Physical workplace design has ditched the uniform cubicles and desks to optimize office space for different kinds of interaction (sometimes called Activity Based Working or ABW), be it quiet working, team meetings, social or creative interactions.  

Some of this same thinking can be applied to digital workplaces. Just as we previously matched tools to collaboration cultures, we can also configure digital workplace tools to meet different work styles. It isn’t a 1:1 mapping between tools and styles — it’s more about supporting people in adapting the tools to their needs. 

Office furniture icons Herman Miller have an elegant ABW model of 10 work settings, but for our purposes, a simpler model of five will do. These are:

five work styles

Matching workstyles to digital workplaces 

Matching work styles to digital workplaces © ClearBox Consulting 2015

The Huddle

The huddle is a small team work mode where everyone is concentrated on a common task. The characteristics are:

  • Ongoing communication
  • A common view on tasks and status
  • Member-only access

In the physical workplace this might be a workshop room or dedicated project room, with charts, whiteboards and plans in common view. Team members sit in the same room, making communication easy and private, while also isolating them from external interruption.

But a dedicated physical project room is a rare luxury. People work on multiple projects so cannot always sit with their team, and variable team sizes make them hard to accommodate. This is where a digital equivalent can offer advantages, as it is possible to be present in multiple "rooms" of widely varying sizes. 

Digital huddles are all about creating a space where there is an open communication channel and a place to share common material. SharePoint team sites or Basecamp
are two examples of long-standing solutions. A file sharing service such as Dropbox can serve as a simple huddle space if you include the commenting features. More recently Slack channels, Yammer groups and the new Office 365 Groups have arisen that place more emphasis on conversation rather than documentation.

You could use any of the above for a more transient huddle mode — the digital equivalent of a workshop. However, the set-up can be cumbersome, making web-meeting tools more appealing.

The Hive

We all know the Hive — it’s an open-plan office where the buzz is intentional because overhearing information and quick exchanges help people coordinate. The characteristics are:

  • Visibility of what others are doing
  • Short exchanges to share information and coordinate
  • Information hand-over points
  • Openness to those working on related tasks

Unlike a Huddle, people generally work on their own tasks, but they may be part of a common workflow. For example, accounting departments where one person updates a model in a spreadsheet, which others use for their own forecasts. Many open plan offices are configured as hives but occupied by people who want to work in Hermit or Huddle mode, which is why people resent them so much.

Digital Hives need to support quick exchanges but also ambient awareness

Email is the classic digital tool in this instance because it is versatile. However, it is poor for quick exchanges compared to instant messaging (IM). The downside of IM is that conversations are kept private, making it hard for others to "overhear" relevant exchanges. This is where Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) and activity streams come into play. Notably, many ESNs — such as Yammer — have introduced an IM element so that conversations can move between modes.

Hives also need information hand-over, for example a form requiring multiple approvals. Workflow tools can be great for well-defined processes, but too inflexible for exception cases. Again, without alternatives, people use email attachments to commit grave sins against information management. It need not be this way: Dutch housing association Accolade implemented an elegant social-network approach to handling client cases, for example.

The Hub

Hubs are water-coolers, corridors and lobbies. They are a place for chance conversations as many people pass by (but rarely linger — that’s the Hangout). This can be good for creativity, bridging silos and extending networks. Characteristics:

  • Openness
  • High traffic
  • Serendipitous exchange
  • Low structure

Hubs can be hard to recreate in a digital workplace because we don’t really have to pass through anywhere. The nearest equivalent might be social content on an intranet page that catches people’s attention when they go in to accomplish another task. Although we talk about "virtual water coolers," it can be unacceptable to spend too much time there. It takes a conscious effort then, to cultivate social (in the old sense of the word) when using digital workplace tools. Presence and activity feeds, too, can facilitate some of the chance conversations. 

The Hangout

The hangout is the clubroom. It is not there to facilitate work, but to enable relaxation and networking (though this may benefit work as a side-effect). Hangouts are:

  • Open to all
  • Help to entertain or relax, not to be productive
  • Encourage networking

Digital hangouts can often just be non-work use of collaboration tools, such as ice-bucket challenges appearing on ESNs. The important thing is to clearly advertise that a space is intended for this purpose. When not formally provided, employees often create Hangouts anyway, through Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram.

The Hermit

More accurately, this should be called the "Hermit Cell," in the sense of quiet work or contemplation. For many, this is the one environment where they actually get work done. It means:

  • Isolation from distraction
  • Focus on a single task

Digitally this implies disconnecting from interruptions and alerts. This can be hard as we rarely have filter tools that only let urgent matters interrupt. Even Microsoft seems to be doing its best to make Office 2016 a way for others to jump into your documents for a chat. It also means self-control: one study found 40 percent of email "interruptions" were actually self-generated. These distractions have given birth to a whole industry of distraction-free writing tools like Omniwriter and blockers such as Focus.

Supporting Work Modes

The digital equivalent of each work style can be a mixed blessing: used well, digital channels allow people to work in one mode whilst being physically present in another. For example, you can be in a garden shed, but collaborate as if in a Hive. However, it takes discipline too: a digital Hermit can open themselves to any number of Hive-like distractions just by opening their collaboration channels. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Impact Hub