In the domain of physical workplace design, there has been a significant move away from filling office with uniform cubicles and desks. Instead spaces are optimised for different kinds of interaction (sometimes called Activity Based Working or ABW). This is in recognition that we need specific configurations for quiet working, team meetings, social and creative interactions.
Some of this thinking can usefully be applied to digital workplaces. In this post I’d like to explore how we can configure digital spaces to more explicitly match different working modes. Just as I covered in a previous article about matching tools to collaboration cultures, we can also see that digital workplace tools need to be configured to meet different work styles. It isn’t a 1:1 mapping between tools and styles; it’s more about supporting people in adapting the tools to their needs.
Office furniture icons Herman Miller have an elegant ABW model of ten work settings, but to keep things simple I’m going to use a simpler model of just five. These are:
- Huddle: small groups working intensively on one task
- Hive: small to large group working on related tasks
- Hub: high traffic area for chance encounters
- Hangout: social area
- Hermit: quiet, individual working.
- Harbour: safe exchange with third-parties.
The huddle is a small team work mode where everyone is concentrated on a common task. The characteristics are:
- Ongoing communication
- A common view on tasks and status
- Member-only access.
In the physical workplace this might be a workshop room or even a dedicated project room, with walls showing charts, whiteboards and plans in common view. Team members sit in the same room, making communication with each other easy and private, but also isolating them from external interruption.
In practice a dedicated physical project room is a rare luxury: people work on multiple projects so cannot always sit with their team, and variable team sizes make them hard to accommodate. This is where a digital equivalent can offer advantages, as it is possible to be present in multiple ‘rooms’ of widely varying sizes.
Digital huddles are all about creating a space where there is an open communication channel and a place to share common material. The long-standing solutions are things like SharePoint team sites or Basecamp . Even file sharing such as Dropbox if you include the commenting features can serve as a simple huddle space. More recently Slack channels, Yammer groups and the new Office 365 Groups have arisen that place more emphasis on conversation rather than documentation.
Any of the above could also be used for a more transient huddle mode – the digital equivalent of a workshop. However, the set-up can be cumbersome, making web-meeting tools more appealing.
We all know the Hive – it’s an open-plan office where the buzz is intentional because overhearing information and quick exchanges help people co-ordinate. The characteristics are:
- Visibility of what others are doing
- Short exchanges to share information and co-ordinate
- Information hand-over points
- Openness to those working on related tasks.
Unlike a Huddle, people generally work on their own tasks, but they may be part of a common workflow. For example, accounting departments were one person updates a model in a spreadsheet which others use for their own forecasts. Many open plan offices are configured as hives but occupied by people who want to work in Hermit or Huddle mode, which is why people resent them so much.
Digital Hives need to support quick exchanges but also ambient awareness.
Email is the classic tool because it is versatile. However, it is poor for quick exchanges compared to instant messaging (IM). The downside of IM is that conversations are kept private, making it hard for others to ‘overhear’ relevant exchanges. This is where Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) and activity streams come into play. Notably, many ESNs such as Yammer have also introduced an IM element so that conversations can move between modes.
Hives also need information hand-over, for example a form requiring multiple approvals. Workflow tools can be great for well-defined processes, but too inflexible for exception cases. Again, without alternatives email is used to commit grave sins against information management with its attachment feature. It need not be this way: Dutch housing association Accolade implemented an elegant social-network approach to handling client cases, for example.
Hubs are water-coolers, corridors and lobbies. They are a place for chance conversations as many people pass by (but rarely linger – that’s the Hangout). This can be good for creativity, bridging silos and extending networks. Characteristics:
- Many people pass through
- Serendipitous exchange
- Low structure.
Hubs can be hard to re-create in a digital workplace because we don’t really have to pass through anywhere. The nearest equivalent might be social content on an intranet page that catches people’s attention when they go in to accomplish another task. Although we talk about ‘virtual water coolers’, it can be unacceptable to spend too much time there. It takes a conscious effort then, the cultivate social (in the old sense of the word) use digital workplace tools. Presence and activity feeds, too, can facilitate some of the chance conversations.
The hangout is the clubroom. It is not there to facilitate work, but to enable relaxation and networking (though this may benefit work as a side-effect). Hangouts are:
- Open to all
- Help to entertain or relax, not to be productive
- Encourage networking.
Digital hangouts can often just be non-work use of collaboration tools, such as ice-bucket challenges appearing on ESNs. The important thing is to clearly advertise that a space is intended for this purpose. When not formally provided, employees often create Hangouts anyway, through Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram.
Strictly this should be ‘Hermit Cell’, in the sense of quiet work or contemplation. For many people this is the one environment where they actually get work done! It means:
- Isolation from distraction
- Focus on a single task.
Digitally this implies disconnecting from interruptions and alerts. This can be hard as we rarely have filter tools that only let urgent matters interrupt is. Microsoft too seems to be doing its best to make Office 2016 a way for others to jump into your documents for a chat. It also means self-control: one study found 40% of email ‘interruptions’ were actually self-generated. There’s a whole industry growing around distraction-free writing tools like Omniwriter and blockers such as Focus as a result.
Think of ‘Harbour’ as a safe port for exchanging goods. Some offices have meeting rooms next to their reception so that visitors don’t have to go through full security to collaborate with employees. Harbours are:
- Open to selected guests
- Designed for time-bound exchanges.
In the digital workplace a harbour might be an extranet or a SharePoint team site on Office 365, for example. It is common in law firms, where they may have secure areas for sharing case details with clients, or in design agencies for the transfer of large files on a project. Companies that don’t provide digital Harbours often end up using whatever the other party can provide, and need to take care that they have appropriate controls in place for audit and archive.
Supporting work modes
The digital equivalent of each work style can be a mixed blessing: used well, digital channels allow people to work in one mode whilst being physically present in another. For example, you can be in a garden shed but collaborate as if in a Hive. However, it takes discipline too: a digital Hermit can open themselves to any number of Hive-like distractions just by opening all of their collaboration channels.