In offices the world over, a quiet revolution is underway. The costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed; after many years when it was simply an aspiration, or a buzzword, the digital workplace is fast becoming a reality.
Using social and collaborative tools, more and more of us are breaking free of the office and working flexibly for all or part of the time -- so that work is an activity, not a place.
While secure, reliable and usable tools are an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place, too -- and the people involved need to trust one another.
A recent survey by Microsoft found 82 percent of businesses now support flexible working. But while seven in 10 managers say they trust their employees to be productive when working from home, employees are far more cynical about one another: only 52 percent trust their colleagues to be productive when working away from the office.
This presents a barrier to continued growth in online working; teams cannot deliver unless they trust each other. But to build trust in virtual teams -- when often the members have never even met each other -- employers need to ensure the right factors are in place to enable it.
So just how can organizations develop employee trust in their digital workplace?
First, realize that trust doesn't just happen. Too many organizations introduce collaboration technologies, and simply expect silos to disappear, with productive, cross-functional teams emerging in their place. Often, silos exist for reason: because the people in them know each other, and understand their own role. Successful digital workplaces recognize that virtual teams need time, space and tools to develop solid working relationships.
Conversely, virtual teams often have a honeymoon period, a brief time when people are willing to give them a shot. Under pressure to perform, groups quickly develop what’s termed swift trust -- a kind of benefit of the doubt. This tends to decay quickly, but it can provide the glue that keeps teams together until more lasting trust has developed.
Developing deeper bonds in the digital workplace requires us to use our tools in less obvious ways. Often digital workplace strategy focuses on facilitating work tasks, but not on how to reproduce the experience of a being a member of a workforce in order to reduce feelings of isolation and increase engagement.
Lee Bryant of Dachis Group champions the importance of ambient awareness -- the office chatter which gives people a greater understanding of their organization's work -- as something which “oils the wheels” of digital workforces. While some argue social activity streams are an unwelcome distraction from "real work," in replicating those overheard office conversations they keep people in the loop and can ultimately lead to improved productivity.
Successful digital workplace launches have found tools have had wider adoption, and achieved greater success, when they can be used for social as well as more obviously work-related activity, for instance by including interest-based social communities. Allowing people to talk about both their personal and professional lives builds empathy and interpersonal trust between people who may not have met face-to-face.
Provide Tools, not Rules
This connective tissue is stronger when it's able to develop organically, with employers providing the tools but not prescribing precisely how and when they can be used. There are parallels here between physical and online spaces; when a business creates a meeting room, it defines the rules for the room (how you book it, when it’s available), and sets up the space, but never defines precisely how the room must be used. Social spaces are like meeting rooms.
In German there’s even a word for this: Nutzungoffenheit, which loosely translated means the potential of technologies only manifests itself when people have made sense of them and incorporated them into their own routines.
This phenomenon means it's difficult to predict precisely what impact digital workplace tools will have on the workforce until they have been introduced. Corporate culture also impacts heavily on the degree to which collaboration will be embraced.
Lead from the Middle
However, in all but the smallest organizations the introduction of enterprise social marks a significant shift from top-down to peer-to-peer communication. While a move away from old "command and control" management contributes to networked productivity, it moves the balance of power away from managers and leaders as gatekeepers of information.
One unintended consequence is that this, combined with the decreased visibility that comes with flexible working, can further undermine trust in leadership. Edelman's annual Trust Barometer found trust in CEOs fell by 12 percent in the last year alone. With teams increasingly working virtually, senior execs need to find new ways to connect with their workforces to gain and maintain trust in their leadership.
Senior leaders need to "walk the talk," using enterprise social tools and blogs just as others might "walk the floor" in a more traditional organization, while recognizing that in a digital workplace a command and control style of leadership is often less effective than modeling desired behaviors.
Jonathan Phillips suggests leaders should be highly visible on the intranet, and not just in news stories and CEO blogs: “They should ask questions, participate in online debate, solicit personal feedback, seek input to key initiatives. They should comment on other employee blogs.”
Leaders must demonstrate that they believe enterprise social is work and not work avoidance; by using social tools themselves, leaders give employees permission to do the same, and in turn let employees know they are trusted to deliver.
Successful organizations will trust their own employees to work effectively without command and control, and provide them with tools and time to establish social bonds with their peers in order to work effectively in virtual teams. Such organizations recognize that trust is a reciprocal relationship between employer and employee, where trust is repaid with greater flexibility, engagement and performance on both sides.
Editor's Note: Interested in more thoughts on the current and future state of enterprise collaboration? Check out more articles from this month's focus.