Sam Marshall Get Reworked Podcast on Digital Transformation

Get Reworked Podcast: Sam Marshall on Why You Can't Buy Your Way to Digital Transformation

December 15, 2020 Digital Workplace
Siobhan Fagan
By Siobhan Fagan, Mike Prokopeak

Sam Marshall of ClearBox Consulting on Get Reworked Podcast
The last year has given us a lot of baggage to unpack. 2020 saw, among other things, the rapid adoption of digital workplace tools and a fundamental rework of our concept of how work gets done.

For many workers the digital workplace is the new office, said Sam Marshall of ClearBox Consulting. "They don't get the benefit of going to that major edifice that you've erected with the nice polished tiles and so on," Sam said. "They engage with you through digital channels so you better make that good because it's maybe 80% of the opinion that they form about your organization."

Sam has seen a lot in his 20-plus years in the digital workplace. In this episode of Get Reworked, he brings some much-needed clarity to our messy reality and unpacks what it all means as we head into the uncharted territory ahead.

Highlights of this conversation include:

  • Why you can’t just buy your way to digital workplace transformation.
  • What remote and hybrid working means for the way businesses operate.
  • How shadow IT operations can be a source of agility and innovation.
  • How the digital workplace is breaking down barriers between the office and the front line.

The bottom line? It’s the dawn of a new era. Don’t squander this opportunity to remake work. Plus, co-hosts Siobhan Fagan and Mike Prokopeak explore why we’re not all that different from baboons when it comes to our work behavior. Listen in to find out more.

Have a suggestion, comment or topic? Drop us a line at [email protected]

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Show Notes

Sam's Company Page: ClearBox Consulting
Twitter: @sammarshall
Reworked Author Page: Sam Marshall
Featured Article: Employee Apps Emerge to Engage Frontline Workers

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to Get Reworked, your guide to the revolution of work. My name is Mike Prokopeak and I'm editor in chief at

Siobhan Fagan: And I'm Siobhan Fagan, managing editor for Reworked. At, we're dedicated to covering the people, the culture, the technology and the infrastructure that makes up our quickly evolving workplaces.

Mike: Get Reworked is our podcast where you're going to hear from industry pioneers leading the way into the future of work, reshaping not just how we work but also why. We're excited to bring you conversations about best practices, workplace trends and key technologies that support the modern distributed workforce.

Mike: Hey Siobhan, how are you?

Siobhan: I'm doing alright. How are you doing today, Mike?

Mike: I'm good. We're getting close to the end of the year end of 2020. Believe it or not and it's been quite a year, don't you think?

Siobhan: Well, March lasted about 400 days. So yeah, this felt definitely a lot longer than other years. And I think most of us will be very happy to close the door on 2020.

Mike: We'll be happy to close the door. But it's actually been a pretty fascinating year for the digital workplace, which is the topic of our conversation today. We've seen some pretty dramatic changes when it comes to the operating model behind how we work and why we work. And our guest today, Sam Marshall, has quite a bit of experience to be able to provide some insight and perspective on that. As you think about the digital workplace, what have you seen as big changes this year in the way that we're working and perhaps accelerants to the way we're working?

Siobhan: I would say that the fact that we all so readily changed to a, in many cases, 100% remote workforce with, you know, a few bumps here and there, but by and large smoothly is fascinating. And I don't think that anybody would have predicted it in advance, although we could in hindsight, see a lot of those preparations in years past.

So, for me, it's just been a great time to see how readily companies will embrace certain ways of working when really forced to. What about you, Mike?

Mike: Yeah, I think it's been an interesting year for me personally. I started with Simpler Media Group and Reworked in June. So, I suppose I practiced a lot of aspects of digital working before but to actually go through and start a new job purely in a digital workplace … you and I haven't actually met face to face, other than over video screens, yet in six months of working together now.

So that's been pretty interesting to go through this experience of onboarding to a new job, getting to know new teammates, figuring out ways to work that are using digital tools natively versus really relying on in-office conversations or that sort of water cooler-level onboarding that was pretty standard practice for a lot of jobs. So it's been pretty fascinating for me personally. And I think there's a lot of folks who are in that same place.

Siobhan: Living the actual experience as it's happening. It's true. I mean, even for me, who has been working remotely for nine years now, I noticed a dramatic change in how we as an organization were interacting in the introduction of dogs to almost every video meeting that we had, and a lot of different ways where I think that everyone grew a lot more aware of everyone's personal situation when it came to working from home and a lot more accepting in certain ways.

Mike: Do you remember BBC Dad? Remember how big of a deal that was? I think he was on BBC being interviewed live on some sort of geopolitical issue, I think, it may have even been North Korea. He was a North Korean expert, and then his kids sort of busted in the room. That was a unique thing. Everybody was sort of fascinated by it. And now having your kid bust into a meeting, that's just a Monday.

Siobhan: Yeah, we are all BBC Dad now.

Mike: We're all BBC Dad. Speaking of BBC Dad, we've got a guest today from the UK, who I think is a great person to talk through this topic, Sam Marshall. He's somebody that we have worked with for quite a while at Simpler Media Group. He writes regularly for us at and somebody that you've had a really good, productive working relationship with, right Siobhan?

Siobhan: Yeah, I've had the pleasure of working with Sam for years now. He continuously educates me with his column every month and It's just been a real pleasure having him as a regular contributor.

Mike: So we're eager to get Sam on the podcast today. So with that, let me go ahead and bring him in. Are you ready, Siobhan?

Siobhan: I am ready, Mike.

Mike: Alright, let's get reworked.

It's my pleasure to welcome to Get Reworked Sam Marshall. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Marshall: Hi there, thank you very much for inviting me. I’m very much looking forward to this conversation.

Mike: So a little bit of background about Sam. Sam is the owner of ClearBox Consulting. They're a digital workplace and internet consulting firm. Sam has spent 20 years in the digital workplace industry, which is a remarkable amount of time for an industry that hasn't really been around that long. Sam has also done a lot of work with some pretty large companies in the digital workplace arena, companies like AstraZeneca, Sony, GSK, Vodafone, and actually worked at Unilever.

So Sam, I want to start with how you got into the digital workplace. Because doing a little bit of digging on your background, you actually studied psychology. I'm wondering how you made the jump from psychology into technology in the digital workplace.

Sam: Yeah, so I guess the thing is no kid said to their parents, when I grow up I want to work in digital workplaces. So we're on an equal footing with that. And my psychology degree, I studied baboon behavior.

And then I went on to do artificial intelligence and built robots out of Lego, and do AI systems control nuclear submarines. So to me that is just the perfect fast track career for talking about digital workplaces because it's as complex as just about anybody else's who got into this space.

But the trigger really was, I was working knowledge management at Unilever. And as it went into the post hype trough of disillusion, I started to feel like, well, how do I carry on having these important conversations with people when they don't want to hear the phrase, knowledge management. And it was intranets that people were interested in because they recognized that they didn't have that technology and they recognized that it was something that would help them do their jobs. So I shifted into intranets and carried on actually talking about knowledge and how people collaborate, but under the guise of this technology front.

Mike: So that's probably a good point for us to get out front here and ask you how you define the digital workplace because, you know, maybe you're working baboons behavior may actually be illuminating here, as far as human behavior in the digital workplace. But how do you define it?

Sam: So very pragmatically, I think that digital workplace is the online equivalent of everything we need to do our jobs. And I know that it's a bit wishy washy. But when you say to someone, what do you mean by workplace? We're OK with the fact that for some people that mean, it might mean an office and for others, it could be a whole campus, or it could be that you work from your truck or in a retail outlet.

And for the digital workplace, we should be as widespread and agnostic as well. But if you want a more precise definition, then at Clearbox, we have a digital workplace framework, which Siobhan has published several of my blog posts in the past. And basically we say, the digital workplace is composed of five capabilities or services that it gives the organizations. So not technologies, but capabilities or services. And these are communication and engagement, collaboration, finding and sharing, business applications so that might be your databases and CRM systems but also employee services, and lastly, support for agile working so being productive anytime, anyplace.

Mike: How did they all start to come together? Because I think a lot of those things were separate pieces of it. How did this all sort of come together into the digital workplace concept? What shaped that arc of conversation? What are the drivers behind that?

Sam: You're generous in saying that they all came together because in a lot of organizations they still haven't come together. That is kind of the challenge in digital workplaces is treating this in a joined-up manner rather than seeing it as 30 separate threads.

Mike: You're saying that the siloed reality of many organizations is actually a fact? Is that what you're saying?

Sam: I'm sure every HR department sits right next to it, and they all go for lunch, and they'll strenuously align their strategies for the next three years. But there might be one or two organizations that are still lagging in that regard, Mike.

Mike: Yeah. One or two.

Siobhan: Yes, outliers.

Mike: So OK, it's a bit more of a promise then at this point rather than a reality.

Sam: Well, no, I mean, in some organizations it absolutely is a reality. It’s just to adopt the phrase a little bit, the digital workplace is unequally distributed across different organizations.

Siobhan: It's a messy reality for some, is what you're saying?

Sam: It is. And it's always going to be a work in progress. Because the way in which the digital workplace is realized is changing rapidly. So for a lot of organizations, maybe 10 years ago, email would have been a big part of it. And they might have had like SAP or Oracle systems, that would have been a big part of it.

But now, I'm sure we're going to talk about things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The expectation of what a digital workplace looks like keeps shifting. So there's always work to be done to keep on top of that. But there's also lots of work to be done to align how these things are delivered as services rather than just technology. So not about installing the software or getting the licenses, but actually saying, how is that going to help us operate effectively as a company by using all these different tools together.

So Mike, you asked about what shaped this arc and for me, when I was working at Unilever, and we're talking about 2004,2005, we'd rolled out the first global intranet that Unilever had. So we've got all that alignment in terms of publishing pages and reference information and the place where people would go to do kind of document-based collaboration.

And we sat back and we said, “Well, OK, this is great but actually, most people don't know or care where the intranet stops and other things take over.” They click on a link, they claim their expenses and to us in IT we know that's a different system. But to them, it still feels like the one portal.

So the post intranet project was talking about new ways of working, and say, well, it doesn't really matter if they book a meeting room through Outlook or they do it on the intranet or we've got a dedicated system. What matters is that we recognize that all these things that employees need to do, and to say, are there ways in which we can be more effective by digitizing those and integrating them. So that's where those five services come from, is the idea that what are the common things that need to interact and be planned holistically in order to get a good outcome for employees.

Siobhan: Sam, you've mentioned a number of different tools that we're all familiar with in the digital workplace space. And I am wondering why then you argue that the digital workplace isn't something that you can buy.

Sam: Because what really matters is that the digital workplace is a concept. And you can't buy a concept. So you can buy components of it, you know, and the technologies are tangible, but that everybody understands and you can point to. But it's a bit like saying, you can rent an office and you can buy desks, and you can buy chairs but that in itself doesn't give you a great workplace. A great workplace emerges from how you design and how you operate within it. And it's the same with buying the tools, rolling out Microsoft 365 doesn't give you a digital workplace. It gives you the basis on which you can create a digital workplace.

Siobhan: So you're basically saying I can't roll up to the takeout window and say, give me one of those digital workplaces to go.

Sam: I’m afraid not.

Siobhan: Bummer. Alright.

Mike: I tried that this weekend. It didn't work.

Siobhan: Yeah, I know it’d probably be too filling anyway.

Sam: And if you think about it, when you talk to employees about what matters to them in their digital workplace. They'll talk about information, communication, collaboration, access to knowledge. It's much more about the practices and indeed even things like the information management culture that you have on top of it that makes or breaks it. Because everybody can get Office, everybody can get SharePoint and so on now, and yet you see users of Microsoft 365, just to dwell on that, users of Microsoft 365. Some companies are massively successful with it. Other companies much less so. So it can't be the software that's constant in all this.

Siobhan: Why don't we fast forward to today. Looks a little bit different than when you started in this space. And obviously, this year has been a banner year in many ways, but also specifically for the digital workplace. So what positives have you seen come out of the remote work disruption that came along when the pandemic arrived?

Sam: So things really move fast this year, haven’t they? I think there's both a strategic good and a tactical good that's come out of it. And the tactical good is that it's created a critical mass of people who've gone through that initial rocky stage of working remotely and collaborating digitally.

What I mean is that even a year ago, if you said, “Oh, we don't need to get together physically for this workshop, we can all dial into a zoom meeting.” You can be pretty sure that there'd be one person who would rock up and their headset didn't work or they didn't know how to unmute and someone have to kind of coach them through finding the unmute button. And 15 minutes in, the meeting hadn't really started. And people were feeling frustrated, not so much with the colleague, but forming the opinion that the technology didn't work.

And now, nobody really remembers that because we've all got it sorted. And therefore, meetings do start smoothly. And it's almost like we're no longer so conscious of the technology. And we're back to doing business, which is facilitated through this tech. So that's great, because I think it's effected many years of behavior change into a very short period.

And it means that, for example, if you've got like 70% of employees working in this way, you can assume it's a standard way of working. And you don't so much get people saying, “I know everybody else is using Teams but I don't really like Teams. Could you email the attachments to me?” and having to always kind of do like two track ways of working because not everybody was on board with these different habits.

And to me the big strategic benefit is that for years and years, I've done digital workplace and intranet strategies and it's gone to the management team for approval. And someone, not pointing the finger at finance but someone normally in finance, says, “What's a business case for this? Have you quantified the return on investment?”

I don't think back in March this year, many people were saying, “Before we go ahead and give everybody teams, what's the return on investment for this? I'm not sure we should do it.” So to answer that question. And the answer really always was about risk and business continuity and viewing it not as being an investment that generates a profitable return, but instead being a necessary cost of doing modern business.

Mike: Sam, did that rapid adoption surprise you? I mean, obviously, it was surprising perhaps that finance folks said OK, yes, they kind of opened the wallet to pay for all of it. Maybe that was a little bit surprising but not really when you look at what was happening in the world at that point. Were there things that you had been working on for years that you were just honestly surprised at the way it played out over the last seven, eight months?

Sam: I've been a little bit surprised at how readily organizations have taken things like Microsoft Teams. the ones who were planning to roll out Microsoft Teams around the fall of this year and brought it forward and said, “We launched it and everybody got on great with it.” Because in the past, the success with Microsoft Teams has been a little bit more mixed. There's normally IT love it and then spreading out from there by the time you get to the more periphery of the organization some people really don't like it. But of course, we were suddenly in a situation where everybody could feel the benefits immediately in a way that maybe they couldn't feel the benefits if they were routinely going into the office.

I've also been really surprised just again to talk about technology that Zoom came out so far ahead. When you think that there were so many established tools like WebEx, GoToMeeting, even good old fashioned Skype for Business that were already deeply ingrained in organizations and yet, it was the Zoom tool that seemed to be the hero of the day. And my conclusion is it's the strong UX of Zoom that made it so successful and and actually overtake the entrenched players.

Siobhan: Well, when you don't have to download the app, not pointing fingers ...

Mike: Every single time.

Siobhan: I don’t know. It makes it a little easier.

Sam: But you'd think that was obvious wouldn't you, to the software makers. That this thing is a barrier, especially when so many people have locked down machines and they can't just install software without raising a ticket with IT.

Mike: And I think that raises the point, the Zoom example does, that really the experience piece of it is really maybe one of the big differences right now in the way that we're rolling this out, is that that has been built into many of these platforms now to make it easy for the end user, not for the it functionality. Obviously there has to be the structural and security behind it but actually that front end usability is perhaps what accelerated this rollout in the last few months.

Sam: Microsoft deserves credit for having a much stronger focus on the user experience and they had maybe four or five years ago. But it's certainly a trend that we've seen in the digital workplace over the last three or four years that the consumer grade experience that everybody's used to, is really percolating much more into business software. And finally, companies seem to have got that because probably so many of the customers are nervous about shadow IT. And employees start using consumer devices and consumer applications because they just work and they’re so much easier. And it's really hard to take it off them and replace it with something which has a dreadful user experience. So this is why the software manufacturers have had to up their game a little bit and make it more friendly.

Mike: Sam, you mentioned shadow IT. Can you define that really quickly for us?

Sam: Yeah, so it's an unofficial use of technology in the workplace. So it might be, for example, Whats App or Facebook Messenger, which is intended for consumers, but instead used for business purpose,

Siobhan: I’m wondering how IT departments can get ahead of that. So while I know they can take inspiration once shadow IT is in place, how can they actually discover those employee needs in advance and then turn that into an actionable plan that will work for very diverse workplaces?

Sam: Well, because I'm not a security officer, I can actually say I quite like Shadow IT.

Mike: You don't have to worry about it.

Siobhan: No, it's obviously a clear sign.

Sam: But the great thing about shadow IT is that it basically gives you a beta test for free. And it used to be that if you wanted to see if a piece of software would go down well in your organization, and that involved installing on lots of people's different devices, that was quite a high cost thing to do. So companies didn't. They just went through enormously painful requests for proposals and kind of procurement steps instead.

So what's great about shadow IT is that even if it's not robust enough or secure enough for business use, it allows people to play with this and establish what the business benefits are, you know, establish what the use case might be where they would apply it to their work.

So I would say, have a kind of, can I say glasnost, or maybe that sounds way too old, an openness about being OK for people to acknowledge that they're using shadow IT. But then also be really agile about swapping out and saying, “Well, enough, people are using this and we can see why it's handy for them that we're going to find a business grade replacement.”

But, Siobhan, you said about anticipating those needs and I think a lot of that is, again about having an agile approach about not just IT, but hopefully a digital workplace unit within an organization develops a backlog of business request and works through that backlog by doing sprints or doing pilots where they're testing out constantly testing things out. And making sure we don't go back into that old trap of the business says it wants something and it goes into the IT annual funding round. And 18 months later, they solve it only for the business to say, Oh, sorry, we moved on. Now, we don't need that anymore.

That to me is the way to really kind of stay on top of requirements. You can do discovery work. We do a lot of surveys and focus groups and things. And that's great when you're doing long term planning. But it's also really hard sometimes for people to anticipate what they're going to need further down the line. Or even that what they're doing with a consumer grade app is something that you would want to know about.

So that's why I'm actually talking to people and asking them how they're working right now and what they use is a good way to reveal those things.

Mike: Sam, are you concerned as we move past this moment we're in right now? So you know, we're obviously in a remote work situation for many folks particularly in office jobs, but the prospect is sometime in 2021, maybe not as soon as we hope but not too far into the future, we can see it, that people will be back in the office and in fact may be eager to get back into the office because of what we've gone through. Are you concerned that we'll see a snap back to some of the traditional or more conservative approaches to the digital workplace as we move into that environment?

Sam: I think there will be some people who are just waiting for us to go back to normal. And that normal is unlikely to happen.

What's probably a bit of a risk is that we won't go consciously into a designed hybrid future. But it will just happen that some people go back to work and routine in the office. And some people who have had a taste of freedom and and working from home very much resist going back into the office.

And if you don't manage that, what will happen is that the ones who go back into the office will probably be the extroverts that like the buzz or like the social engagements. And they will stop having conversations online and go back to having conversations around the coffee pot.

And the ones who really enjoyed working from home will be the ones who are more kind of heads down and almost will go back into the cave and lose the connectivity they had from everybody working digitally, as they are now. Organizations - they need both personality types - they absolutely need that range and diversity of approaches and thinking in order to solve business problems. So it's almost like, if you let people self select into a hybrid working reality, you create silos of different work styles, and you'll be worse off from that point of view.

Siobhan: I've seen a lot of chatter about taking a remote-first approach to this hybrid future where you're basically treating every interaction the same way that we've been operating in the last year, do you see that as a possible option to keep those less exuberant employees in the conversation?

Sam: There's gonna be a continuum, you know, every organization is different. And the optimum point on that continuum from all in-person to all-remote will very much depend on the nature of their business and the work culture within the business as well.

So every organization needs to be designed for this hybrid future. And what I see is there's a kind of a 5-step set of macro changes that are likely to happen on the back of the experience we've had.

So we're seeing lots of evidence now of CFO, CEO saying, yes, we expect to permanently offer working from home. So I think that that is a given now that most people will only work part time in an office.

But then we’ve seen lots of people saying, well, this made me realize that the amount of time I spent on the subway or sat in the car commuting to work every day, it just wasn't necessary. And what we're seeing, for example, in London, is that rents are going down in the city center. But in the countryside, the rents are going up because lots of people want to move out and have a more rural lifestyle.

So then I can see, there'll be a growing demand for rural co-working spaces where people who want the social contact won't go into the office where they're surrounded by people in the same company but they get the social contact from going to a local co-working space with a diversity of people. So that means we've got to think through things like security and confidentiality but also almost where people's loyalties lie so the loyalty remains with the company and not with the fellows in the co-working space.

And then once you've got that, people can start thinking about portfolio careers as well. So because I don't have to go into one building 40 hours a week, why do I have to do all of my working hours for the same company? And I suspect unfortunately, this year and into next year, we will see a lot of downsizing, redundancy happening. So that'll shift even more people into freelance self employment models. In the US, it's already pretty big. It's about 35%. In the UK, it's growing about 50% in the next 10 years, but they predict that that could easily double to about 30% in the next year to come.

So now what we’ve got are people not coming to the office, where they're working for multiple people, and possibly, that you'll have a high turnover of people next year. So that to me says, from an HR point of view, we need to get really good about remote onboarding and thinking about different ways of retaining people, engaging them in our organization.

But also, one of the big bugbears, in terms of how we design our digital workplaces is that they're not really good at being semi-permeable. So too often you're either an employee inside the firewall or you're a supplier outside the firewall. And I really feel for some of our clients at Clearbox because when we say to like a project manager who’s working with us, can you give us access to your internet, they can spend hours and hours just trying to navigate what it means to get permission for an outsider to see an internal system.

So if employers are going to be using freelancers and contractors a lot more, we need to get very slick at onboarding them, letting them see enough of our internal systems to do the job for us, and then making sure that when they move on, we don't leave that door open behind them.

Mike: It seems like Slack and others have started down that path of being able to bring people in but there's obviously going to be some more work to be done there. Are you hopeful?

Sam: I am hopeful. Yes. Because the fact that a lot of investment has been made in helping people collaborate who are not sat on an internal network, you know, physically people plugged into the LAN has been a big step forward and has accelerated the use of cloud-based services and cloud-based services are innately better at finding that semi-permeable balance. It's looking good. But again, it's going to take more conscious effort because again, it's a little bit about the technology, but it's a lot about comfort with managing the risk and about having the right policies and governance in place.

Mike: It's interesting, because I remember Jack Welch talking about the borderless organization in GE back in then, maybe it was the late 80s, early 90s. But I don't think he was thinking about it in the terms that we're talking about. He was thinking about it, you know, internally and making the conglomerate that was GE work in a borderless, siloless fashion. But it seems like what his insight was, was that this is the way we operate. It's not a system, it's not a technology. This is a mindset that we need to have in order to be successful as an organization.

Sam: Yeah, a lot of this has been around for a long time talking about organizations as internal marketplaces, and being able to, for example, source your services from another internal department or go out to the market and source it from them instead, very fluid. But crikey, when you actually get to the nuts and bolts of trying to engage in that way within an organization, all the legacy barriers of procurement and the way in which we set up security for access to information, they just grind things to a halt.

And I hope that this is the start of a new dawn where finally, those different operating models become available to us.

Siobhan: Well, I mean, you don't want to rush it, it's only been about 20-30 years now, Sam, so give them some time to wrap their heads around it.

Sam: Siobhan, if the day I retire and everything becomes perfect, I'll retire a happy man.

Siobhan: So what you're talking about now with the external collaborators, and bringing them in makes me think of how in the brief history of digital workplaces, the view of the workforce was quite homogenized, and really approached it just as these knowledge workers who are sitting at a desk and typing away and accessing the internet and getting frustrated by their enterprise search.

And you've brought up recently in one of your articles, the question of frontline workers and the frontline worker apps that are now actually delivering for this other part of the workforce. I was hoping you could talk about that a little more.

Sam: I just find this such a fascinating and important area. And probably the first thing to say is why is it come to the fore now, because there's been a massive growth in software, so the employee app space, but also people recognizing the role that frontline workers have to play.

And the subtle revolution has been that we've equipped frontline workers digitally in a way that we haven't before. So what I'm hearing whenever I talk to clients is they're saying, we've just given iPads to all of our sales workers, or we've got a Bring Your Own Device Policy now so all the guys in the warehouse can log in from their personal smartphones and interact with us.

And I'm not sure how much that was designed rather than incidental coming about from people saying, well, what's a more efficient and cost effective way for us to get expense claims, for example, or log working hours. But what it’s done is open up this communication channel to a vast new segment of our workforce. And in a lot of organizations, the majority of people were frontline workers, warehouse workers, the ones who are in retail and the shop front and so on. And they have this vast amount of insight and knowledge.

For example, you're in retail and you're interested in how your customers are reacting to a new product launch. It’s the guys on the sales floor who are seeing the faces of the customers and hearing that feedback. But it's only now that we've really been able to practically tap into the things that they have to say and feedback to the head office about new product launches.

Or if you're an engineer who does maintenance on products that you create, if you're a manufacturer, it's fascinating because you can come up with a new product and test it in the lab and so on. But it's only really how it survives in the field and the kind of fixes that the engineers do and talking to the customers about how they actually use that piece of machinery that can give you great ideas about what you need to do for version two of that product. So customer feedback, ideas, problems, solutions that are seen in the field. These are all really exciting, new things that we can bring into our digital workplaces.

But the employee apps as a kind of software segment in itself is quite telling about the barriers that we face. So just for example, getting people into systems can be quite challenging.

So a lot of your frontline workers, for example, might be temporary hires. In agriculture, a lot of the seasonal workers will only work for you for the time it takes pick the crops, and then they move on. So it goes back to what I was saying before, it's really important that you can get people into your systems easily and take them off again when you need to. How do you do that with maybe 10,000 workers where you don't have their email, and you don't want to ask for their personal email.

So the employee app vendors have been quite smart and said we can do QR codes in the pay slip for everybody. You can include a QR code, they can scan it on their phone, it will download the app, and it'll lock them in.

Or we can really federate the account creation process to all the team leaders. So each team leader can for the 10 people that work for them do a password reset, because it's likely that the people would forget that password or forget where that thing was again. So why make it hard for them to do the basic administration when the team leader knows who they are and they can do that kind of trust.

Or indeed Kaizala, which is one of Microsoft products, which you know, it's going to fade out again but it had some smart ideas. In Kaizala, you could use a GPS on the smartphone to say, anybody who's within 100 meter radius can take part in this conversation. So if you're in the middle of the warehouse and you've got a 10 minute stand-up, and you want people to ask questions, you switch on that geo fence to say if you're within this radius, then you can join in the conversation.

It's really smart thinking about not only how can we bring down the barriers, but how do we make more use of the fact that smartphones are not just a small screen but it has GPS sensors and gyroscopes and cameras and video cameras and things to help people participate in their digital workplace, which gets away from keyboard and typing is better suited to a small screen by doing videos and vlogs and so on instead.

Mike: Sam, if I can come back to the larger point that you're making, which is this is really about a change in how we manage and behave. Because I think a lot of companies look at digital workplace apps or digital workplace programs as benefits for the employee versus a management model. I think of a friend of mine, he's an office worker but he had to go back into the office and the only reason, the only justification that the bosses gave to him to be back in the office and all of his teammates was, well, the people in the factory they never got to work from home.

There's this sort of idea that it's a benefit that employees have this ability to work in the digital workplace. How do you overcome some of that legacy thinking? Do you have advice, tips and ways that companies can try to push forward, push beyond some of the limited thinking that they have around the digital workplace?

Sam: The organizations that do this really well are the ones that are actually seeing value in employee experience in recognizing that in order to be an attractive employer, then people will perceive the quality of how you are as an employer increasingly through the digital experience.

So it used to be that if you said to someone is that a good place to work? We might talk about how nice the office is and how good the biscuits are when you have a cup of tea. That's a very English thing. I'll say cookies when you have your coffee — let me cross it over the Atlantic.

Mike: That's right. We had the Boston Tea Party for a reason.

Sam: Whereas now a lot of your employees, they don't get the benefit of going to that major edifice that you've erected with the nice polished tiles and so on. They engage with you through digital channels. So you better make that good because it's maybe 80% of the opinion that they form about your organization. And you better give them good hardware as well so that they feel that nothing is getting in the way of them doing a good job for you.

And if you succeed in being an attractive employer, then you still get the kind of return on investment that probably is the bottom line for a lot of these decisions of things like it being cheaper to hire people, and you retain knowledge for longer. And you get a better pick of candidates because more people are knocking on your door. The other side of it about saying it's a benefit and the employees should be grateful, it's a little bit like when you see the uniform when you sign up and they went, there's your uniform, but then you know, you're gonna have to give us $20 because this is a great thing that we're giving you.

Nobody really wanted that uniform. They just recognize it was a necessary part of doing the job. I think we need to understand that employees are a bit more savvy than we let on if we're just selling this as a benefit to them.

Siobhan: So Sam, we have a question from our senior reporter over here at Simpler Media Group, Dom Nicastro. And this is something for our audience, if you have a question for future guests, please send them to me. I am very active on Twitter or through LinkedIn. Dom's question is: For organizations that made successful pivots to 100% remote work back in the early days of the pandemic, what did they do well, and for those who struggled were there common roadblocks?

Sam: So the answer to the ones that did well probably isn't what people really want to hear. The ones that did well are the ones who have been working on this for like 10 years or so. I'm not sure they necessarily saw a pandemic coming but they did recognize a workforce that was more flexible and decoupled from physical locations will be more resilient, and probably one where people could work in a more natural way. And therefore, they are now benefiting from that technology investment that they've been building up towards.

But it's not just a technology investment. It's the practice behind it. So the organizations that found it really tough, they scrambled to put in place things like better VPN so you've got capacity to log into your systems remotely. They scrambled to roll out Microsoft 365 or Slack.

But then what people didn't have was the level of digital literacy to work well. And often, I think, you know, Zoom fatigue has been quite a theme over the last year, the ones who felt Zoom fatigue worst of all were in organizations that are just taking what they're always doing, that block of meetings that you had in your diary, and transferred it to doing exactly the same thing digitally. The successful organizations said how do we adapt the way in which we work to do what digital does best rather than almost struggling against the grain?

So I think probably, the blog post I did for you this year, that had the best responses was about how to make virtual workshops better than reality. And the answer to that is to say there are things that you can do digitally which are really hard to do face to face. For example, face to face often someone presents, everybody sits and listens. And then you do a few things on Post-It notes and you put them on the wall. They have a good conversation. And then you go back to another block of presenting. What you can't do when someone else is presenting is really actually have a conversation in parallel. But digitally, you can.

So in my workshops, for example, I'll say I'm going to show a few slides but make use of that chat channel to talk while I'm talking. Because we don't have to wait to take it in turns to say things. Actually, there are maybe phrases that someone might have used that you want to disambiguate. And you can do that at the same time. So it keeps everybody in the process or there might be people who in a face-to-face workshop would be really reluctant to put the hand up and ask a question or challenge a point. But they can use a back channel to say, hey Siobhan, I'm not sure that's right. Do you think it's right? And Siobhan would say I don't think it's right, either. And then I will feel boosted to the point of saying, "Can we just check that point that you made? Because we're not sure it's correct." 

All of those things are actually very positive ways of working digitally. But it requires us to maybe be more open in terms of the processes that we use and reflect a bit more on what is it that we need to do differently to other practices over and above having the tool in place.

Mike: Sam, Get Reworked, our podcast here, is about having conversations about the revolution of work that we're all living through. From your point of view, what is the revolution that you are most excited about?

Sam: The most exciting revolution that we're seeing now is that ability for people to pick and choose how they work in a way that they haven't done before. And when you decouple things like the need for a department to sit together in order to work together, you create loads of opportunities to say are there other ways in which we can optimize how we tackle this.

How often would it make sense, for example, to bring in six people from six different departments to swarm together just for 45 minutes to solve a problem. And yet, if you're still stuck in that traditional world of working then you think, well, we need to find a meeting room, and there's no meeting rooms available until a week from Friday, and then we need to get in everybody's diaries before we can do this because some people are on the road or we need to wait for them to come back from that trip. Everything gets quite turgid and slow when you take that as a constraint.

But in the digital workplace when everybody is equipped and comfortable with collaborating online, it's much more easier to do to bring people together and adapt the experience and the personalities that you have in the room in the digital sense, in order to solve problems, and then move on and keep reconfiguring.

And I think what we're going to see over the next maybe two or three years, is lots of organizations thinking that through and saying, what are the opportunities that are now opened up? Because we don't need to rely on fitting people into offices, or indeed, even necessarily working with people who have a permanent contract or long term contract. We can just bring someone in for a shorter term engagement. And who knows, that in itself might be a little bit like shadow IT. We have a contractor that works within a short period and we like them to extend it before you know it. They've been working with us on and off for the last five years.

Mike: Alright, so I've got to ask, because we just sort of went past this in the beginning about your background in psychology and studying baboon behavior. What can we learn from baboons?

Sam: I always thought if I was going to do a PhD, I would look at the politics of baboons and write a book called “Baboons in the Boardroom” because baboons are really good at the kind of manipulation and currying favor and all that kind of thing that happens within businesses. But they do it in the open, they to do it on the open savannah, so you can sit in your Jeep, and you can watch what they're doing and see who they're friends with and so on.

And for baboons, a lot of it they do by grooming and picking lice and eating things off of each other's fur and to a baboon apparently that's a heavenly thing to do. And what you get from that are quite subtle power structures. So that in future when a baboon wants a favor, they will draw in all that grooming that they've invested over the weeks or months beforehand to say, "Hey, come on, buddy, I need your support now because I'm trying to make this thing happen.” In business, it’s exactly the same. We just need to get better understanding how these different power structures and favors are at play in the social networks that we have in the workplace.

Mike: Well if you write that book, I'll certainly download it, buy it, read it.

Siobhan: I was gonna volunteer my services as a free editor. Personally, I want to see this happen.

Sam: OK, well, I just need to go to Africa for about three years and study some baboon colonies. And then I'll be right back.

Mike: We've got funding from the podcast to do that. Right, Siobhan?

Siobhan: Oh, yeah, there's ample budget. Definitely.

Sam: I just need a tent and some gasoline for the Jeep. It's not too bad.

Mike: Well Sam, I want to thank you for being our guest today. Thank you so much for joining us on Get Reworked.

Sam: An absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Mike: Well, that was great, Siobhan. A lot of really good stuff there from Sam, I guess, given the fact that he's been in this digital workplace industry for a couple decades makes a difference. And that's part of why I love doing this podcast is because we get to learn so much from people who have such a depth of experience.

Siobhan: I completely agree. I love hearing people like Sam talk because they really do have that perspective that says, "You know what, we've actually been working on this for a while." For me, when Sam was talking about how the digital workplace sort of transitioned this year from not being about the tools but about getting work done, just really was such a telling point. I mean, before that it was all about the ROI. And he's like no, it's about business continuity and that just really hit home for me.

Mike: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that cannot be stressed enough. The fact that this is not a technology solution to your workplace problems. I mean, yes, it is, in part technology. It's really about changing the way that we work as organizations and if we're going to be successful coming out of this, because you know, we are going to come out of this immediate situation, maybe not as fast as we hope, but it will happen. If we're going to be successful going into this next phase, we really have to take this opportunity to change how we work, not just the tools that we use and I think that's a message that came through loud and clear.

Siobhan: Absolutely. So it looks like we've got Episode 3 in the can, Mike.

Mike: We did it again. Thanks again to Sam. If you haven't had a chance to follow Sam yet. Be sure to follow him at @sammarshall on Twitter. And if you want to learn a little bit more about him and his work, you can go to

We encourage you to drop us a line at [email protected]. If you have a suggestion or a topic for a future conversation, we are all ears. Additionally, if you like what you hear, please post a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you may be listening.

And be sure to share Get Reworked with anyone that you think might benefit from these types of conversations. And then finally, be sure to follow us @GetReworked on Twitter as well. Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with us and we'll see you next time.



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