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You Can't Plan a Digital Workplace Without Thinking of the Physical

5 minute read
Jed Cawthorne avatar

The digital workplace won't mean the same thing for any two organizations. 

In some cases it might be heterogeneous, with many tools from different vendors. In others it might be quite homogenous, with many or all tools from the same vendor. An organization's focus will change based on many factors including its industry, its size and its global span. 

There's No 'Traditional' Digital Workplace

We can all understand the difference between a small business of 30 people based in a single building in a single city using Google's G Suite and a 50,000 person global enterprise using Microsoft’s Office 365 plus many other specialist tools.

Within a global enterprise, your digital workplace might change substantially depending on if you work in a Research and Development lab, in the corporate legal group, on the factory floor or as a mobile support engineer. 

So while we can say that all of the tools used by everyone in an organization constitute the holistic enterprise digital workplace, an individual employee may never see this whole picture, as her digital workplace constitutes only the tools she needs to do specific tasks.

Matching the Tool to the Need

These differences came into focus for me lately when reading articles around the use cases for different Microsoft tools. The Office 365 world of groups, contains Yammer, Teams, Planner, SharePoint sites, Sway, Flow, Skype for Business and more. 

Add Exchange email and calendaring and you probably have every conceivable way of dealing with synchronous or asynchronous communication or collaboration. I'll resist using the toolbox metaphor here, but it's definitely a case of the right tool for the right job. 

Many factors come into play when giving advice on which tools to use and when. We must control our tendencies to be early adopter geeks who want to use the latest shiny toys without compromising our desire to innovate and push the boundaries. 

As ever, when solving business problems we must first understand the pain points requiring attention, the business requirements we are meeting and the business benefits our digital workplace solution will provide.

How the Physical Workplace Impacts the Digital (and Vice Versa)

My workplace is involved in an impending move between buildings, with teams moving to different floors within our main building. Unsurprisingly, this has provoked a number of conversations with colleagues around the types of modern working environments we want to provide, and the technological elements of the physical workplace. 

This in turn led me to read up on the trends in physical workplace developments, and to add the physical environment as a new dimension to that old consultant's favorite: people, process and technology:

P.P.T.P.E. diagram

Our teams' physical environments have many obvious, and less obvious, impacts on digital workplace designs. 

Obvious impacts include organizations with a large mobile workforce putting an emphasis on mobile apps, and fully adaptive browser experiences, or global organizations using an enterprise social collaboration platform to bridge the time zone issue for asynchronous collaboration.

Learning Opportunities

However, sometimes good old-fashioned physical colocation trumps the digital. 

For example, I sit in an open plan office space surrounded by my direct reports. Would we benefit from Slack or Microsoft Teams? No, as we constantly talk to each other, or go and grab “break out rooms” to draw on physical whiteboards with real pens. 

However, nothing is that simple is it? 

Things Get Complicated, Fast

If we work from home or a remote location, suddenly Skype for instant messaging gets used a lot. Sometimes it might get used with the person sitting next to me when I don’t want to disturb everyone else's break. 

And then there's the tech support team who don't sit with us but are dotted-line reports. In fact, three of them are in two different buildings in Toronto, and one in Chicago. All of a sudden Microsoft Teams sounds like a good idea. But do I have my team use that or do we stick with a knowledge management group in Yammer?

These are the kind of conversations digital workplace groups should have on a regular basis with their colleagues, to help discover use cases and figure out the advantages of using one tool over another.

When we extend the interface of digital to physical we also need to start thinking about infrastructure: wi-fi everywhere for corridor warriors, or ethernet only at hotel desks? Print release systems that allow you to print to any device on any floor in any building, and stats so we can challenge certain individuals as to why they print so often, but rarely pick up those print jobs? Do we need a meeting room AV kit that interfaces with our BYOD iPads so we can run virtual whiteboards across continents?

Here we enter the realm where working out the employee experience becomes a complex, multi-team endeavor. 

So if you’re the digital workplace people, don’t forget to go and find your colleagues in corporate real estate, or the design firm you're using for your new premises, or the landlord of your office and have some interesting discussions on how the digital workplace overlaps with the physical one.

Editor's Note: Nominations are now open for CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group's first Digital Workplace of the Year awards and we are happy to count Jed as one of our judges. 

About the author

Jed Cawthorne

Jed Cawthorne is principal evangelist at ShinyDocs, focusing on spreading the message of the benefits of good data and information management. Jed has over 20 years experience in information and knowledge management, and over 25 years in IT.

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