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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.