IS THE DIGITAL WORKPLACE MORE HUMAN OR LESS?

By BY STUART MACKENZIE 11th December 2020


When the pandemic hit, organisations and individuals adapted extraordinarily quickly to the change in working habits, the shutting down of offices and the opening of laptops on the kitchen table. Since then we have been in a quasi-experiment about remote working v office working v blended working. Suddenly millions of people were bounced into working from home. Indeed there was a certain appeal to it: being at home, dispensing with the daily commute, having fewer disturbances from a busy open-plan office, taking a sneaky siesta, having a well-stocked fridge within easy reach. For some it was more productive and more fun.   


However while homeworking may lead to an improvement in employees work /life balance, there are downsides, particularly after such an extended period. There is a cumulative weariness, and a real sense of loneliness for some. Company cultures are unravelling. Teams are losing cohesion. There is a deceleration of shared knowledge, creative collaboration and human interaction.Younger talent is not getting developed as fast since they are not able to witness the more experienced members of the team navigate tasks and challenges; all they can observe is the thumbnail of their seniors in a zoom meeting.
A McKinsey research report recently showed that 50% of people were reflecting on their job and if they would stay at their current company citing such issues as ‘why would I want to commute back to the office?’ and ‘can I apply for a job not in my geography?’. 85% of managers said there was a deceleration in productivity.

30% of employees say they are motivated but are finding it difficult to feel connected; that they aren’t feeling part of something bigger than themselves. Humans are hardwired for connectivity; we want to belong; we need to interact.

40% of managers are saying they are finding it difficult to keep their teams motivated and engaged when working remotely.

In making work more digital have we made it more human, or less?

While technology has been able to support and facilitate the acceleration in the change in working, it is vital for leaders, and the individual workers themselves, to be conscious about the evolution in the workplace and the different aspects of effective and healthy working. The exhaustion that people are feeling will continue unless we ensure we have the right habits, the right connections and the right behaviors.

A Conscious Workplace is one in which more people are aware of what makes a workplace effective, productive and happy. How do we make it different?

Don’t spend all your time on email. More than ever it is important to get on the phone or the video call and connect. You need to be checking in, connecting, seeking relationship.

Encourage leaders to have a different kind of conversation – not transactional but an emotional conversation: how are you? how do you feel about work/home/the future? What has challenged you this week? What has brought you some joy? This is requiring managers and leaders to really listen to how each individual can work at their best.

Find ways to parcel up the day into time slots with a variety of different kinds of activities: If you don’t, you just have the uninterrupted monotonous work flow in front of the computer, without speaking to people – it creates the weariness that so many are experiencing.

Workers should take breaks, get exercise, eat well - these healthy habits make us healthy humans.

50-minute meetings. Schedule meetings that finish before the next one begins, so that you can stretch and get a glass of water.

Encourage staff to take time off; many companies are seeing vacation days piling up, which isn’t good for individuals or the organisations they work for.

Do something to mark the end of the work day; even something as simple as making a drink or going for a walk can help people switch-off and improve stress levels.

Online training sessions (as opposed to the e-learning courses that have limited effectiveness) can certainly help with development. Remote experiential learning, in which a class is facilitated by a skilled coach, can help accelerate development and is vital in these isolated times. While it will never equal the effectiveness of face to face classroom workshops it can be a substitute during times of lockdown. The shared experience of a live event, the community and connectedness of participants sharing the same virtual space, and the empathic emotional exchange all allow for a more profound level of development. When lockdown ends there will be a rush back to the classroom, but we have seen that a carefully blended solution is entirely advantageous.

Although some will be concerned about going back into the workplace – the office gives us something really important if it has been managed in the right way. The concept of an office is evolving into a hub. We shouldn’t be thinking of it as the citadel of work, where one buries one’s head in a computer. It will be a destination that people head to meet others, work together, to collaborate formally and informally.

One of the benefits of the office environment are unintended collisions between people around the printer, or in the corridor; the barely noticed comment that stimulates a thought, that provokes a conversation that gives rise to innovation. With less time spent in the office leaders need to be orchestrating these collisions.

Another benefit is the ability for managers to transform performance through micro rewards: these are the small regular acknowledgements of effort and attitude that happen when people are working close to each other. It is a confirmation to a worker that their presence is noticed, is appreciated.

Well-being is now a major concern at the heart of the discussion, so offices will seek to become psychologically safepsychologically safe spaces , with more pastoral care and opportunities for support and emotional sustenance.

The overhaul of how we work isn’t superficial; it’s fundamental. The workplace environment must continue to evolve. Home-working is great for focused time and individual creativity. Offices are great at bringing people together in order to collaborate and communicate face to face. With the right blend of working, conscious leaders can create practices, at home and in the office, that are productive and sustainable in the long-term and promote humanity in the workplace.  

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