Screenshot of Safi Bahcall during his keynote presentation at the Digital Workplace Experience virtual conference. A slide next to his headshot says, "Why do good teams kill great ideas?"

6 Takeaways From the Spring Digital Workplace Experience Virtual Conference

May 17, 2021 Digital Workplace
By Dom Nicastro

Remember that massive, sudden shift to remote work about 15 months ago? Brace yourself, because things are about to get a lot more complicated in the workplace.

That was the driving theme from Mike Prokopeak, editor-in-chief at Reworked.co, in his opening keynote address during the May 13 Digital Workplace Experience virtual conference. The spring edition of the four-event 2021 series is now available on-demand. (Editor's note: Simpler Media Group is the parent organization for CMSWire, Reworked.co and the Digital Workplace Experience (DWX) conference).

"In 2020, in-office work gave way to remote work," Prokopeak said. "We adjusted. We invested. By and large we made it work. Now we get to see what comes next. Hybrid work, some form of in-office work combined with remote work, seems simple in theory. In practice, it's really tricky. It could very well be that a year from now we look back at that massive shift to remote work and say, 'That was the easy part.'"

Organizations must fuse technological advancements in the digital workplace with organizational know-how to get things done, Prokopeak added. "And do it fast. And do it right," he said. "That's why employee experience is so integral to all of this."

Here are some more takeaways from the DWX event. 

Why Good Teams Kill Great Ideas

Safi Bahcall, author of Loonshots, former consultant at McKinsey & Company co-founder and CEO of Synta Pharmaceuticals, discussed innovation and how good teams often kill great ideas in the workplace. Bahcall talked about the cliche of culture eating strategy for breakfast and how he thinks workplaces should flip that notion to "structure eats culture for lunch." 

So why do good teams kill great ideas? There is a constant tug o'war between forces. People are different. Teams are different. You have workplace dynamics where the focus on healthy projects and new ideas morphs into a focus on politics and how employees can individually advance. It goes from, "what ideas are most exciting to what ideas will get me promoted, and that's when good teams kill great ideas."

The trick is to balance your organization's "artists" with its "soldiers." The artists want to take risks and present new ideas constantly. Soldiers need to get things done on time, on budget and on spec without deviation. They often misunderstand each other and disagree on risk; artists see risk as a good thing whereas soldiers don't want a lot of risk.

"You want that tension," Bahcall said. "You need both."

The failure point of innovation, though, is never in the supply of new ideas. Put 10 people into a room for an hour with a stack of post-its and you get a 1,000 new ideas. "The failure point is in the transfer to the field," Bahcall added.

Managers and leaders must manage the touch and balance between the two groups. Manage the transfer of ideas and when to debut early-stage ideas and when it's too late. Love your artists and soldiers equally, he added, and don't let ideas die in the middle.

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

Headed Back to the Office? Incorporate Lessons Learned

As good as remote work may be for some organizations, the reality is most of the workplace is headed for a hybrid model. But no so fast...

Many employees are having anxiety over the next swooping set of changes pending in the workplace, according to Nate Butala, senior corporate communications associate at ZS Associates. Organizations need to be mindful of their employees' fears and concerns over more change.

However, Butala would like to see employees embrace the idea of change and consider another round of ways to work as a "fun experiment." How can we use everything we learned over the past year about how we work and apply that to the new model? Make those great new tools and software you've discovered and the processes your teams have gained and take that into the next wave of working, he added.

Creating a Smart Blend of Analog and Digital

Carrie Marshall, principal and CEO of Talk Social to Me, said the past year has been a "massive experiment" for the workplace, and that a lot of great working habits came out of it.

However, whether it's hybrid or fully remote or somewhere in between, organizations need to be really careful to make sure they don't focus too much on just the digital components that have worked, Marshall said.

"When an organization has a frontline workforce, or they have a workforce that is in a manufacturing plant, oftentimes the digital components that we're used to using right now and talking about aren't necessarily good for them," Marshall said. "So we have to make sure as we navigate this brand new world of work that the information that's flowing inside our digital platforms also makes it to the employees who maybe don't have access to a smartphone or a terminal or a computer in their job."

Blend the analog and the digital when we get back to work to make sure that the benefit of what we're doing online is extended to the people who don't have access to it, she added.

"If you're a manufacturing plant employee it's actually asking them how do you want to be communicated with, what are the ways that you want to access information," Marshall said. "... Once we find out how they want to hear information and from whom they want to hear it, then that helps you figure out as an organization and the communications leader the ways that you can get it to them. It might be something as simple as digital signage or as simple as getting information to managers for a pre-shift huddle. Those are some of the solutions that we've seen blend the digital and the analog quite well."

Related Article: What It Takes to Achieve Effective Collaboration in a Hybrid Workplace

Keeping Collaboration Momentum Going

As director of talent development for Lucasfilm, Danielle O’Hare drives talent strategy and planning for employees across global studios in San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Singapore and Sydney. Now try that in a pandemic. With studios all around the world, five primary locations, multiple time zones, they had to find improved ways to collaborate.

"When we shifted to working from home, all of a sudden, everybody was calling in, and I think it surprised all of us," O'Hare said. "All of a sudden, the playing field was kind of leveled and we were all sort of having the same kind of work experience. And I think that really shifted the way in which people felt like they could reach out, connect and really start to work together and collaborate."

O'Hare and the company doesn't want to lose that momentum built over the last 15 months as they move into the next phase of working. "We don't want to lose that collaboration that we found during work," O'Hare said.

She wants to continue the agile nature of finding ways to work. "I think iteration was a really important part of the process for us," she said. "It was almost kind of the agile process actually of iterating in small sprints, so it was sort of like trying something, experimenting with it to see if it was working. And if it was, keeping it and if not iterating again. "... We certainly have some best practices that we follow. But again, we're also really open, and I think we're mindful of the fact that things will change again so being flexible during this time has been really important to know what works for your team."

Say Bye, Bye To Traditional Hierarchies

At the outbreak of the pandemic, teams at Teach for America were gearing up for institute training. Putting people in housing and providing learnings. That wasn't happening with COVID-19 coming into the global picture, naturally, according to Brandon Potyrala, managing director of change management, training and communications at Teach for America.

They needed to get all those people in a room to start developing trainings, creating graphics and writing copy and content and curriculum. What did they learn fast? Get rid of some of the traditional hierarchies and bureaucracy.

"That was really necessary for us to open up the field of collaborative production," Potyrala said. "And so one of the things that we sort of learned was, it took a lot less time to produce a lot of the trainings, experiences, and content than it typically did. And a lot of the reason we think that is is because we stopped using or relying on those hierarchies or those bureaucracies, or the way those teams typically worked, and sort of freed people to aggregate around experts in different experiences."

When the teams removed some of those barriers, they saw collaboration among teams happen organically and naturally, "and that drove a huge amount of content development and really sort of created a better outcome for us in terms of a virtual training."

Better Governance, Better Employee Experiences

Susan Cummings, SVP, manager of digital workplace product management at Northern Trust Corporation, discussed how a governance model has been effective in determining digital workplace priorities. 

They've created groups around governance in the digital workplace:

  • Executive steering group: Works on oversight and alignment across product, technology, business, risk and security.
  • Business council: Studies employee voices who inform strategic direction and priorities and provide feedback
  • Governance council: The product and delivery team leaders and decision makers as well as a leader from reporting, security, data protection, risk and compliance and communication teams. They manage persistent change with a holistic view of the digital workplace.

Listening to the voice of the employee via the business council has been a critical aspect of the Northern Trust Corporation's growth in the digital workplace and with employee experience programs.

"The business council has been in place for five years so we've worked in lockstep with them," Cummings said. "So we asked them, 'What are your pain points? What's going well? What's not going well?' And everything we do is really with them... and we bring them with us on that journey... We did have to shuffle things and shift our priorities, and we've been working with them actually for a while now on rationalizing and streamlining, so it actually all came together really nicely this year."

Check out more information on upcoming DWX events.

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