high five in the hallway at work
Editorial

If Work Was So Great, We'd Do it for Free

4 minute read
Sam Marshall avatar
The focus of a digital workplace strategy should be to improve the employee experience by eliminating "nonwork" -- trivial tasks such as booking meeting rooms.

At the end of the book “The Dilbert Principle,” Scott Adams writes, “Some people think that because I cleverly mock current management methods I must have some excellent ideas that I am selfishly keeping to myself.” He goes on to propose a model for the perfect company, one where everybody leaves at five o’clock. “Let’s face it — work sucks,” he argues. “If people liked work, they’d do it for free.” 

I can see the appeal of leaving at five, but I don’t think his basic claim is true. Understanding this should be part of a digital workplace vision.

A primary purpose of a digital workplace should be improving employee experience. To do this, we need to understand what employees want from work, and then identify where a digital workplace can make a difference.

People Do Work for Free

We effectively work for free in all the unpaid overtime and off-hours tasks we do. A Chartered Management Institute survey of more than 1,500 managers found that use of mobile devices led to the study participants giving the equivalent of 29 days of extra effort by working during off-hours, in effect canceling out their whole vacation benefit.

There was a time when most jobs were hard, dirty and often dangerous (and I’m not talking about SharePoint development). Of course, you had to pay people to do those jobs. But many roles now are not hard, dirty or dangerous at all. We get to sit in warm, comfortable offices drinking watery coffee. The greatest risk we face is a paper cut. In compensation, we subject ourselves to hobbies that can be physically demanding (such as marathon running or mountain biking) or intellectually challenging (such as learning to speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument). Nobody pays us to pursue those hobbies; they are intrinsically rewarding.

Amplify Intrinsic Motivation

What if we could tap into some of the qualities of the work we do for free and amplify them through our digital workplaces? Recently, I have been working on an intranet strategy for a large U.K. charity, and what strikes me is that people start their day feeling intrinsically motivated to do their work, but then distractions and frustrations knock some of that motivation out of them.

Digital Workplaces Should Make Trivial Things Easy

For a long time, management theories and IT revolutions have focused on optimizing business processes, not always to good effect. In many cases, we are at a point where the systems core to a job work well enough. People won’t thank us for yet again trying to tell them how to do their job with another customer relationship management system, case management tool or planning application.

Learning Opportunities

Where they do want help are with trivial tasks. This is where I see greatest potential for intelligent assistants, be they chatbots or systems that work silently in the background. Like a good personal assistant, they could intervene to file expenses, book meeting rooms, alert you to missed tasks and generally cut out the microsteps that make those things a chore.

Anyone who has upgraded new iOS device recently will know that you now just have to put it alongside your old device and the new one will ask if you want to copy everything across. It’s a great time-saver (and a cunning move by Apple to reduce the friction associated with getting a new phone).

Similarly, in the workplace, we need to get better at identifying all the small points of friction in the workday and eliminating them from the employee experience. How about a smart cubicle that recognizes your phone and adjusts the seat and desk to your preferences, like an upmarket car? It could show colleagues where your desk is on a floor plan, too. Even better, there could be a “take me to the nearest empty meeting room” function. Once there, a smartscreen would detect your tablet and ask if it should project it for sharing. Of course, your laptop will still complain that it can’t see the printer located two yards away — we can’t have everything.

If Admin Was Great, We’d Be Free to Do Work

Paradoxically, then, one of the primary things to improve in a digital workplace strategy may not be work processes, but getting rid of the nonwork. What I mean by nonwork are all the administrative tasks and the time spent fruitlessly searching for templates or hunting down meeting rooms. If we can streamline those as much as possible, then the creativity, learning and discretionary effort come for free. Who knows: People may even choose to stay later than five o’clock after all.

About the author

Sam Marshall

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 20 years, providing consultancy to companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and Unilever.