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“I am not a phone number” – Being yourself in the digital workplace

“I am not a phone number” – Being yourself in the digital workplace

“I worked with someone in another department for two years but would blank them in the corridor because I didn’t know what they looked like.”

~ An employee during a focus group

Does working digitally mean we bring less of our identity to work?

Increasingly we work independently of a single physical location: in distributed teams, in home-based roles, out in the field or travelling on business. As a consequence we rely on our digital workplace to communicate about work, but if we don’t also communicate about ourselves, we lessen the social ties (in the old sense of ‘social’) that facilitate good working relationships. Has the growth of sites such as Facebook, with its associations of over-sharing, paradoxically lead us to clam up in a work context?

Who are you?

The people directory has long been on the ‘killer app’ list when it comes to intranet features. Originally this was mostly phone numbers, but typically it now also includes photographs, skills, reporting lines, hobbies and interests. No, let me rephrase that; …typically it now includes fields for this information. In practice, some organisations still disable them, and even when they don’t it can be hard to get them filled in.

My feeling is that we don’t attach enough importance to the cultivating online identity, and it’s not just about the profile, but a wider awareness of who our colleagues are that matters. Say, for example, a colleague in another department sends you a report that is full of errors. You might initially question their competence, but you’d react differently if you knew that they recently had a baby and were looking sleep deprived.


The professional mask

Some clients tell me management only want basic information in profiles because “the intranet is a business system”. It would be a dry working environment if you were in an office and never talked about your outside interests. So why stifle it online? Indeed, some people are very keen to express themselves beyond a role stereotype, as in the refrain “I’m not a typical accountant”.

This isn’t to say we want to be flooded with pictures of everyone’s Friday night out – selectiveness and filtering still matter.

What about pictures of my cat?

As a home worker, I’ve started several desktop video conferences with people holding up their pets to the camera. Similarly video conference etiquette suggests you shouldn’t be afraid to have the room you use show your interests in the background. This is good, it helps people to bond. It should be OK to have a picture of you with your cat as one of those on your profile – just not a picture of your cat as your profile.

Conversely, boardroom-style video conferences greatly dampen social interactions just because it’s almost impossible to have “side” conversations. This is where a back-channel comes in really handy, for example having a chat window open so that multiple exchanges can happen in parallel.

I don’t care what your lunch looks like

The extent to which non-work content is acceptable is a tricky one. For every advocate of an enterprise social network (ESN), there is someone that hears the word ‘social’ and equates it with time-wasting on Facebook. As ESNs become more mainstream this is lessening, and people have always found creative ways to be non-productive if they wish. If anything the freedom to work flexibly that comes with a digital workplace makes people more conscientious. In one survey, 39% of home workers said they worked longer hours to prove they are not shirking.

My feeling is that this is all about managing perceptions. Nobody resents a productive worker also chatting over coffee; what they resent is someone taking coffee and then not delivering. In this regard, using social tools to work out loud not only makes the effort more visible, but it brings more context of what we do into view too.

Moreover, discussing social topics first lets people become familiar with tools before they venture onto tougher subjects. For example, researchers at Stern Business School found that when organisations restricted leisure blogging, the sharing of work-related knowledge also decreased.

Keeping a low profile

Not everyone necessarily wants to share their non-work activities with the whole company and we shouldn’t force them to. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other channels however: I know one introvert that happily uses instant messaging with specific colleagues. She has a strong relationship with her colleagues in India because she makes a point of messaging them to ask about their weekend on a Monday morning, just as if she’d walked into their office.

Confidentiality too can be an issue. It may be tempting to populate the people directory with a database of security pass photos. But people usually hate the terrified rictus of a day-one employee that these preserve. Also, in countries such as Germany, the photo is considered personal data, not company data. Such things are better volunteered than conscripted.

Just be yourself

It took a few years for people to learn the protocols of what should and shouldn’t be said on email. We are re-learning some of this for the more informal and immediate social media era. Workplace etiquette still applies, but we’re also still people in the digital workplace.

Profile cartoon courtesy of Virpi.

This article was originall published over at Interact.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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