Working as part of a distributed team or project has gone from an exception to business as usual for most knowledge workers.
The evolution of workplace technology has enabled this shift, putting a sophisticated range of collaboration and communication tools within reach of the average worker. In theory, it has never been easier for us to work together.
But given a choice, would you prefer to collaborate face-to-face or mediated by technology?
Work Today Means Blending Online and Offline
This is actually a false dilemma. A number of factors will dictate the decision to collaborate face-to-face or via technology, depending on the particular workplace situation.
Often other practical considerations will determine our choices at that point in time, which will sometimes take priority over our natural preferences. And it is increasingly common to find ourselves working with a mixed group of people, where some are co-located and others are remote.
Our workplaces continuously blend online and offline working.
As we dip in and out of email, instant messaging and the intranet, we also find ourselves moving from working at a desk, to attending a meeting and stepping out of the office to buy a coffee. And actual work is interspersed with social conversation and other transient interactions along the way.
The challenge we face is how to improve our flow across a fragmented world of online and physical workspace interactions.
Unfortunately, this experience is often a poor one. Scenarios like the one played out in the Conference Call in Real Life video resonate because it is such a common occurrence.
Where the Physical Office Meets the Digital
The problem goes deeper than just the odd bad teleconference.
I am constantly surprised to find that even the best designed office spaces fail to follow through with the best designed information technology parts. The apparent effectiveness of the office design quickly becomes a veneer if the online tools don't integrate with the work styles the physical space was intended to support.
To more effectively bridge this gap we need to focus on creating a better-blended employee experience, which integrates online and offline work. Rather than prioritizing either the digital workplace or the physical workspace, we need them to work hand-in-hand.
Part of the solution is to raise expectations about what makes a good integrated online and offline experience for employees. Technology-based companies like Google, Facebook and Airbnb are often seen as the benchmark for workplace design, but while inspirational, they may not work in a different setting.
One of the better current examples is The Edge, in Amsterdam. The Edge is a smart office building that offers many features to enhance the employee experience, including an app that helps customize the workspace around individual employee preferences and work styles.
Similarly, a new building in Sydney promises to use “jelly bean” technology to promote high levels of interaction and information sharing between the people working there.
Sound Mind, Sound Body Applies to the Workplace Too
These examples only represent one of the many elements that must come together to create an integrated employee experience.
For example, new solutions like Polycom’s Centro create an opportunity to think differently about how we design workspace to blend online and offline collaboration. Other technologies, such as the augmented reality approach exemplified by Microsoft HoloLens, promise to change how we interact with people and corporate systems. And we may even see enterprise versions of virtual assistants similar to the Amazon Echo or Google Home provide new ways to improve flow.
We also know that well-being and social support play an important role in enhancing productivity in the workplace.
Technologies that help to nudge people towards healthier behaviors — like Fitbit — and allow them to network with their peers — such as Yammer, Jive or Facebook at Work — should be layered into the employee experience in ways that align with the goals of the physical workplace strategy.
Together, all of these different ideas provide us with a new toolkit that we can use to reduce the friction in the flow across and between online and offline activities.
The process of designing how they work together is a human-centered one, which brings together people, place and technology as equals — not individual, competing strategies.