Avanade's Michelle Caldwell
Michelle Caldwell of Avanade discussed the dynamics of digital transformation at Digital Workplace Experience PHOTO: Jeff Callen

CHICAGO — Do your company a big favor: Stop creating stereotypes for different generations in the workplace. Stop using age as an excuse for generational differences and roadblocks. 

And create a culture that not only embraces generational diversity, but uses it as a strength.

Digital workplace strategist George Muir drove home these points in his Monday morning workshop at the Digital Workplace Experience conference that kicked off today at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel.

Simpler Media, the San Francisco-based parent company of CMSWire, and London-based Digital Workplace Group (DWG) partnered to produce the inaugural three-day conference that began here today in the Windy City.

Honor Individuals

Buying into stereotypes like "Baby Boomers don't embrace technology" and "Millennials love ping-pong" create major roadblocks in building company culture.

"The way in which your employees receive company culture is one of the toughest and most important aspects of running a business," Muir told his workshop attendees this morning. "In order for real progress to occur in the multigenerational workforce, honor each person's contribution to the group."

Rather than obsess over generational differences, embrace the similarities among your younger and older workforce members. All generations have similar values. Everyone wants respect. Everyone wants feedback. Everyone wants transparency.

Muir said organizations should build a "We" generation, rather than highlight divisions in different age brackets.

"You have to build loyalty up," he said.

George Muir
Digital strategist George Muir discusses generational gaps in the workplace at the Digital Workplace Experience Monday morning.PHOTO: Dom Nicastro

Study Employees, Not Just Products

Muir put attendees to work soliciting ideas on the cornerstones of a modern workplace. Some discussed providing flexibility in work schedules, investing in collaboration technologies that help people communicate and do their jobs better and becoming super transparent with the workforce.

Muir's cornerstones for workplace success were:

  • Building collaborative relationships: Share knowledge transparently and freely to learn from one another. Shift workloads to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one another complete jobs and meet deadlines
  • Studying employees: Study the demographics of your current workforce and the projected demographics of your future workforce to determine what they want out of their jobs. These things, Muir said, are different generation to generation. Put the effort into your employees just as you would into building a new product
  • Creating opportunities for cross-generational mentoring: Younger people can teach older social media, for instance. Or more experienced workers can share institutional knowledge with younger workers. Work on specific business objectives in these mentoring programs. "Bringing mentors in is super important," Muir said
  • Considering life situations: Think like an anthropologist. Understand the characteristics around predictable life paths. It will help you figure out how to best assign work assignments and tasks, and improve ways to manage and motivate your team.

Where Does Transformation Start?

Michelle Caldwell, North American Digital Workplace Lead at Avanade and Microsoft SharePoint MVP, presented another morning workshop today, where she discussed reimagining the way work gets done and advancements in artificial intelligence in the workplace.

Transformation in the workplace, Caldwell said, is a journey. Take small steps first.

"You don't have to solve for the big, full transformation right away," Caldwell told attendees.

It may be something like bringing in bots to the digital workplace to provide salespeople with better ways to access and share content. Or something as simple as ensuring workers start in a central collaboration space and have access to everything they need.

"What's your technology ecosystem?" Caldwell asked. "Combine your digital workplace experience" because jumping from one app to the next reduces focus.

Michelle Caldwell
Michelle Caldwell of Avanade discusses starting points for digital workplace transformation at the Digital Workplace Experience conference Monday morning.PHOTO: Dom Nicastro

Set Real (and Realistic) Goals for Social Collaboration Projects

Don't expect your social collaboration projects to "blow up hierarchy," James Robertson, founder of StepTwo digital workplace and intranet consultancy, told his morning workshop. Certain early expectations of the tools have not held true. But those few businesses who have successfully launched and maintained social collaboration projects did so in large part by tying them to a specific business purpose.

Robertson offered a case study from British Airways to demonstrate how providing employees with a forum in which to discuss seemingly minor issues — how to break up ice cubes in flight, a new vendor's sub-par plastic cups, the base of a vegetable soup — can add up to improved customer experiences and high levels of employee engagement.  

This specific example shows how social collaboration tools can surface problems which may otherwise be ignored, voices that would otherwise go unheard and help solve problems faster. 

"Don't get too far ahead of your organization" when pushing out collaboration initiatives, Robertson urged. Gain a sense of how ready your organization is: leaders, stakeholders and your end users. And when approaching a collaboration project, think beyond the technology to the culture, management, support, leadership and other questions it involves.

James Robertson Step Two
Collaboration works best when supporting existing communities said James Robertson

Robertson broke the workshop up into teams, tasking each team with two distinct projects. Though different scenarios, the starting point for both was the same: the purpose.

While the idea of organic social growth sounds good in theory, Robertson thinks it's rubbish in practice. Social projects require thoughtful planning and clear purpose, otherwise social channels devolve into mere communication channels, which are a start, but not enough to deliver on the full value of social.

What's Next?

After today's workshops, the conference officially kicks off Tuesday. 

Paul Miller, CEO and founder of Digital Workplace Group (DWG), will begin the day with a morning address. He'll discuss major trends shaping the new digital workplace.

Jill Christensen of Jill Christensen International will follow Miller with the morning keynote. 

Follow the conference hashtag #DWEXP17 and check out the full agenda.