Interpersonal relationships in the digital workplace

I’m included in this article on developing interpersonal relationships in the digital workplace published on the UNLEASH conference site.

Despite what the article suggests, I didn’t actually say that the US is behind the rest of the world – simply that each country / region experiences it’s own unique challenges.

Here’s the full interview:

Tell me a little about your professional background and organization

I am a consultant at The Social Organization and focus on helping companies develop innovative people strategies, often based on ensuring people are able to work together effectively.

I started my career in engineering and IT and when I came into HR started with an engineer’s perspective on designing and managing HR processes. But I was fortunate to get a job as HR Director for EY which even then was a very people focused, progressive firm. That experience led to a growing interest in organisation development and a desire to really understand people and the way we learn, become engaged, work together and perform. I still think that it is really important for HR professionals – understanding ‘the business’ is vital but our real difference comes from our understanding of the people within in. Technology is important too and I’ve maintained an interest in this since my days in IT (including an early involvement in UNLEASH’s original format, HR Tech Europe). Today’s digital workplace provides a major opportunity for HR to impact the business through people.

What are the biggest benefits and challenges of today’s digital workplace?

The digital workplace enables us to get work done differently and better, and most importantly, work done that we would not have been able to do before. This applies particularly strongly to communication and collaboration, analytics and AI. For example, in organisation design, the digital workplace is now one of the most important elements of an organisation, and can have as much if not more impact on people’s ability to work, as the structure and processes we use.

The most common challenge in using the digital workplace is that unlike most IT systems people generally do not need to use it to get their jobs done, as the benefits are often organisational rather than individual. People have therefore got to understand the needs and broader benefits in using it, and to be engaged in supporting their organisation by doing the right thing. This means that the digital workplace needs to be designed for people, meaning that we now need to be very serious about the employee experience resulting from its use. An area that often gets missed is that the digital workplace needs to align with, ie to support and inform, the rest of the organisation. The physical workplace is particularly important and the digital and physical workplaces need to encourage the same type of behaviours and provide a similar type of experience.

Why are interpersonal relationships important as teams grow more digital and/or remote?

Relationships have always been important. The most fundamental idea behind organisations is that a number of people working together can achieve more than the same number of people working on their own. But this will only be the case if their relationships enable them to do so. More recently, relationships have become even more important. The amount of knowledge available and being generated is leading to greater specialisation in people’s roles. At the same time, the issues confronting organisations are becoming increasingly complex. This leads to growing demands to bring various people with different skills and perspectives together in teams, other groups and networks.

These demands are only going to increase. As AI takes over a lot of work currently performed by people, the main area that will be left as our competitive advantage is the ability to have relationships with each other. Virtual and remote working make it more difficult to develop the quality relationships we need and therefore make this resource even more important. Put all of this together and we’ll soon need to start thinking less about people as knowledge workers, and more about ourselves as relationship workers, where relationships are the core aspect of what we do.

What tools or best practices can leaders employ to foster good interpersonal relationships in their digital workplace?

I think the key is to manage the implementation and maintenance of digital workplaces as organisation development interventions, not as IT. It is really critical to involve people, and to design for people. HR’s increasing interest in design thinking and its use of personas and journey mapping is really useful here. The implementation also needs to be supported by broader OD activities as, for example, it is easier for people to collaborate online if they know the people they are collaborating with offline too.

Other simple, human actions can make a big difference too, for example giving the workplace a human name that people can relate to. Community management is vital and is a great role for people in HR to take on. In many ways community management is the new HR – as in, traditional HR has been about individuals and human capital, the new HR is about relationships, communities and social capital.

Aside from the U.S., do you see any particular region or industry doing an especially good job at cultivating these relationships?

I am not so sure the US is doing a (particularly) good job actually. I think Americans’ sense of personal identify means that communities often end up as groups of people shouting at each other and it can be really difficult to get people to cooperate and collaborate with each other to their full extent. True community needs a sense of what’s in it for us, not just of what’s in it for me. I also think there is this strange thing where HR excellence is a power law whereas it is a normal distribution curve elsewhere. Ie there are a small number of truly excellent organisations but an awful lot of mediocre ones focused on hiring and firing too. Those from the later group are going to find developing relationships, and therefore getting the best out of their digital workplaces really hard to do.

Asia has the opposite problem in that there is a lot of focus on groups but there is the downside that people can also disappear and lose their sense of identify within them. Out of all the countries where I have worked, I would say that South Africa is the best placed. They have enormous technological challenges but once these are sorted, their culture of allowing people to sit around and talk things through will act as a huge advantage there.

Cross posted at The Social Organization

I graduated from Imperial College, London in 1987 and joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a systems development consultant. After ten years in IT, change and then HR consulting, I joined Ernst & Young as an HR Director, working firstly in the UK, and then, based in Moscow, covering the former USSR.More recently, I have worked as Head of HR Consulting for Penna and Director of Human Capital Consulting for Buck Consultants (the HR consultancy owned by ACS).

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