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The Online Office

May 26th, 2015 by

Creating a virtual layer on top of the real-life office environment can strengthen your business’ ability to implement change.

How can you create large-scale engagement in the office? When a new direction for the business has been decided, what can end up happening is that everyone gets excited about it for a couple of days, but then things go back to the way they were before. As any good manager knows, culture trumps strategy, so if you really want to create change in the organisation, you have to get under the skin of the culture.

Creating an online community for employees can be a powerful solution to this problem, and can be done by using social media tools to generate change in a business. Research from management consultancy McKinsey’s has found four elements required to generate large-scale engagement among the workforce: a firm grasp on the culture and social dynamics; understanding what triggers new behaviour; willingness to deviate from a top-down approach; and embracing digital activities to compliment offline events.

“Those attributes are often absent, so we find many companies struggle to maintain the momentum of initiatives to encourage broad- and digitally based employee involvement,” wrote Arne Gast, principal at McKinsey’s. Creating an online community where employees can communicate across department and ranks can be a powerful solution to this, as ‘Facebook at Work’ and other social tools for business tap into our natural instincts to communicate.

“Digital tools to facilitate networking and collaboration propel these ‘horizontal’ cascades, which at their best can weave new patterns of engagement across geographic and other organisational boundaries,” wrote Gast. “In this way, they make it possible to have new conversations around problem solving, unlock previously tacit knowledge, and speed up execution.”.

Creating a digital layer to office activities has extra benefits. It enables a company to become truly flexible. Having a policy where employees can set their own hours is all well and good, but when everybody knows the best projects are handed to those who make friends at the watercooler, it’s not really useful to anyone. While there are challenges, there are ways to ensure that having a work culture that’s truly remote-work-enabled isn’t a sacrifice.

Nick Francis, co-founder at Help Scout, a web-based helpdesk service company, advises that a remote culture is something that a company should consider carefully. “It will undoubtedly make your job harder,” he says. “Remote teams require more organisation, better communication, and a high level of proactive transparency from you. […] When an office culture makes exceptions for remote people, rather than embracing remote culture wholeheartedly, it doesn’t work. People in the office end up having access to information that remote people don’t have. On the other hand, remote culture clicks when everyone has access to the same information.”.

That means most of the communication within Help Scout happens via the same chat tools, regardless whether someone is in the office or not. Documents are shared via tools like DropBox, while bosses schedule routine one-on-one catch-ups with people to make sure everyone’s on the same page. The key element for this system to work is transparency: only when everyone has access to all the same material can every employee give their best, regardless of location. Failure to ensure transparency is also one of the main reasons why remote cultures fail, according to Francis. However, there is an argument as to why even in-house staff might find this transparency refreshing: if assignments are made on merit, rather than who tells the loudest jokes at the Friday lunchtime drinks or in the smoking shelter, the sting could be taken out of office politics.

Online communities and remote working will favour people who able to write well. Francis admitted that millennials really don’t like the phone, or rather, they love the phone but not for voice calls, preferring to use text, email, Facebook, Snapchat. This may not necessarily be a bad thing as there’s something quite polite about email: if you email someone they can read it when it’s convenient for them, and then get back to you when they want. The phone on the other hand, ringing loudly and insistently, rudely demands attention right here and now.

Phone calls declined by over 10% last year, according to Ofcom’s 2014 report on the communications market, and continues the migration from voice calls since 2011. The average UK adult now spends 8 hours 41 minutes on communication (although this figure includes all media use, including TV), as opposed to the average amount of sleep that we get: 8 hours 21 minutes. Bosses may still personally prefer the phone over chat, but one thing is certain: the millennials are growing up, and they’re taking their social media habits into the workplace.

Young people are are happy to communicate, but by their ways. They will want to communicate with their co-workers using chat, not play some dreary game of voicemail tag.

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