We believed that digital technology would bring seamless collaboration and boost our productivity.
Yet the reality has been markedly different.
Over 80% of companies believe that they still need to improve their collaborative working methods to hit their productivity goals – and many are investing in this goal.
Now that many businesses have found themselves thrust into an extended period of distributed working, there’s a newfound focus on the tools and technology required to nurture effective collaboration and productivity amongst a distributed workforce.
However, merely introducing more technology won’t necessarily facilitate an efficient and focused workplace—in fact, this approach of relying on more tools has created a digital workplace that is overloaded with counter-productive ‘work about work’.
We all know the struggle of sorting through a swamped inbox or the trouble it takes to figure out which notification ‘ping’ came from what platform, and whether it’s a priority. The numbers bare out the strain that this monotonous ‘work about work’ subjects us to—in the UK, a third of all time at work is wasted with valueless admin.
As a result, it’s no longer enough for us to plug away with our assigned tasks, we also have to struggle even harder to stay on top of our extra ‘work about work’. This blurs our clarity, eats at our wellbeing, grinds us down and makes it impossible for us to be focused.
From sales to finance, every day our workplaces, which were designed to maximise businesses productivity, are unintentionally undermining our problem-solving processes.
A smoother approach
So how do we fix this?
With employees facing even more on and off-screen distractions today than ever before, layering technology over technology isn’t making anyone’s work-life easier.
We need to start thinking about a workplace that restores the ability to focus on what really matters: thinking strategically to solve the business challenges we face each day.
There are two distinct elements here. To begin with, interoperability is key: when businesses deploy a variety of tools and applications to get different jobs done, people often find themselves inundated with the busywork of operating across disparate systems.
This can be, for example, the nuisance of making different file formats work together or of struggling to recall where a key component of a project ‘lives’.
Businesses should look for tools that easily bring content and tasks together as much as possible, cutting through the clutter and allowing their people to focus on the work at hand.
But overcoming technological distraction isn’t just about making the pieces fit together more smoothly. It’s also about making the pieces that don’t matter at a given point in time fade into the background.
A functional digital workspace should use smart technology to quiet the constant ping of notifications where and when they are irrelevant, and surface what truly matters—whether that’s using AI to predict which document we need or serving relevant notes ahead of a meeting.
A cultural shift
The right tools are just the beginning when it comes to bridging the digital divide, however. The future of the workplace is an environment where terms such as ‘empowerment’, ‘collaboration’, ‘problem-solving’ and ‘creative thinking’ are valued and not simply the next set of empty buzzwords.
This means intentionally designing a culture where team members can communicate openly, collaborate easily, and feel free to find time for focus work.
For example, teams can’t be expected to use multiple communications channels effectively if they don’t feel safe enough to disagree or share ideas. Everyone needs to be heard and a successful digital workplace is one where every member of the team is included in the conversation, and valued.
This becomes even more critical when you can’t rely on the dynamics of an in-person meeting to bring forward people’s opinions.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Professor who studies leadership and psychological safety, says that “Distributed work is making us realise we have to be more deliberately—more proactively—open. We have to be explicit in sharing our ideas, questions, and concerns, because we can’t just overhear what’s happening in the next cubicle.”
The notion of being more open to disagreement might seem simple, but it is central to creating a work environment that brings your teams closer together and boosts performance.
The output-focused mindset
The first step to creating a successful collaborative working environment is a matter of asking the right questions of your team. Instead of constantly questioning how productive they are being and distracting your team with message updates, begin the day by asking what do we want to accomplish today? And how can we achieve it?
This is a shift towards an output-orientated approach, and it is particularly important at this time. When employees aren’t in front of you, it might be tempting to worry that they aren’t being productive, but constant check-ins and box-ticking exercises are simply sapping time for focus work.
This means ruthlessly prioritising for your team and honing in on how you are progressing towards your key goals, then trusting that team to work towards those goals, speak up when necessary, and collaborate effectively without prodding.
Technology will still underpin the future of work that we’re all jumping headlong into at the moment, but without the accompanying cultural change, it’s doomed to fail. Businesses shouldn’t implement increasing numbers of tools without considering how they impact how their teams collaborate and how individuals go about their days.
We need to unlock the potential creativity that keeping things focused, simple, and streamlined can bring. We’ll only be able to truly realise the future of the digital workplace when we move away from micromanagement, and begin to encourage a culture of open collaboration and empowered teams.