Two Tips for Accelerating the Path Towards Smarter Digital Workplaces

We have some great ideas about the future of organisations and the digital workplace, but we will have a way to go on teaching people and teams the basics

It is always great to zoom out and think about the future of work and the competing trends that will shape it. Here are some excellent pieces on this:

How might digitally-augmented collective intelligence enable us to produce ‘superminds’ to solve complex problems? (from Exponential View)

What does a naturalistic theory of economic organization tell us about how to design better organisations? (from Work Futures)

Can DAOs (Distributed Autonomous Organisations) be Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Enabling Organizations? (from Boundaryless)

But then I spent a few days enjoying the privilege of a window into the current workplace reality of smart people working inside decent, successful organisations, but using today’s tools and methods.

So here are two tips about easy-to-use online working modes using today’s tools that can help improve the digital workplace wherever you are working.

Ambient synchronous vs ‘full-face’ synchronous

A lot of the debate about new ways of working in hybrid workplaces has centred around the balance between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration or co-working. I have been doing a lot of leadership development work in large organisations all over the world on how to design and curate the hybrid digital workplace, and it has made me think about the gap between my experience of always-on synchronous connection with colleagues, and their experience of the same.

The key difference, I think, is the nature of synchronous connection in both cases. I love to stay in touch with what my immediate team are working on, thinking about and linking to; and when necessary, we dip into chat mode to answer questions, clarify or solve minor issues. Sometimes, we might even go full-face synchronous and have a call or a “meeting”. In contrast, for the organisations I have been working with, the synchronous mode is almost always a meeting, run in the traditional way. As this recent piece from InfoQ points out, even fast-moving agile projects can use asynchronous modes effectively.

The cognitive overhead of the ambient synchronous mode is low, and I find it an enriching experience that helps the team stay connected; but the latter ‘full-face’ synchronous mode is exhausting, frustrating and would probably make me gradually hate my colleagues. I would rather save the full-face mode for urgent crises, workshops and ideation, or even better a wonderful conversation over food. It turns out we can process a lot more information than we are aware if it is ambient, indirect and not demanding of our full attention bandwidth.

Microsoft Teams might be the poor relation of Slack in terms of user experience and feel, but it has a ton of integrations that can turn it into your team’s ambient synchronous sharing space, and if you can get people used to this mode, you can reduce meetings significantly and spend that time doing some actual work.

Organisational programming

Just as Teams brought a simulacrum of the transformative Slack experience to large enterprises, I am hopeful we will see another important improvement in the form of Microsoft Loop, which is a shameless clone of the wonderful Notion platform.

I love Notion. As an avid wiki+ user for a couple of decades (mostly Confluence until their UX enhancements made it less wiki-like and slower), I only use office documents as a kind of traditional communication form to share information with clients who still live in that paradigm. You know how it goes: load up a multi-gigabyte ugly-as-hell application designed to produce letters in A4 or Legal paper form, just to share a few hundred lines of text or ideas.

Writing adaptive documentation, growing and weaving connected knowledge, collaborating on ideas, building connected databases or even websites are all easy and enjoyable with a tool as simple, responsive and easy-to-use as Notion. Just as low-code/no-code places the ability to program apps in the hands of everybody, in a similar, I think work modes like Notion do something similar for processes and ways of working. In a way, I think this is a form of organisational programming that could later connect with apps, automations and other systems to help run processes.

The way Loop seems to be rolling out initially is a bit weird – at the component level, not the standalone canvas level – but I am hopeful it might finally make ‘the wiki way’ a standard part of online working for traditional organisations. But until then, maybe just spin up a Notion space and get to work with your colleagues. Ask forgiveness, not permission.


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