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Nick van der Meulen

University of Amsterdam

Assistant Professor in Information Management

Read more about Nick van der Meulen

Trust is what makes digital workplaces – and organisations – a success


There’s so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics’ Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. Get connected to the academic sector through Academics’ Corner and make sure you never miss another piece of key research again. If you’re an academic with a relevant story, please get in touch on [email protected].

In almost every organisation the digital workplace is becoming the norm. New collaboration tools, enterprise social media, activity-based open plan offices, virtual teams and flexible working are just some of its inherent practices that have gained prevalence during the past decade.

But when it comes down to it – does this work, do organisations that adopt a digital workplace find that they are more effective and more profitable?

After all, some corporates such as HP, Best Buy, and Yahoo very publicly rescinded some of these practices in 2013, claiming that flexible working hurts collaboration and impedes innovation.

Do digital workplaces actually create business value?

Our research set out to understand whether digital workplaces create real business value or are just a passing fancy, and if they create business value, what design parameters matter most.

We sought to establish if the assumed benefits of having employees working in one location – such as improved knowledge sharing and better collaboration – could be reconciled with employees’ needs to be flexible and autonomous.

In particular, we aimed to reveal which elements of a digital workplace actually contribute to better company performance.

From our survey of 113 organisations and a series of interviews with 67 executives, we learned that organisations that outperform direct competitors in their respective industries on dimensions such as growth in market share, profit growth, and employee satisfaction have an integrated and company-wide approach to greater employee connectedness.

What do we mean by ‘connectedness?’

Connectedness refers to the extent to which employees can engage – with each other, with stakeholders and customers, and with information, knowledge, and ideas.

Traditional work environments can inhibit connectedness, particularly across functional or product silos, geographies or company boundaries.

High-performing companies have an integrated and company-wide approach to greater employee connectedness. They achieve this by designing physical spaces, digital technologies, and social networks specifically focused on enabling more collaborative work.

Connectivity built across silos rather than in an isolated fashion is critical to empowering employees to provide a productive customer experience.

In other words, a physical and digital work environment designed for a collaborative, integrated employee experience enables the delivery of more complex customer solutions.

In terms of leadership, we found that high performers adopt a facilitative approach in which managers allow their employees to decide when, where, and how best to work.

Employees are empowered to make decisions in the best interests of customer experience and their work.

Management encourages experimentation with new approaches to work, have a high tolerance for failure of new workplace initiatives, are open to the suggestions of employees, and provide them with continuous learning opportunities.

This also means that employees are encouraged to share their mistakes and failures, enabling the entire organisation to learn and innovate.

The need for a clear vision

On the strategic level, a clearly articulated vision has to be communicated to link workplace design with the objectives of the organisation.

In addition, we learned that high-performing companies in our study tended to have cross-functional digital workplace leadership teams, with representation from key departments (most notably IT, HR, facilities, legal and communication).

Their top management teams facilitate workplace design rather than direct it.

Above all else, our research emphasised that this type of responsive leadership – which is critical in getting full value from the digital workspace – requires a shift in mindset. It’s one that requires a lot of trust in employees.

This trust can be a huge motivational force, however, and empowers employees to make decisions in the best interest of customer experience and their work. It’s a win-win scenario.

Employers that invest in the digital workplace and provide employees with the tools and are provided with trust and confidence are then those that in the main are the companies which perform best.

Put the principle to the test

Just ask:

  • How much does your manager trust you?
  • Does he or she allow you to work anywhere, at any time?
  • Does he or she give you the freedom to make decisions or allow you the scope to make mistakes in search of improved performance?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, it is quite likely that you work for an organisation offering employees with enough autonomy to make a success of the digital workplace.

And with it comes a successful organisation.

Author Profile Picture
Nick van der Meulen

Assistant Professor in Information Management

Read more from Nick van der Meulen

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