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The Digital Workplace:
How technologies are transforming the way we work

A Q&A with Paul Miller

Paul Miller is the CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Forum and the Intranet Benchmarking Forum. His new book, The Digital Workplace, looks at how the technologies of the digital age are transforming our physical workplaces. Tools like intranets, social media, smartphones and tablets are making it easier for employees to work whenever and wherever, without being tied to a physical office space. Businesses that embrace the digital workplace are realizing increased employee productivity and a greater ability to attract top talent. They are also better able to adapt in the ever-changing economic environment. However, challenges also exist, especially for communicators who must train managers to effectively communicate with employees located around the world.

Miller spoke with
CW Bulletin executive editor Natasha Nicholson about this shift to the digital workplace, what’s leading it, the challenges and benefits it presents, and the importance of having a physical office or meet-ups to prevent employees from becoming isolated.

Natasha Nicholson: In your book, you say that the nature and design of work is changing. Can you tell us about that?
Paul Miller: I suppose the key change in the design of work is its location. If you go back to the agricultural era, work was located in the countryside in villages and farms. And then through industrialization we had the arrival of the factory, the office and the city. People migrated from the countryside into urban environments. And that’s what we’ve had for the last couple hundred years. I think what’s interesting, as we shift away from the physical workplace as the place where work happens to the digital workplace—in which work increasingly happens in digital environments—work is becoming portable, mobile and flexible. That is the key design change, if you like, that is taking place in the nature of work.

NN: Along those lines, what would you say are the key elements that are driving this shift?
I think one of the key drivers of this shift to the digital workplace of intranets, email and HR systems is technology. We are seeing far more usable and mobile forms of technology—smartphones, tablets—much better connectivity. I increasingly work in different locations. I have 60 people in the company and no physical offices so you work wherever you are.

I think there’s also a shift in the expectations people have around work. I think that increasingly, people are coming into the workforce who want something more flexible, fluid and adaptable to their needs, and they are less prepared to conform. So we’ve got this intersection of people and technology, which I think is causing a sort of perfect storm and allowing some of the possibilities and opportunities of the digital workplace to come about.

NN: What effect is this having on business?
There are few businesses and few individuals who are not affected by the digital workplace. Everybody you talk to of any generation has some kind of interest in and understanding of this shift in where work is happening. As far as what effect it is having on business, I think it’s changing a whole raft of things. It’s changing the devices people are using in the workplace. Increasingly, people want to use their own technology for work. You’ve got that whole Bring Your Own Device to work trend—if I’m using my own iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, etc., at home, why can’t I use it for work?

The overall change in the digital workplace is that it’s allowing companies to connect more with their marketplace, whether they’re in retail, financial services, technology, etc. They’re able to connect with the marketplace using technology, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, etc. But they’re also able to connect with people internally as well and open up these conversations. There’s an example from BMW. The organization gives people on the production line access through their home computers into their HR systems and scheduling systems. They really try to give people, even on manufacturing lines, access to a more flexible way of working. I think these are really profound changes that the digital workplace is having on businesses even though it wasn’t the intention of the digital workplace to do that. It’s enabling these deep-seated shifts to take place.

NN: Can you give some examples of organizations that are effectively addressing this shift in work?
I think we are in a period of experimentation with work. Up until the turn of the century, work was essentially something located in factories and in offices. You went to work, you came home, etc. And now I think this new portability is enabling people to experiment. One example is O2, one of the main mobile phone operators in Europe. They recently shut down their entire headquarters office just outside London for a day, and they told everybody to work elsewhere. It was partly in preparation for the London Olympics, and it was partly an experiment to see what happens when they don’t have anybody in the office. And the answer is essentially “life goes on.”

Also, there are companies like British Telecom, which is radically reducing its physical real estate and enabling people to work from anywhere, partly because it’s part of their corporate mission to enable that. But they’ve also really shifted their people and where they are located and how they are working together. Another example that comes to mind is Ernst & Young, the consulting house. Again, during the London Olympics they are basically giving their staff six weeks where they can work from wherever they want. And they’ve told their employees that it’s up to us as an organization to provide you with strong system access and secure system access even if you’re not coming into specific offices during that period of time.

NN: Many managers continue to have a negative perception of a virtual workforce. How do you overcome this mind-set? And what might be driving some of that negative perception?
Again, it comes back to the history. We’ve had a nearly 200-year period of the Industrial Revolution, and we’ve developed management as a discipline during that time. We’ve developed ways of managing that fit with that. I think we have to give managers a bit of understanding if we’re asking them to flip from one style of managing where “the people are around me and I can see them and I can interact with them and have conversations with them and meetings and so on” to a wholly different way of managing where your team is based in different places around the world.

Increasingly you have to manage people based on what they’re outputting rather than what they’re inputting. It’s a bit of an illusion, really, to think just because employees are sitting near you that they are working hard or producing benefits. But we do also need to have some tolerance for the natural legacy of management. I think that’s a big part of the issues and challenges that we face.

NN: For any kind of work style, there are obstacles for an organization. What are the obstacles to communication in the digital workplace, and how might we overcome these obstacles?
I think there are two things that come up most strongly in the digital workplace. One is addiction to work. As people enjoy their work increasingly—partly because you’ve given them influence and autonomy over how they work—they tend to work longer hours and they tend to work harder.

How do you counter work addiction? One of the things I’ve talked about is the need to communicate and set boundaries between when you’re working and when the rest of your life is happening. On the one hand, just because we can work whenever we want wherever we want, it doesn’t mean the evening, holidays, weekends should just disappear. I think it’s important to communicate and set personal boundaries both as a company and as an individual about that.

The other issue that comes up through the digital workplace is, ironically, one of isolation. I think the office has given us a level of social connection to the people we work with. It’s important to orchestrate times in the month when you do meet up with your colleagues, either in cafes or the office, just to be together physically. I think it’s important.

NN: A lot of organizations are concerned about an aging workforce and their ability to recruit new talent. How does the digital workplace relate to Generation Y?
I heard this from Deloitte recently: that having a high-performing digital workplace is what’s required in order to be an employer that people want to come to and stay with. I think the expectations of Generation Y and the younger workforce is that they want a level of digital experience that’s at least as good as what they’re getting outside of work. Remember, digital natives are the people who have grown up immersed in and surrounded by this technology. If they don’t get that, I think various things happen. Their productivity declines. In a way their discretionary effort—that amount of effort and connection you put into work that is based on your experience of work—is diluted.

NN: What are some of the top factors that make a digital workplace successful?
In order to move forward, the digital workplace requires CEO and executive support. Second, you need management training, including training on how to manage by output rather than input. You need a technology function within the company that enables rather than prevents portability. Also important is internal communication and engagement ahead of changes that are happening. It requires good measurement and metrics around the digital workplace. Is it producing something that’s useful for the company, and how do we know? There should also be a clear strategic vision of how the organization should look in the next three to five years. Again, that speaks to the leadership. If you’re adopting a digital workplace program, show “quick wins” that can be delivered. Include technology that works efficiently and smoothly—which is easy to say but harder to deliver.

NN: What are your thoughts about trust in the digital workplace?
The digital workplace in a way exposes distrust. If you have an environment that essentially is about “I want you to show up and I want to watch you work because if I see you working I know I’m basically getting my pound of flesh.” I think the digital workplace exposes the distrust in those types of organizations. If you instead give people flexibility, autonomy and influence over how they work, you are definitely going to have to trust people more. But you don’t have to trust people blindly. You are still judging people based on their results, such as if they meet timetables, and the way they are present. In my company we say, “You don’t need to be present physically, but you do need to be present digitally.” It’s not about sending someone off for six months and saying, I’m sure you will be fine. We do need to track what people are doing. But I think we need to have a level of trust, and the research says that if you do that, it will work.