around the employee. If we want more engaged, innovative, and productive employees that add value over and above industry averages, then we need a strategy that is built on four pillars.

Bricks. The physical work environment is the traditional embodiment of the workplace, and therefore also remains an important cornerstone of the digital workplace strategy. As the office provides a sense of community and affiliation with the organization, we see that many organizations re-envision their office environments to stimulate interaction and collaboration. Activity-based working areas and quality coffee corners are generally considered the staple of the new office, but forward-looking companies are using technology to augment their employees’ work experience. Take a look at Deloitte’s new Amsterdam office, The Edge, where an interconnected lighting system with 6,000 sensors links with mobile phones to provide employees with a more comfortable and personalized work environment. In addition, this system can provide real-time information about building occupancy, allowing employees to quickly find teammates or colleagues with certain areas of expertise for face-to-face interaction.

It is important, however, to note that there is no “best office building.” The physical work environment has to match employee work needs as well as organizational culture. Open plan, collaborative environments may not be a good fit if most of the work requires concentration or if the culture is focused on individuals. Get the bricks wrong, and employees will appropriate the office in ways that you never imagined (often to work in modularized environments) or leave it altogether opting to work from home or from external co-working spaces instead.

Bytes. Technologies that enable us to work and collaborate independent of place and time have existed for well over a decade, but organizations are still searching for a “physical minimum” and “virtual optimum.” Additionally, we see that enterprise social networks (such as Yammer and Chatter) are used to create virtual office spaces, enabling greater levels of work transparency as well as better connectivity between co-located and remote workers. Add to this SMACIT (social, mobile, analytics, cloud, and Internet of Things) technologies and we have unrivaled opportunities for more evidence-based management.

We need to ensure, however, that technologies implemented to make new work practices possible don’t also make work life more complicated for employees. It is important that we integrate isolated systems and applications into unified solutions that fit daily work practices. Keeping up with workplace IT demands and ensuring consistent quality of delivery therefore requires a complex set of capabilities in terms of storing, integrating, analyzing, responding, and subsequently learning from organizational data to deliver value. Making sure that work across the broader organization gets easier thus means that life in the IT department will have to become a whole lot harder.

Behavior. Changes in the physical and virtual workplace serve as enablers to spark change in what is generally considered the most important pillar: the organizational culture and behavior of employees and managers. With employees at the center of the digital workplace, it becomes especially important to focus on what is needed to inspire and drive employees to apply their competencies to build organizational value. This typically requires a new set of organizational values built around self-management and a continuous cycle of trust, empowerment, responsibility, and transparency. Employees largely decide for themselves when, where, how, and with whom they wish to work—fueling a process of continuous learning and collaboration. This makes a digital workplace strategy truly a continuous journey, as opposed to a transformation project with a set end state.

However, increased levels of autonomy may not be desirable for every employee. For example, increased levels of autonomy can be particularly difficult for employees with a high need for structure; managers need to recognize this need and provide adequate support through regular feedback. We also found that managers accustomed to high levels of control typically face difficulties in more supportive roles as coach or connector, which provides an additional layer of complexity when dealing with a changing organizational culture.

Branding. The fourth and final pillar involves continuous dialogue with employees from every layer of the organization. A successful digital workplace strategy is typically a mixture of bottom-up and top-down initiatives that create common ground between the organization and its employees. Yet as work changes, a variety of responses that cannot always be predicted emerges. Regular and actionable feedback mechanisms through enterprise social networks, online innovation platforms, and mobile feedback apps therefore become critical to keep molding the workplace. These systems need to be transparent, collaborative, and carefully managed to ensure that they help to build the digital workspace in conjunction with employees.

The physical workplace, the technology toolkit, and the ways of working also send important signals to the labor market about the organizational brand. In an environment where digital capabilities are in short supply, this becomes an important way to attract and retain talent. We see that employees are not just placing high value on the physical work environment, but also on access to required technologies, flexible work practices, and overall systems as well as connectivity that just makes work easier.

Addressing these four pillars in unison is not an easy task, as managers from Facilities, HR, and IT departments are prone to working in silos. That is why several panelists proposed an addition to the C-suite: the Chief Work Officer (CWO). It would be the CWO’s task to integrate digital workplace efforts across departments and to guard the design focus on the employee. Do you recognize the need for a CWO in your organization? And which stakeholders would you (or do you) involve in your digital workplace strategy? We would like to hear your experiences!

Nick van der Meulen is a visiting postdoc student at MIT CISR who is working with research scientist Kristine Dery (kdery@mit.edu) and research associate Ina Sebastian (isebasti@mit.edu) on the 2015 MIT CISR research project, “Inventing the Digital Workplace.” This blog acknowledges the contributions from panelists Lizette Engelen, Eric van Heck, Sabine Hess, Marleen Huysman, Isabel Moll-Kranenburg, Pascale Peters, and Tim Sluiter.