open office filled with employees
Choice, in both the physical and digital workplace, promotes collaboration and productivity in the workforce. PHOTO: Alex Kotliarskyi

Organizations should be supplying employees with choices — in both their digital and physical workplaces — to support multiple working styles and collaboration needs.

That was the main takeaway from a recent event I attended in downtown Toronto, cohosted by Microsoft and global business furniture company Steelcase. While the combination may sound odd at first, Steelcase not only provides office furniture, but also designs workspaces. Steelcase's research group, 360 Research, also works with Microsoft on topics ranging from how technology works in different physical spaces to how the Internet of Things (IoT) can enable smart buildings. 

Aside from the opportunity to explore the impressive Steelcase space and play with the latest Microsoft technologies — from Surface tablets and Surface book laptops, to wall-mounted Surface Hub interactive displays and even HoloLens Augmented Reality systems — the highlight of the event was a panel discussion on the nature of modern work and workplaces with representatives from Microsoft, Steelcase, market research giant Ipsos, and Compugen, one of Canada's largest IT services companies.  

Blending Physical and Digital to Promote Collaboration

The conversation focused on questions of how the mixture of technology and well-designed workspaces can enable and promote creative collaboration amongst "knowledge workers," to how we get these same benefits down to the task-based process workers on the shop floor, who might not have a corporate device such as a laptop or tablet to work on. The discussion reminded me of the simple Venn diagram I created for an article last year, “You Can’t Plan a Digital Workplace Without Thinking About the Physical.” 

where the digital and physical workplace intersects
 

The make up of the panel reflected this diagram well: Microsoft covered both technology and people (with its Canadian head of HR), Compugen spoke to process, and Steelcase addressed the physical environment.

One of the topics of discussion was the multi-generational workplace, where the mix goes from Baby Boomers to Gen X to millennials and even Gen Z. The panel appeared to be split between the idea that different generations are comfortable with and prefer different technologies and different styles of working and the belief that this isn't a generational question at all, but largely down to individual working styles and preferences and the individual's comfort level with technology. 

I share the latter point of view. I know some very geeky Baby Boomers and some very non-technologically adept Millennials. Whatever the case, the panel agreed organizations should provide a range of choice in working environment and technology tools to fit with these personal preferences and enhance overall organizational effectiveness.

The panel also discussed how businesses can support and enable employees who are not considered “knowledge workers” — those who do not work in a conventional office environment. These task-focused workers might be a mobile workforce with specialist tools and applications, or they may be a retail workforce who use their own device in a BYOD scenario, or even a factory floor team who have traditionally relied on notices pinned to a physical bulletin board. 

One example cited was how a company handled the transition of a team whose physical assembly tasks had been taken over by industrial robots. The company is now training that team to troubleshoot and improve the overall assembly process, and is being supplied the appropriate physical spaces and digital tools to enable this new work.

Limiting Options, Limiting Collaboration

A former colleague shared a perfect illustration of what happens when choice is limited. My former colleague loves the role, the team and just about everything in the organization they moved to, except one thing. The entire organization is on “hoteling” — meaning they must use a system to “book out” a desk, no matter what their role or position in the managerial hierarchy. The technology is there to support this type of working, but the system makes it impossible to book a desk for more than a set number of days in a row. For anyone working on a team, you can imagine the impediment this causes.

Being unable to work in close physical collaboration with their teams hinders their collaborative process. There is no option to retain a set of desks close to each other, nor are there enough break out rooms or meeting rooms to facilitate the team grabbing a space to work together. 

So while technology may successfully provide the flexibility to work from home, a coffee shop or a different office building within an organization, that does not equate to a “one size fits all” approach to designing our workspaces, our processes or our overall employee experiences. My former colleague is being denied the option of physically locating themselves with their team. 

When I suggest offering choice, I'm not suggesting choice without limitations. Budget constraints may mean that not everyone in an organization can be offered the full range of choice, and that's OK. Choice is often limited by constraints.

We need to take the same, flexible approach to the digital workplace. For example, forcing everyone onto Microsoft Teams or Slack won’t work without the change management effort required to make people comfortable. So even if you cannot give everyone the choice to work with their preferred tool on every occasion, you can and I would say must provide the support needed to use the "standard" tools.