As the dust kicked up by recent global events begins to settle, the new reality that it reveals around us is very different from the one businesses had thrived in before. If offices were once the beating hearts of companies’ activities, today, employees are working in changing, flexible environments. This isn’t just a matter of real estate; the type of dynamics facilitated and enabled by office spaces is no longer possible, while increased digital interactions are opening up new avenues of possibility for agile thinking and collaboration.
An office’s floor plan has the potential to facilitate synergistic interactions between employees – but if done wrong, it also has the potential to be disruptive, distracting and to harm productivity. Now, with many of the office’s traditional functions going online, it’s time to give some serious thought to the kind of virtual environment we create for people within our organizations. The digital transformation can be a fantastic trigger for positive change, but it’s imperative to plan out that change and think about the tools needed to see it through. So how can we go about creating a constructive work environment in light of the digital transformation?
As the way we work becomes more reliant on digital spaces, we need to think about what kind of properties we’d like these spaces to have. On the one hand, digitization makes it easier to, for instance, document and retain valuable information and ideas that were once only spoken, not written down – but on the other, makes it much more difficult to create unstructured, spontaneous interactions between people in the organization who don’t share an immediate professional link. This means that while the digital transformation can help us create more valuable, meaningful data, we still need to make sure we’re not neglecting to create the dynamics that helped form that data in the first place.
Office spaces do more than just give people a place to work; by putting people together in one place, offices can become vital idea ecosystems. Like other ecosystems, the byproducts of the dynamics formed within them actually provide critical “free” services which the entire organization relies on. Just like the rainforests and oceans are ecosystems which provide “free” environmental services to the planet (like oxygen), the office space provides its organization with many services that today, we take for granted.
As we move out of the office, these services are still critical for the functioning of the company, but they are no longer natural byproducts of the work environment. This is doubly true for large enterprises, where offices can be dispersed throughout the world, and while unstructured interactions can take place in specific geolocations, the potential of interactions between all of the company’s workforce remains largely untapped.
As we begin to use smart communication tools like Slack and Zoom, the gap between the physical and the digital is beginning to close, but to really unlock the potential of their talent pools, companies need to think about ways to digitally structure the valuable unstructured interactions that were once freely available to all.
When we talk about agile organizations and flexible work practices, the ideal model that’s often cited is small startups, where everyone knows and interacts with everyone else.
The reason for that is that when this is the dynamic at the base of the way the organization operates, it allows talent to be utilized regardless of formal job descriptions. When something needs to get done, everyone knows about it and the people with the relevant skill sets can jump in and take the initiative.
The same is true – though often, to a lesser degree – of offices. When people work together in an office, they generally tend to know what the colleagues around them are dealing with, and can offer help and ideas, even if their job descriptions don’t necessarily cover that field.
As organizations grow, and as unstructured, spontaneous interactions between employees from different professional backgrounds become more rare, companies begin to lose their flexibility and agility, relying solely on people whose job descriptions formally state their specific area of responsibility.
But just as the digital transformation has seemingly pulled these interpersonal relationships apart, it also has the potential to bring them back together in new – and better – ways.
There are many tools out there, including the Talent Marketplace, that is designed to do just that – but it’s up to the executives, decision-makers, and visionaries to prioritize them before it’s too late and something ineffable is lost forever.