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Many companies introduce enterprise social networks like Yammer, experiment with eliminating offices and creating open workspaces, and enable more flexible and mobile ways of working. They anticipate that these initiatives will help them to better deal with turbulent, rapidly changing environments that require collaboration and agility to deliver more complex digital solutions in rapid cycles.
Digital business environments offer opportunities to deliver customer solutions rather than distinct products and services. The problem is that if you try to bundle, stitch, customize, or link products and services to build end-to-end solutions within traditional hierarchical and siloed work environments, then you make working life very hard. While most companies acknowledge the need to revise the way they work, many are finding this very difficult to do.
In 2014 and 2015, we interviewed 63 executives at 27 large, global organizations that have implemented digital workplace initiatives, and we conducted a poll with 276 respondents from global companies. We believe that the digital workplace is about a fundamentally different way of working with distinctive behavioral norms. Influence, networks, and dynamic decisions become much more important than power, hierarchies, static decisions, processes, and rules that make sense in a slow-moving, traditional environment.
For companies that recognized this essential difference, the digital workplace played an integral role in transforming their business, including performance, leadership, and employee satisfaction. Others did not get past pilots and patchy take-ups.
So what does it take to create a digital workplace?
The ‘S’ Factors
Our research shows that successful companies focused on four design levers — symbols, space, systems, and social — and two management levers — sustaining leadership and systemic learning — to transform their workplaces.
Symbols of change make the digital strategy visible throughout the organization and reinforce the strategic value of the workplace changes every day. It takes well-thought-out, broad campaigns to drive home this cultural shift and motivate changes in behavioral norms. These symbols are much more than communication campaigns — they initiate changes in the way people in the organization define their working lives.
Space, whether physical, virtual, or cultural, simplifies the environment to enable a more fluid approach to work. If the corporate conversation is inhibited by cultural norms, imposing an open physical workspace likely will not solve the problem, and it will be a bumpy ride. We also see that companies who are further along in the evolution toward digital solutions for customers are bringing employees back to face-to-face working spaces as much as possible with campus-style offices, or virtual spaces that replicate co-located environments as closely as possible.
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Systems automate and simplify routine processes that are often “speed bumps” in organizations and stand in the way of focusing on value-generating tasks. You don’t want your employees to spend valuable time dealing with administrative issues or finding information. Systems also enable analytics that guide decisions on more complex needs. Cloud-based technologies combined with meaningful data access go a long way in accomplishing these changes.
Social media are about sharing knowledge, building relationships, and exploring ideas in ways that foster networks instead of hierarchies. They can play a central part in strategic digital workplace transformations when aligned with a change in behavioral norms throughout the organization. For example, it helps if the executive team initiate and join conversations frequently, and social networks like Yammer become hubs of information and conversations around ideas.
What the four design levers have in common is that they can really simplify working life in complex, unstructured business environments. The good news is that organizations can start anywhere among the four levers to embark on a successful digital workplace journey. The key to success, however, is the two management levers: sustaining leadership and systemic learning.
Continuous leadership is critical to sustain the strategic role of the digital workplace. Leadership is required to reimagine the corporate governance required in these environments and to resource the initiatives and support required to build and sustain the digital workplace. Without firmly committed, cross-functional leadership teams dedicated to constant iterations and adjustments to the workplace, efforts in reimagining work have patchy traction and become personality-dependent.
Systemic learning means that the design levers must be adjusted all the time, instead of just once or twice a year, through real-time experimentation and feedback. Creating and sustaining new behavioral norms depends on it. If an approach to symbols, space, systems, and social doesn’t work, fine-tune it and keep evolving. As we see in the organizations that have implemented the digital workplace, both leadership and learning will evolve with it.