optimizing distributed work

Now that distributed work has become the norm — permanently for some and temporarily for others — there are two things any organization can do to work, learn, and innovate in internet time.

  1. Optimize meetings for a digital workplace
  2. Help all workers become knowledge catalysts

Back in 2008 I noted that cooperating, reflecting, and supporting each other are necessary for groups of knowledge workers to collectively achieve common objectives. That year, my colleague Jay Cross surveyed 237 workers from various countries and in different sized organizations. They identified a number of key issues preventing them from doing their best work.

  • a lack of cooperation
  • no time for reflection
  • no ability to create DIY tools for work
  • no communities of practice for support
  • lack of professional development
  • poor training
  • working in organizations that are slow to change

I have no doubt that the same survey today would yield similar results.

Digital transformation has been the focus in many large organizations for the past decade. With the pandemic, most companies have had to move to a distributed workforce, at least temporarily. Previously, the largest share of the budget in any ‘digital workplace’ initiative went toward the technology. The bigger change to manage however, was often ignored or assumed it would just happen — getting people to work transparently.

One of the major benefits of using digital media is increasing the speed of access to knowledge. But if information is not shared, it will never be found and knowledge will remain hidden. Transparency and openness are required, all in a workspace where it is safe to do so. While digital media enable transparency, they also lay bare a company’s culture.

A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed.

In a distributed workplace there are fewer places left to hide. In a transparent workplace, management must ask — how can we help people work better on solving problems?

If you look at all the jokes about video conference meetings, and all the time spent on platforms like Zoom, it’s obvious there is a long way to go to optimize the meeting process. On-site meetings were the staple of the corporation and most managers spent most of their time attending them. But few organizations optimized the process.

The transparency of digital media is showing how poorly meetings are run.

Now that we are working remotely, let’s re-examine how meetings are conducted. In Meetings, Bloody Meetings, I highlighted the issues around most business meetings and how they could be improved. A follow-on post on Distributed Liberating Meetings showed how Liberating Structures could be used to improve online meetings. If it’s obvious that most meetings are dysfunctional, now is the time to add some structure that will make them more efficient and effective.

Make time for learning.

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.

Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.” —Jay Cross

What do creative knowledge workers do between flashes of brilliance?

  • They sharpen the cognitive saw
  • They connect with peers
  • They share knowledge
  • They learn

Where do they get this time?

  • Less time commuting
  • Less time wasted in meetings
  • Less time doing things that were not necessary in the first place

The distributed digital workplace lays waste bare. The time for learning and reflection at work is already there.

“Research suggests that in an eight-hour day, the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes.”Inc.com 2016

The framework to support creative knowledge workers is personal knowledge mastery. It improves sensemaking, social intelligence, and digital media literacy. PKM also helps with cognitive load management, by off-loading some of the mental effort to our professional social networks and our communities practice.

Working smarter requires safe places to work, connection to diverse knowledge networks, and the support of personal sensemaking.

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