Against the backdrop of all the views and analysis on how we will work in future with the arrival of COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’, the Digital Workplace Group’s (DWG) “A Decade of Courage Manifesto” stands out in terms of both its optimism and breadth of coverage.
The manifesto is the product of long-term engagement with both intranets and the digital workplace, and stems from work done by the DWG’s earlier incarnation as the Intranet Benchmarking Foundation.
The DWG’s evolution from intranet focus to the wider, more encompassing digital workplace mirrors the shift in many businesses from using basic content management systems as a news and knowledge-store intranet to far more complex, feature-rich platforms.
Digital workplace platforms, such as Teams, Slack and Facebook for Work, are now common in many companies today. They are changing both how and where we work. The Manifesto looks at their impact and where we might be heading next. It also makes a strident call for radical new ways of working.
The Manifesto’s scope covers a range of areas for new ways of working: digital technology, organisational culture and structure, the places where we work from, and most importantly, people. In engaging with these areas, the Manifesto calls for courage; the courage to accept the changes taking place and to transform and direct these in new, more attuned ways, both from a technical and people perspective.
It points to shifts in a number of spheres: there are geographical changes in terms of where we work, and the digital skills and literacy needed to embrace new ways of how we work.
It also looks at the impact that the rise of AI and automation has had on human/machine interaction and how we need to change from more mechanistic to richer, fluid and more adaptable organic organisations. These organisations, it argues, need to be human-centric with ‘more humane ways of being and working’. To achieve this, they will need courageous leadership, with upper management tangibly present, albeit in a digital way, connecting with their digitally skilled and equipped workers.
The Manifesto notes that the biggest and most obvious geographical change in where we work, is the move to working from home and connecting remotely as a result of the pandemic. It sees a need to continue this pattern of working, with companies supporting reduced travel initiatives, and moving away from large centralised HQs.
Instead, we could work in ‘hubs’ - small work units nearer to where people live, using disused small office spaces or retail outlets, perhaps in partnership with other companies, and even with government support. This connected world of work, where physical location is less and less important, allows companies to recruit from a global skills marketplace.
To support such changes, we need ‘hyper-resilience’ with distributed workers creating digital work chains, in much the same way supply chains work for goods. In this digital workplace, technologies move from being ‘a nice to have’ to becoming essential. It’s therefore no longer about the ROI of these work-changing platforms, the digital workplace becomes the foundation of the business infrastructure – without it there is no resilience or secure continuity.
To effectively use these solutions, employees need the required digital readiness and literacy. This means training, educating and coaching to raise the ‘Digital IQ’, so that we can all realise the full benefits of the solutions. This needs to be inclusive, with a shift away from office workers always having the latest and best first, to include frontline workers who need to be given the highest level of training and technology too.
These work hubs, filled with high digital IQ workers, need management styles and skills that match their needs. The Manifesto notes a radical reduction of decision-making time seen in the pandemic, pointing to leaders cutting through old processes and hierarchies to directly connect with the employees providing the goods and services.
The aim is to ‘get stuff done’, and at rapid pace. “Leadership has tasted what it is like to work at speed; to plunge into the service or product delivery of their companies and make change happen. This has placed the most senior people far closer to the frontlines of their organisations…”
These leaders it argues, need to have presence even if not physically present, and to be seen using video, audio, messaging and chat applications to regularly connect with their hub-based workers. To succeed, they need to fully embrace and use the digital workplace, as much as anyone else in the organisation.
The management style needed here is one that is not only more connected, but also more people-focused. This humanistic strand runs through the whole Manifesto and it calls for management to: “Amplify the new, more human-centred, empathetic and responsive culture, habits and ethics.”
The well-being of people is pivotal here, even when considering the automation of jobs by AI and robots. What’s needed, the Manifesto posits, is an approach that is both ‘hyper digital’ and ‘hyper human’, where automation is not a threat to people’s jobs, but an essential way of creating new, more innovative and creative ways of work.
One of the striking parts of the Manifesto is the argument that, alongside the digital transformation that is now finally happening, bigger changes are also afoot. We are not moving as most expect, from an industrial to a digital age, but rather to a new ‘living age’. For businesses, this means a change from ‘organisation to organism’, where they transform from more automated machine-like entities into companies that are more organic and fluid.
The Manifesto sees big shifts in the how, where and the why of work, with digital technologies delivering a more human focused way of working. Some of it can read as a tad utopian, but in challenging times we often need voices calling for hope and optimism.
Making change happen is never easy, and the Manifesto calls for the courage needed for these changes to happen and notes that we’re in it for the long haul. After all, it’s a decade of work ahead.
Whether these changes happen is a moot point. Firstly, a lot of these promises and predictions have been around for some time. The concept of working from home, and reducing the commute is over 50 years old. In his 1976 work “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow”, Jack Nilles spoke of ‘telecommuting’, putting forward the idea of ‘bringing work to the workers’ and in 1985 the Harvard Business Review coined the term ‘Your office is where you are’.
More recently, we had ‘Enterprise 2.0’, as it used to be called, which was all about how online collaboration and enterprise social networks freed people from the constraints of time and geography, enabling new ways of working.
All these changes were slow to realise, however, and a lot of early ‘2.0’ optimism faded. Then came the tragedy of the pandemic. COVID-19’s has had a terrible impact on the lives and well-being of tens of thousands. It disrupted both lives and old established ways of doing things, but it also made new ways happen, and at a speed no one expected.
The second factor to consider is the economic impact of the crisis. This is likely to be severe. It could lead to a risk-adverse, hunkering-down approach for some companies that will go into survival mode. This could see changes in ways of working rolled back to more traditional methods.
Alternatively, some businesses might take a more expansive approach, one that welcomes both risk and innovation and takes on board the challenges and opportunities. As the Manifesto notes: “Those organizations that already had digitally enabled frontline workers in logistics, delivery, retail and manufacturing, etc., were shown to be at a huge advantage when economies went into lockdown.”
This type of advantage could well play out in the long-term. As we move out of lockdown, companies moving to a more organic structure of high digital IQ, distributed workers, led by courageous leaders who ‘walk the talk’, could well outstrip their more cautious and less agile competitors.
This, in itself, raises a final question. Implicit in the Manifesto is a vision of better ways of working and being. But will they produce more for less? For example, leveraging global talent markets, might reduce costs, but it could also reduce the imperative to make some processes and production more efficient.
This highlights possibly the biggest promise and threat of the next decade: how can we use digital workplace technologies such as Teams, to not only make our work better and more fulfilling, but also more productive? It may well take less than a decade to find out.