goldilocks and the three bears
PHOTO: Jennifer Rafieyan

How big is your digital workplace? 

They come in all shapes and sizes, with tools for hundreds of thousands of employees as well as those for the specific needs of individuals.

When we design digital workplaces, particularly regarding collaboration tools, we often approach them from one of these two angles: big or small.

We can look enterprise-wide, allowing everyone to interact with anyone, which surely is the end game of collaboration? This has the entire organization connecting over a giant network solving problems that a small number of people couldn't possibly tackle. 

Yet there is also a strong argument that by focusing on the needs of the individual, we create a strong user experience. We want people to engage with our tools — find them easy to use and navigate, to actually want to use them.

Related Article: What Does it Take to Build an Effective Digital Team?

Organization-Wide: Too Big to Be Productive

When we launch collaboration tools enterprise-wide, the interest is naturally focused on reaching the whole organization. We see the potential for people to collaborate across business units, locations and even organizations.

Unfortunately, large groups just don’t collaborate well. The larger the focus, the more we dilute the purpose. Collaboration also becomes less natural. We collaborate best in small groups where we feel part of something, safe enough to have a conversation. Recent analysis mapping team size to digital platforms shows that the top 10 performing digital teams average less than 10 members.

This has the effect of making broad-focused collaboration tools something of a broadcasting platform: somewhere that, in theory, we can connect leadership with the workforce. The reality is generating purposeful conversations and activities is difficult at this scale.

When looking at designing our digital workplaces, we often lose sight of what works well in the analogue workplace. What makes teams perform well? How do people work productively? It’s very easy to think that just because digital workplace tools can connect us to everyone then that must be the main focus. We really need to think about what helps our employees perform to meet their personal and job needs as well as the strategic needs of the business.

Related Article: How Much Collaboration Is Too Much?

Individual Level: Too Small to Disrupt

A great user experience is, of course, essential if we want people to use a number of our digital tools, ideally to even like using them. But by looking too closely at the needs of the individual, we assume our workforce is performing tasks alone, that they use these tools as a place to get stuff done. This again overlooks the collaborative opportunities offered by digital workplace tools.

An individual focus tends to lead us to making nicer looking ways for us to perform the same tasks, to push more information in front of us or to allow more choice in what and how we use tools. We have an easier way to store our files, we have more information in one place rather than in different locations, we know when the sandwich shop at an office on the other side of the world is selling off leftover sandwiches at half-price.

And while some of this can be useful, it’s not digital transformation. It's simple iteration using largely existing process and practices. We can feel more empowered, but it becomes more about the personal benefit than for those around us.

Related Article: Why You Can't Buy a Digital Workplace

Team-Sized: Just Right

In modern workplaces, the smallest effective unit of work is now the team rather than the individual. Leadership is stronger with empowered and collaborative teams. Delivering more complex projects in increasingly complex markets requires new thinking. New ideas that individuals and best practice cannot achieve.

Historically, it was geography that separated teams, but now even single-site businesses are seeing teams separated through new working practices: flexible working hours, working from home and self-employed or contracting members. These common practices (combined with geography for some) make it difficult for teams to physically meet as a matter of course.

And this is what collaborative technologies are proving powerful at: building better teams and connecting teams. It’s not about staying in touch with team colleagues; it’s about having continuous visibility into what they are doing. It’s having conversations in the open that start with a need or a problem rather than an update. It’s inviting others from outside of our immediate team into the conversation. It’s about listening to others to the benefit of clear goals. In short, it’s what a good team should be doing in a room — only it's on a digital platform.

We also need to consider there's not one standard approach to digital transformation. It's finding uses for tools that meet the needs of our unique businesses and our unique people. 

A good starting point though is at the team level. A high-performing team holds rich conversations. They create new outcomes. They allow everyone to be part of discussions. Innovation comes from conversations and open thinking, and this is what we need to focus on as a goal for digital collaboration. Overcome the barriers to a good conversation and we can overcome the barriers to successful engagement with our digital workplaces.