A Digital Workplace Is All About People, Place and Tech, says James Dellow

Everyone has a digital workplace these days, says James Dellow director of Chief Technology Solutions (“Chieftech”).  But the question is – is it any good? The human-centered designer and technology strategist from Sydney, Australia says employee engagement in a digital workplace should be the focus rather than just productivity and top-down work culture.

We caught up with him to talk about what the digital workplace actually is and the shift towards technology strategies for Activity Based Working (ABW). Here’s what he had to say:

A digital workplace explained

Q: What does the term ‘digital workplace’ mean to you?

James Dellow: The ‘digital workplace’ is really a marketing phrase that analysts came up with. For me, it’s about challenging what the traditional view of what an intranet might be. I’ve also used it to try and help people who are focused on the physical design of offices, pre-COVID-19, to think about what the digital layer of the built environment might be.

Q: What makes a great digital workplace?

Every business these days has a digital workplace. It’s a question of how good is it? How fit for purpose is it? If you just focus on productivity, do you care about employee engagement or your impact on the environment? The digital workplace can play a role across all those metrics. It’s about you deciding what’s important to your business, your community stakeholders and your employees.

Q: Should the digital workplace have a baseline of tech?

There are some layers to this. There should be a foundation layer. This means things like network access and cloud computing. If you put your solution in the cloud, then your employees can access it from home or from the office. On the hardware side you need the right device be it a laptop, phone or smartwatch to work on.

The next layer is where businesses like Valo come into play. Once you’ve got all the foundational pieces in place, and you can get access to a web-based system, then you can start to look at some of the discrete applications.

Once you’ve got all the foundational pieces in place, and you can get access to a web-based system, then you can start to look at some of the discrete applications like Valo’s.

These are the tools that are common to everyone, the productivity tools, Word, Excel, Outlook, increasingly Microsoft Teams. Plus, very job-specific tools, such as CRM systems, ERP systems, HR systems, which are all part of the digital workplace too.

And then there should be a layer of what I call “differentiated digital workplace experiences”.

A digital workplace goes beyond productivity

Q: How does the digital workplace go beyond productivity?

One of the problems that a tool like Valo solves is bringing all the different solutions together. If we think about employee engagement in a digital workplace, there are a whole set of different levers we can apply to improve our experience of the workplace. One of the challenges is to move beyond the productivity layer because that lever only takes you so far.

We can’t just come into work and only be this high-performing, productive system. There’s a whole bunch of human stuff that happens from a physical and emotional point of view. There’s a huge role for the digital workplace to support all those different things. It’s not just about how many emails can we send, how quickly can we find information. That’s also important, but it’s about getting a mix that gives you the outcome that works for your organization and what you want to achieve.

Q: You’re an advocate of “Activity-Based Working”. What does this mean?

Activity-Based Working (ABW) is a concept of creating a work environment that has different physical zones for doing different kinds of work. It’s about getting the physical and the digital components of a workplace designed around the kind of work that people need to do.

For example, if you’ve got a workforce that needs a lot of collaboration and a limited individual focus time, you should design a physical work environment to support those modes of working with more meeting space and less individual desks. ABW is about saying, “How can we create an environment for the work you do so that you can achieve your flow?”

A more democratic approach to how we work

Q: How is the digital workplace changing the way people work?

Work is changing. We need a more democratic approach to how we work. That might mean making information accessible to everyone on a team rather than working through the old gatekeeper model, where someone has to ask permission to access a document.

One of the transformative tools is Microsoft Teams. People have been stuck in email, for example, or just had email and a very traditional intranet. They’ve not quite realized how you can bring people together for a conversation and have them link to some information. And how that can actually make collaboration easier and better than an email chain that goes through lots of people.

Technology can let people experience a different way of working and it can inspire new ways of working.

Technology can let people experience a different way of working and it can inspire new ways of working. It can inspire innovation. If the tools have got enough flexibility in them, you can actually let people create brand new ways of working that you as the technologist never even imagined.

I think that’s the shift, moving from control to trust. You start to measure another outcome, which could be diversity, the environment, the community impact of what you do. We need leaders with a big-picture view to focus on the bigger picture and not just about time spent at your computer.

Q: What advice would you give an organization wanting to improve how they use their digital tools?

I’ve always tried to look at what people have already got. Are they using it in the way it was intended or maximizing the use of it? There’s no point going into an organization and swapping out a system if there’s a fundamental user behavior in place. Solutions like Valo come in and improve how, say, SharePoint works. From a human nature point of view, we’ve got to take people on a journey in order to creat better employee engagement in a digital workplace.

James Dellow was recently a guest speaker at our 24 hour Valo Fest where he talked about “knowledge management in the new normal”. Tune in to find out about why the digital workplace should be approached through people, place and technology!

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