The digital workplace is grabbing much of the spotlight these days as interest in moving from physical to virtual workspaces grows. Given our heritage of “clustered workplaces” dictated by the lack of transportation and communication resources in the 18th century, such a movement would seem to make eminent sense.

While a lot of the attention focuses on the availability and use of the technology that make it possible, there is a second major component to a digital workplace: the workers who, in the end, will make it succeed … or not. Because the tools alone don’t usually do the work, our primary concern should be on the workers and the organizations in which they work.

It’s the People

While there’s no shortage of writing on the central role of people in a changing workspace, the marketplace nudges prospective adopters toward a focus on the characteristics of the workplace itself as it moves from brick and mortar to virtual work models.

The subtext in these descriptions is that if you buy the right workplace technology, you can just plug the people in and they will take on the appropriate characteristics, making everything better. Watching people cling to their smart phones and tablets you might think this kind of plug-in should be a no-brainer, but the challenges are in how well those people work, not in how elegant their workplace is or how they want to spend their social time.

What's Changed?

The answer, at least in part, is that work then and now hasn’t changed all that much but the setting in which work is done has been revolutionized by technology: tablet and PDA instead of phone and fax, digital collaboration instead of meetings and presentations, work where you are instead of where you are told to, and so on. If this is true and the goals remain largely the same, then most likely the challenges of leadership and productivity will be similar as well.

One component of the challenge that has grown as technology has evolved is the accelerating pace of change and how it must be addressed if an organization and its productivity are to avoid tanking. With new generations of technology coming over the horizon every 18 months or less, yesteryear’s five or six-year cycles seem positively glacial. In the face of a growing imperative to adopt every new tool that pops up, management must shoulder the responsibility of setting and maintaining a pace of change that works for their organization and staff.

Getting There is More than Half the Fun … and Challenge

While the digital workplace movement focuses on what work will be like when we get there, a look at how we get there in one piece might be in order. A key ingredient in all of this is leadership by supervision and management. While people may be the key resource, they will reach their potential only in the hands of prudent, open-minded management and planning. After all, even a team of All-American players without a coach is still just a bunch of individuals.

A few basic concepts are worth considering:

First: Relevance. Make sure the changes you are planning to impose make sense for your business and staff. Whatever benefits the digital workplace offers you, all will come with baggage and risk. Changing things that don’t need it, especially in the initial rounds of change, merely increases your jeopardy with little or no reward.

Keep in mind that new technology comes with an implicit assumption that more is always better, and lash your planning process to your needs rather than the resources offered by the technology market. You will also face pressure from your people, many of whom are wedded to their tech toys and want to bring them into their workplace. Control this pressure without appearing to be a Luddite.

This more circumspect view of change, if you can achieve it, offers a number of dividends: minimizing cost, risk and complexity, and rendering the case for change easier to make to the people who will be impacted by it and those who will be asked to fund it.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a fun aphorism but it’s also relevant to our rapidly changing world.

Second: Leadership and Planning. Descriptions of the digital workplace often imply that if you just implement the new technology properly and get everyone using it, the more efficient work practices you need for success will somehow appear, taking the employees with them. But if you want more effective workflow and practices, you must think them through, plan and test them, fully train your staff on how to follow them using the new tools you are putting in place, and provide time for them to settle down to full operation.

This takes good planning and effective leadership in the face of what the vendor community wants to sell you, the too-early deadlines the executive suite may want and the tech-craziness your employees may bring with them from home. Ignore this and you will face high-tech chaos, confused, frustrated employees and angry customers.

Third: Incrementalism. However extensively you intend to adopt the components and practices of a digital workplace, plan to do it gradually, in phases, allowing your organization and people to adjust to the new ways of working at a pace they can handle.

Your current staff, for example, may confront you with a two-headed monster: In the face of new technology, older workers are usually more willing but less capable while younger workers are more tech-savvy and capable but less willing to embrace anything they find too challenging or difficult. The former will require more training while the latter will need more oversight. Then put both types of employees on the same project and you learn that it only takes one or two members of a team out of synch with their peers to tank the productivity of the entire group.

Your job will be to craft an evolutionary process that takes advantage of both groups’ strengths while insulating you, and them, from their weaknesses.

Hiring new workers who can and will navigate your digital workplace successfully will pose its own challenges. Many firms are dealing with younger workers and new graduates who have neither the skills nor the maturity to apply themselves to a working world, tech-centric or not. You want tech-savvy young employees who can work in a digital environment without losing their focus or sliding into their Facebook sites during work hours. Here’s a tip: graduates who got at least part of their education on-line may display both the technical skills and perseverance to be successful in a business environment.

Fourth: Voluntarism. When you want your staff to adopt new and significantly different ways of working, if you can, make the changes voluntary for at least some period of time: A staff that isn’t facing arbitrary deadlines for being productive with all new techniques and tools is much less likely to rebel or shut-down. This is particularly important because when things get out of hand, just fixing the problem often doesn’t undo the damage to productivity or staff morale; that can take a long time.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid closing off the old ways of doing things before staff has become comfortable with the new ways.

In the 1980s a major weekly news organization, planning to abandon their manual typewriters for terminals on their new computer system, placed a group of the new terminals in the newsroom, offered training to the reporters and encouraged them to try the new machines when they felt comfortable. Within six months the firm junked the 50 manuals, having missed no deadlines in the process. Another firm, more than a decade later, took another approach: requiring that each author receive training and use the firm’s new system to do one story per week, but also offering a back-conversion software tool to the old system for authors who got into trouble and needed help to make their deadlines. Same result: nine months to full use of the new system with no missed deadlines.

You'll Love Your Digital Workplace ... if You Avoid the Potholes

If you keep your wits about you, you can make better and more use of technology in your workplace. Doing it will challenge you and your staff, but if you keep the people at the center of the process and take the time to get it right, you will be able to find a level of digital work that suits your organization, staff and customers.

Title image by David Goehring (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license