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In the new digital economy, our traditional workplaces are becoming increasingly inappropriate.

If we want to be effective online we need to create new digitally friendly workplaces.

If you are at your normal place of work as you read this, take a moment to look around you. Look at your desk, your computer, your colleagues, the walls. Soak in the whole scene. Is that the most productive environment for a web professional?

The chances are it is not, at least if you are working for a more traditional business.

Like many, I used to laugh at the ostentatious workplaces of organisations such as Google. The over the top canteens, chill out areas and pool tables all felt like cheap perks to lure in talent and project a cool image.

Google Offices

It is easy to dismiss the ostentatious workplaces of organisations such as Google, but is there something we can learn from them?

While researching for my book that opinion began to shift. I interviewed employees from a variety of both traditional businesses and tech startups. I also visited a range of different offices. It became clear that our work environment has a significant impact on how effective we are as web professionals.

For a start our working environment dictates how closely we collaborate with colleagues.

A collaborative environment

Back in the day I used to work for IBM. My abiding memories of my time there was heads popping up above the cubicle barriers like frightened meerkats emerging from their burrows.

The working environment seemed to have more to do with battery farming than modern working. It was an environment optimised for cost effectiveness, squeezing the maximum number of employees into the minimum floor space.

What it didn’t do was promote collaboration. If I wanted to talk to a colleague sitting next to me I literally had a barrier in the way.

To do anything even vaguely collaborative, we would have to book a meeting room.

Cubicles

Cubicles do not encourage collaborative working.

The problem with meeting rooms is that they are only a temporary collaboration space. You have the meeting and then you leave. As anybody who works in the web knows, we need a space where we can stick post it notes, pin up work in progress and refer to it often.

A temporary meeting space does not allow that.

Walls covered with post-it notes

When working on web projects we need a more permanent space for displaying work in progress.

The problem with most traditional workplaces is that they mirror the factory lines of the industrial age. Each person does their job largely in isolation and then hands the result off to the next person. That is the very definition of waterfall project management.

However, the web requires closer collaboration than that. It requires design experts, coders and content specialists to be sitting side by side working together.

It also requires the active participation of stakeholders. People who often work in another part of the building. That means the workplace needs to be flexible too.

A flexible environment

If you walked into the games company Valve one of the first things to strike you is the fact that all the desks have wheels. The whole office is configured to be as flexible as possible.

This is important in a company where you are constantly working as part of different teams.

Valve desks

The desks at games company Valve all have desks to ensure a flexible workspace.

In email marketing company Mailchimp you will find many desks intentionally left empty so that people can move to sit closer to the person they are collaborating with. There are also movable whiteboards that allow people to have impromptu meetings anywhere.

Having a flexible workspace doesn’t just help collaboration, it also ensures cross departmental cooperation. The web demands people from across the entire business to work closely, but often our workspaces discourage that by grouping people with similar skill sets together.

Marketeers all sit in marketing, techies are all in I.T. and so on. This not only prevents cooperation, it also fosters departmental divides.

Ben Chestnut, CEO of Mailchimp counters this behaviour by regularly rearranging the office layout so different teams get to sit side by side. This ensures a better understanding of what colleagues do.

Of course it is not all just about the layout. Its also about the way our work environment is equipped.

An equipped environment

Imagine for a moment you need a new boiler in your home. You considered fitting it yourself but decided that getting a professional was probably a good idea.

Now think for a moment if that plumber turned up with the same value brand DIY tools that you own. You would be worried about his capability, wouldn’t you?

We understand that craftsmen need specialist tools. A professional chef doesn’t use knives from IKEA and a mechanic spends a fortune on his equipment.

Why then do most internal web teams I work with have the same computer kit as somebody from accounting? Why do they have restricted internet access and have to fight to get permission to install software on their own machine?

Having the right equipment and facilities to do their job shouldn’t need mentioning in an article like this, but unfortunately it does. This has to change if we want to create a digitally friendly workplace.

We also need to create a work environment more focused on the customer.

A customer focused environment

The larger a company becomes the fewer people within that company regularly interact with the customer.

This can be particularly true for the web team if they are not careful. As web professionals we should be constantly thinking about the user, but often we are too focused on pleasing internal stakeholders. Fortunately our environment can help with that.

If you walk around most traditional businesses the walls are covered with awards, photos of assets the company owns (like shiny offices) and company executives shaking hands with important people. The walls reflect the character of the organisation - inward focused.

Once again Mailchimp show us a different way. its walls are covered with user personas. Every time somebody looks up from their desk they are confronted with a persona, reminding them about who they should ultimately be pleasing.

It’s a good approach that more organisations need to adopt.

Mailchimp Personas

The walls at Mailchimp are covered with user personas. This helps to focus everybody on who they should ultimately be pleasing.

Apart of a bigger picture

The inadequacy of our workplaces to encourage the best from our web professionals is a symptom of a bigger problem. Pre-web companies are just not generally configured to operate effectively in the digital economy. The world has changed and businesses need to adapt to this new reality.

Paul Boag

Published 10 March, 2014 by Paul Boag

Digital Strategist Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or his personal blog Boagworld.

28 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Good advice. I've worked at a variety of companies and really hate Dilbert-style cubicles.

At the 3 companies where I've been co-founder, we've always tried to keep everyone in a single room - with no private offices - for exactly the reasons mentioned here. And it works well.

The one exception to a single office is sales, because sales people are *too loud* and so they must have their own space. But maybe other readers have found a solution.

I especially like the advice of putting as much as possible of the company "state" onto whiteboards around the walls, so the everyone knows what's going on and can contribute. If you start using tools like Enterprise Architect for your designs, then you find that access gets limited to a "priest class" of people who know the tools, which disempowers other developers and support staff.

Finally, there's a real problem with telecommuting and outsourcing. I know that some companies really like these because they save money and time. But the thrust of this article - and what I've found personally - is that collaboration is very important and this means that people need to be sitting close together.

almost 3 years ago

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Chris

Great article, but I'd question the ubiquity of open plan offices.

Yes sometimes people need to collaborate and an open space helps with that, but most people, most of there time, need to concentrate on a task, whether it's a wrestling with a spreadsheet, coding or just answering emails.

Open plan offices are full of distractions that break our concentration, which on average takes about 15 minutes to form, every-time someone breaks that concentration the clocks resets. That's why people work early or late, from home, camp in meeting rooms or wear headphones - because "it's the only way to get work done around here".

Ideally every knowledge worker would have their own office and open spaces to collaborate where necessary as outlined in the article.

If anyone is interested this is a great book that covers the topic in s some detail http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Teams-2nd/dp/0932633439

almost 3 years ago

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Olivier Binse

Point very well made Paul.
Designing the ideal workplace for digital professionals requires focus on multi-disciplinary collaboration, enabling highly visual work surfaces, and adapting to the needs of agile projects. I would also argue that there is a lot that can be done to switch people from a 'corporate' mindset and immerse them into an environment that frees up their thinking - by removing corporate features and introducing warmer, more domestic components.
One of the challenges is that many organisations still think of the working environment as a cost centre, trying to achieve economies of scale by procuring the same desk, same chair, same screen to everybody. It is time to look at the workplace as a functional asset, that must be thoughtfully designed - with a business case founded on increased innovation and quality.
Watch that 'space' - we are about to complete our new studios for Deloitte Digital in London and Belfast and will talk about how its working for us and our clients in the months to come...

over 2 years ago

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