Amid the bustle of a popular local café, a solitary blue-clad figure quietly sips her coffee, a tablet propped up on the café table. It’s her break, but she’s still keeping one eye on the situation display on the tablet: a live map of the autonomous bus routes her team is responsible for. She can see the position of each bus on its route, current and anticipated route changes, incidents being managed by the team, and so on, while listening to the team’s group chat on her wireless earbuds.1
One reason she’s tuning in on her break is that one of the team’s remote bus drivers, working from home to balance work more easily with caring for an ailing parent, has had to virtually take command of a bus, steering it through the chaos of a traffic accident. Usually, when something like this happens, she’d hop on her scooter and head directly to the scene to calm the passengers and help them find alternative routes. But it is her break, after all—and besides, a coworker similarly charged with responding to on-site incidents has just informed the group chat that he can be there in a few minutes. Confident that the situation is under control, she turns back to her coffee, making the most of her downtime to recharge and take stock of the larger situation.
Autonomous buses may be some years in the future, but the way our hypothetical transportation team works together is emblematic of how many real-life teams must work today.2 The transportation team—which includes Incident Responders, Remote Drivers, and other necessary roles such as Route Coordinators and Mechanics—is knit together with digital technology. They rely on digital tools to discover what needs to be done, where and when it needs to be done, and who is best placed to do what, and they use digital media to communicate and collaborate. The very nature of the team’s work is defined by digital tools and the norms and practices built around them.
It is natural to assume that making such a team productive is just a matter of giving team members the right tools and training them in their use. Technology adoption and utilisation—ensuring employees have the right technology as well as the know-how to use it—are consequently the top areas of focus in enabling workplace strategies.3 There’s also a growing interest in digitising employee support and workflows—using process automation and artificial intelligence (AI), self-service, and e-learning to help employees get the most out of the technology they use.
But experience shows that it’s not so simple. The movement of work to the digital world is changing work in fundamental ways, amplifying and evolving the challenges that can sabotage team productivity. Work is becoming more complex, shifting to being designed around outcomes rather than activities, and pulling in knowledge and skills from far beyond the traditional workplace.4 Organisational strategies for improving productivity need to evolve accordingly. They need to go beyond tools and technologies to address the ecosystems—the set of relationships between workers in teams, teams and other teams, and workers and teams with the firm—that shape work outcomes.
In this essay, we explore how firms can support the smooth functioning of three ecosystems that are central to how the digital-ready organisation performs: the digital ecosystem, the place ecosystem, and the human ecosystem.
Digital work is work done primarily with and via digital tools, networked through cyberspace in ways that allow teams to carry out tasks, manipulate information (and, increasingly, real-world objects),5 and collaborate. Many will recognise this as the way they worked during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the need to isolate and quarantine forced much knowledge work to abruptly shift almost entirely to the digital world. The most obvious consequence of this shift was that millions of people, who would otherwise have physically gone to work, were able to work from home instead. In fact, this shift to digital work is almost always framed in terms of a change in where people work. This focus is evident in how many employers are thinking about their postpandemic work arrangements: Should people work from home or on-site, or perhaps split their time between the two in a hybrid model? Employee views are split on this question—when given the choice, approximately 30% of employees say they would prefer to work remotely, 30% from company premises, and 30% want to alternate between the two.6
However, the question of whether work is best done on-site or from home misses the larger opportunity that digital work creates: the ability to unbundle the office and reconstruct work to make it more productive, fulfilling, and equitable.7 Being able to work from anywhere is an important benefit of digital work, but realising digital work’s full potential requires a far more nuanced place ecosystem than the choice between home and office. Meanwhile, the centrality of digital tools makes an effective digital ecosystem essential as well. Finally, digital technology is changing work’s human ecosystem as organisations use technology to create more diverse teams across boundaries and work becomes less transactional and routine.
We contend that for these three ecosystems to enhance, rather than sabotage, productivity, teams must be equipped to negotiate among themselves how they will behave in each. Organisations can help by providing support and guidelines to help make these negotiations effective; but beyond a certain point, the best results rely on trusting teams to arrive at workable solutions on their own.
One important reason for this is that an increasingly volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and confusing business environment is pushing organisations to arrange work around problems and outcomes instead of processes and tasks.8 Solving problems often means addressing unpredictable and unforeseeable situations that require deviations from the usual approach, and it’s almost always the people on the ground, not those formally in charge, who best understand the need and how it might be addressed. Further, on-the-ground workers best know their own needs and those of their teammates. These personal needs are not irrelevant to productivity. For example, knowing where team members live and when they need to take their children to school makes scheduling in-person meetings more efficient, and can also spare workers from long, energy-draining commutes or the stress of finding someone else to drop off the kids.
That said, organisations still play a critical role. It’s not a question of leaving teams wholly to their own devices, but of empowering them to negotiate productive norms and practices. Striking the right balance between centralised control and team autonomy is imperative, and this balance will likely be unique to each organisation and even each team.
Suppose that the coffee-sipping Incident Responder in our opening story had turned off her tablet and earbuds so she could catch up on her personal email while on break. Suppose further that no other Incident Responder had been within easy scooter distance of the accident that needed attention. In that case, would it be appropriate for someone monitoring the situation—say, a Route Coordinator coordinating several different bus routes—to contact the first Incident Responder via social media? Would the Route Coordinator be able to find the Incident Responder’s personal number? If so, would the Incident Responder be more apt to respond to a text or a call? Does the transportation authority even condone the use of personal devices, and if not, is the situation urgent enough to warrant breaking policy? (Of course, this is separate from whether asking the Incident Responder to cut her break short would be acceptable in the first place—the type of question that arises in the human ecosystem discussed later.)
Teams working digitally must continually negotiate answers to questions like these as they navigate the tools and technologies that underpin their work. The outcome, if the negotiations go well, is a coherent digital ecosystem:9 a collection of digital tools and platforms, along with habits and practices for using those tools, which empowers everyone to fully contribute. Everyone understands what tools to use, how the team will use them for various needs and tasks, and under what circumstances it’s acceptable to break the “rules.” Our research on working during the pandemic verifies that this kind of understanding makes digital work more effective: The more cohesive a team’s digital ecosystem, the more successfully it operated when members were working from home.10
A team’s digital ecosystem is increasingly likely to span organisational, geographical, political, and cultural boundaries. Teams may thus be faced with integrating a number of “corporate digital worlds”—the transactional platforms, portals, applications, and collaboration platforms provided by the organisations that teams are creating value for—into a coherent whole. This is often no easy task as the digital environment is becoming more and more balkanised as growing cyberthreats drive firms to fence off the chaos of the public internet. Cross-organisational teams must often determine which elements of the work will be hosted by which organisation, with different aspects of the work residing in different tools and databases. Valuable insights and institutional knowledge can be buried in supplier and partner platforms, captured in email conversations, and recorded on documentation and analytics platforms beyond any single organisation’s purview.
Team members may also find it useful to insert parts of their personal digital worlds—the collection of tools they use in their personal lives, which often bleed over into work—into the system. This would make negotiating a cohesive digital ecosystem even more complicated, not least because organisations’ security protocols may limit the extent to which personal devices and external applications may be used.11
Difficulties in creating an effective digital ecosystem may well underlie the struggle many organisations face with using technology to increase productivity. A 2021 NTT survey of executives and line workers found that only 54.6% of respondents12 said that workers have access to technology that enables and augments performance when working digitally.13 Only 56.1% said the same for the technology on company premises.Just two in five believed that their organisation’s employees were able to effectively brainstorm, collaborate, and socially interact when working digitally.14
To improve on all these fronts, organisations can help teams establish a cohesive digital ecosystem by:
Mention workplace and most of us will conjure an image of a physical place, such as an office building where people gather to work. We might joke, for example, that a bus driver’s office is the bus they drive. But is this true when work is digital rather than physical? Our Remote Driver might work in the spare room at home while the bus is where the work is realised, on its route. So is the work of driving the bus done in the physical world, on the bus, or at the desk where the bus driver sits—or in the digital world where bus and driver meet?
Is the work of driving the bus done in the physical world, on the bus or at the desk where the bus driver sits—or in the digital world where bus and driver meet?
Some work, such as tending to irate passengers on a delayed bus, may always be best done in person—the worker must go to the work. But when the work lives not in the physical world but in digital tools and the links between them, it becomes possible to send the work to the worker. And, when we can send the work to the worker, the best place for them to work is the place where they can perform at their best. Unbundling the workplace, considering place from the perspective of where workers would be most productive, instead of an arbitrary location, makes location a lever for improving performance instead of a constraint. It allows organisations to make use of many more and potentially better options than just home, office, or a “hybrid” mix of the two.
How workers use those options will depend on a range of factors. The nature of the task at hand, such as its sensitivity, might require work to be done in the privacy of a corporate office, home, or private office in a coworking space. Other tasks might be suitable for a café such as the one where our Incident Responder often sits. Personal preference is a consideration too. Work is part of our human experience, so work experiences must be designed around what motivates and empowers humans. Some workers may do best in a secluded home or office, while others may find the bustle of a busy café or open-plan workspace inspiring.
A worker’s responsibilities outside of work can also shape where they can be most productive. The Incident Responder’s café may be conveniently located near the doctor’s office where she has just had an appointment. The Remote Driver’s spare room allows him to keep a watchful eye on his ailing parent. The Route Coordinator’s bus depot might be around the corner from her toddler’s day care center.
We’re emphatically not saying that all work that can be done remotely should be done remotely. When activities are viable in both the physical and digital worlds, the decision of when to use which should be driven by their relative drawbacks and benefits. Being in the same physical environment remains an important option, as it provides an opportunity for workers to build relationships and benefit from on-the-spot coaching and mentoring. For instance, teams can socialise over video to cultivate the psychological safety needed for smooth team interaction, but most would agree that socialising in person is much more effective for building trust. Another challenge of working digitally is creating opportunities for serendipity, the “water-cooler conversations,” where people share experiences, trade tips, and learn from each other. Digital practices are emerging that attempt to replicate these kinds of interactions in cyberspace, but they remain poor substitutes for physical presence.
Many C-suite executives are already primed to begin approaching the place ecosystem with an eye on work effectiveness, rather than physical location. In a 2021 NTT survey, 49.1% of C-suite executives felt strongly that the workplace was no longer a physical building but rather a variety of environments where groups of workers collaborate.15
To help teams negotiate an effective place ecosystem, executives can:
While workers have always had to navigate relationships with colleagues, digital technology is driving two trends that make team dynamics at once more important and more challenging. One, digital automation allows us to delegate routine computational work to technology, making much human work more concerned with addressing problems and opportunities than with prosecuting tasks. This can make work more interesting and engaging, but because no two problems or opportunities are alike, teams must be collaborative and flexible to address them instead of following fixed protocols. Two, communications technologies allow us to form more diverse, cross-boundary teams drawn from different organisations, geographies, and cultures. These teams benefit from a broader mix of skills and perspectives, but they may also find it harder to work harmoniously together.
Organisations are taking two general approaches to this situation. One is to make work more flexible by breaking it into smaller parcels, fractionalising projects and tasks into atomic units that require particular skills. Algorithms then match these atomic units to workers, considering the needs of the work, the worker’s abilities, and their interests and availabilities. Teams are formed around well-defined goals, with each team being custom-built to include the necessary skills, and then dissolved when the task is complete. In theory at least, this model promotes flexibility at the cost of increased complexity. Workers’ skills and interests can be closely mixed and matched to the work; but doing so can easily become an administrative nightmare.16
The second approach is to embrace the broadening of work beyond tasks by giving workers more general problems to solve instead of narrow tasks to complete. Organisations install guardrails specifying the outcomes to be achieved, issues to be resolved, or new sources of value to be developed, while giving workers and teams the autonomy to determine how best to get these things done. This shifts workers to work on the business rather than in the business, dealing with unexpected situations, looking for improvements and opportunities, and building relationships with customers and clients.
For many types of work, the second approach is likely far superior. Atomising work into a codified, static set of tasks and responsibilities might well be impossible, especially for the complex problems that organisations face today. Nor is there a single “best” way to execute a particular task,17 meaning that there can be no such thing as an ideal fractionalised task definition. Dependencies between tasks will also complicate fractionalisation, as any nontrivial task will likely require a worker to collaborate with others anyway. For instance, workers may need to negotiate to clarify the order of operations, with the outcome depending on their ability to agree on the sequence of tasks.
As work defined around problems and opportunities is more free-form and less predictable than work defined around transactions and tasks, a team’s ability to agree on roles and responsibilities can make or break the quality of its work. All must understand who is responsible for doing what and, just as important, how the team makes decisions about who is responsible for doing what.
That’s not to say that everyone needs to be happy with how things fall out for these agreements to be effective. Workers may still find themselves stuck with work they don’t like or aren’t particularly good at, if that’s what’s best for the problem at hand. Some workers may even refuse (or be temporarily unable) to do what the initial negotiation points to, requiring renegotiation. But negotiations that go “well” will minimise these situations.
Organisations can help teams negotiate a productive human ecosystem by:
The future of work is typically framed in terms of the future of the worker, how they will change in response to shifting circumstances. This is a mistake. The digitisation of work has collapsed physical distance and, as a consequence, work has shifted from being (largely) a solitary affair to being something we do together, digitally. The future of work is teamwork, and if we’re to understand how to make work more productive, it is teams that we should put at the center.
Teams are the locus of work. It’s the team that is most capable of determining how problems, opportunities, or even just the unexpected should be confronted. It’s the team that can then best decompose work into tasks and figure out who’s going to execute them and how, deciding how best to use the mix of virtual and physical space along the way. The figuring is simply too complex to do beforehand, as strictly defined procedures assume a static environment rather than the fluid one we experience today.
The role of the organisation in this future of work is to create the scaffolding that teams require to be successful. Helping workers construct a digital ecosystem that accommodates workers outside the office and workers who are not employees allows workers to accomplish more and do it more effectively. Providing facilities and policies that help workers to negotiate an effective place ecosystem improves outcomes by enabling them to work where and when they are most productive. And building a healthy and diverse human ecosystem will provide insight into the moments that matter to individuals and how to shape these into connected experiences that build human engagement and healthy teams.
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