Screenshot of Carla Harris of Morgan Stanley

5 Takeaways from the Digital Workplace Experience Winter 2022 Conference

February 10, 2022 Digital Workplace
By Dom Nicastro

Are you empowering employees with the right tools and support to not just get work done, but also feel good about it?

That served as one of the discussion points to start the Reworked Digital Workplace Experience virtual conference, which took place online on Feb. 2–3. Hosted by Simpler Media Group, the parent of Reworked, the winter edition kicked off a year-long series of virtual events. The spring event is May 4–5.

“Somewhere right now in your organization, there's someone who is logging on to work, joining one more virtual meeting, or desperately trying to find that critical piece of information they need to finally get that one task done,” said Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief of Reworked, in his opening remarks on Feb. 2. “And they're wondering if it's all worth it. Is what they're doing what they want to be doing with their life? Do they get paid enough to really deal with all these daily frustrations? How can they improve their situation for their family? Is there a better place they could be?”

Here are more takeaways and highlights from the two-day Digital Workplace Experience conference, now in its sixth year. Access to all the content from the event is available on demand with a free registration.

Leading Through the 'Great Contemplation'

Many pundits have referred to the record numbers of people quitting their jobs in the US over the last year or so as “The Great Resignation.” 

Carla Harris, vice chairman, managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, has a different take on this record job exodus. She calls it the "Great Contemplation."

“I've been talking about it as the Great Contemplation because, for the first time that I can remember in my 30-plus year career, this has been an opportunity for people to actually have an extended period of time where they have been at home and they've had a chance to really think about their jobs,” Harris told Prokopeak in a keynote Q&A.

“Do I like my job? Do I like my boss? Do I feel good about the way that I've been treated? Am I in my best and highest use? So I believe that this is what has been fueling the outflow of people from the job market.”

What does that mean for employers? If employees have this opportunity to engage in deeper reflection about their careers, how can company leaders respond? Determine your value proposition, Harris said, and ask why your employees should give you so much of their time and investment.

“There are emerging competitors. There are new ideas, innovative companies that are being created to disrupt you and they might offer a better value proposition,” Harris said. “You need to be able to articulate what's the value proposition, and it is not just money.”

Related Article: 5 Takeaways from the Fall 2021 Digital Workplace Experience Conference

Building the Plane While Flying

Siobhan Fagan, Reworked managing editor, led a panel discussion on organizational resilience on the first day of the conference. The last two years, she said, have been a crash course on the topic.

“It’s reminded us of the importance of flexibility, responsiveness, agility and resilience in the face of unexpected forces,” Fagan said. “But these qualities were already in high demand before the pandemic arrived.”

These problems became increasingly more complex. Response times diminished. The market fluctuated daily and employees increasingly asked for more flexibility in how and where they worked, she added.

Organizational resilience needs to happen at every level of a business in order to bear fruit, Fagan said, adding, “It's asking a business to fundamentally rethink at a high level how work gets done. Some call it building the plane while flying.”

Related Article: 7 Takeaways from the Digital Workplace Experience Summer Conference

Organizations Can’t Break Trust

The last two years demonstrated the resiliency of just about every organization, according to Kevin Martin, chief research officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

“For organizations to maintain it,” he said, “they're going to have to really think about their structure. They're going to have to think about, are they embracing the change that employees, and really the market is, dictating, and they're going to need to demonstrate it.”

It's an open question whether the resilience that people and organizations tapped into over the last couple of years will serve the purpose and mission of what they are doing for the long haul. That will require continuing to build on the trust they have created.

“And so for organizations not to break that trust, they have to break through, especially at the executive level, their desire to want to get things back to normal,” Martin said. “And they're going to have to drive the change that needs to be seen, and they're going to have to listen, and consider what their employees want because the employees have a voice, and it's good for business when that's taken into consideration.”

James Dellow, modern work architect for Engage Squared, said the last two years in the workplace are an opportunity for companies to build resilience and improve employee communications. Not all have succeeded, he added, but there is hope.

“After a couple of years, there are organizations actually trying to bake in resilience, and they're actually doing active things,” Dellow said. “... So they do have that resilience that, not knowing where this pandemic will end up, but also realizing that there might be something else that comes around the corner that we need to be prepared for. So it's been a huge catalyst for change."

Related Article: 6 Takeaways from the Spring Digital Workplace Experience Virtual Conference

Making Room for Reflection and Questions

Andrew Pope, owner and consultant at Designing Collaboration, said organizations did a good job at maintaining productivity throughout the last two years. However, he added, many had trouble with knowing where to pause, step back and reflect on the big picture.

“We're assuming that because we're working, this is good,” Pope said. “We're doing meetings, this is good. We're delivering the tasks to deliver, this is good. But actually, are we doing these well? Should we be doing these at all? And I think we lost the ability to reflect and to adapt quickly.”

The next stage in developing resilience, he said, will be to build in natural barriers to help us reflect and potentially change directions. Trust will be key because that's what will empower workers to have conversations about what isn't working, why they do what they do, and to stop doing things that seem pointless, he added.

“People haven't really been able to surface these things," Pope said. "And maybe the office had perhaps a more natural feel to be able to stop and be challenged on something, whereas if you don't see your colleagues, that sense of being challenged perhaps is not so much there.”

Related Article: 10 Takeaways from the Winter 2021 Digital Workplace Experience Conference

Examining the Frictions in Your Workplace

Loran Nordgren, professor at The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and author of the book "The Human Element," said organizations often try to drive change by bringing new elements into the workplace. But they frequently forget to think about the friction underlying resistance to change. Organizations pursue change by adding more energy and resources to their efforts.

“We apply a lot of fuel. We show people the benefits, the promise, the value,” Nordgren said. “And it is only once problems arise that we might begin to reluctantly consider what's getting in the way.”

We are best positioned to remove these frictions, whether they are short term or enduring, if we can anticipate and identify them before an initiative begins, Nordgren added.

“So when you're thinking about the changes you might make — whether it's a one-off interaction or an enduring behavior that you're trying to create — you might think about, how can I start building friction into my analysis before we begin to create change?” Nordgren said. “Because often the habit is in these enduring activities. People aren't doing what you want. You're meeting resistance, morale is declining, etc."

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