Business adoption of social tools may be subject to debate. What is not, is its adoption of digital. Employees’ sense of their workplace, workmates and tools for getting work done is increasingly digital. This is true independently of how social a company is or is not. The vast majority of employees only hear from their leadership electronically, if at all. Similarly their primary or only relationship with many of their peers may now be digital.

The Workforce Diaspora

As companies chained, franchised, merged and globalized, it became common for workforces to span multiple locations and time zones. Add in workers in the field -- from construction crews to salespeople, teachers, firefighters, plumbers and real estate agents, not to mention free agents -- and the traditional sense of office building as workplace and primary connection to work and management has eroded considerably.

So -- how does leadership lead? How does even unenlightened management manage? How does this coveted sense of collaboration or esprit de corp emerge? How do we know who and what we work for? Primarily through technology. (This meme that the CIO role will be subsumed by the CMO is completely silly. While it may be true that all marketing is becoming tech, the inverse is not true at all. But that’s another story.)

What have we lost and gained in our physical dispersion? Where we once depended on proximity for leadership and esprit de corp, we at some point in the 1980s decided we could do without it, and more recently have realized the folly of that. Digital communications have been part of the scene these last 25 or 30 years, and are now being used to re-humanize the workplace across boundaries of geography and job types. The new digital workplace – the intranet – has replaced both the office building and the secretary as the primary source of information and familiarity with the company, its resources and its people.

A Subjective Technology Timeline

In exploring the rise of the digital workplace, I developed a slightly random timeline that coincidentally aligns roughly with my own curriculum vitae. Through it you can track the progress of major office technology, and think about the opportunities it created and how well -- or not -- business has adapted to them.