How the Changing Definition of the “Workplace” Impacts HR

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Jul 22, 2014

How do we define “workplace” today in light of our technology-rich environment that enables workers to be “on the job” from anywhere and at any time?

These days, is the workplace even a place at all? Today’s “workplace” can no longer be defined in terms of a single, static location (like the corporate office).

Instead, the “workplace” is now a dynamic, fluid combination of physical and virtual spaces. While technology is a key enabler, new workplaces require employees to adopt a fresh mindset and skillset for success.

Defining today’s “workplace”

Organizations are leveraging increasing numbers of virtual and remote workers. These employees and contractors may define “workplace” as a home office, on site with clients and colleagues, on the road, or even a local coffee shop. Even employees who do have an assigned physical space in a company location have redefined their sense of “workplace” as they shift gears working in the office, at home, or on the go.

One’s own workplace experience is impacted by – and impacts – others’ workplace experience. Employees at global companies are now used to working with teams dispersed across geographies, time zones and environments.

As our own workplace morphs throughout the day/week, the same is occurring simultaneously for our managers, colleagues, direct reports, clients and vendors. This stretches the traditional definition of “place” to be far more dynamic and flexible.

Leveraging technology

Technology allows us to adapt both the places and the methods in which we work.

In the course of one day, an employee may connect virtually through online meetings, video and conference calls, email, text, instant message, social media and online collaboration portals. He/she may do this from a variety of devices – land line, smart phone, tablet, laptop and others.

The more our technology migrates to the cloud, the more we are empowered to use personal devices to stay in touch.

Adopting the right mindset and skillset

While technology is a key enabler for today’s dynamic workplace, having the right mindset and skillset is equally important.

Employees need to maintain a mindset of flexibility, adaptability and collaboration to thrive. This mindset must be applied to their own work experience as well as in how they work with others.

In addition to having the right mindset, a number of key skills are critical for success in the new work environment – rethinking time management practices, effective meeting facilitation, creating and leading high-performing virtual teams, mastering diverse modes of communication (written and verbal, formal and informal), and cultivating relationships are just a few.

The benefits of  more dynamic workplaces

What are the opportunities and challenges this presents to employers and HR managers?

There are a number of benefits to more dynamic workplaces, including:

  • Enhanced collaboration and innovation through global and virtual work teams; putting the best minds together to address a problem or opportunity, regardless of their physical location.
  • Greater flexibility and responsiveness to address internal and external client needs.
  • Increased cost-effectiveness by leveraging technology (less need for travel and corporate office infrastructure as more employees work virtually).
  • Increased engagement and work-life balance for employees with flexible working arrangements.

But, there are challenges as well

On the flip side, challenges can and do arise, such as:

  • Less effective communication and collaboration if the right technologies aren’t used at the right times.
  • Unintended impacts to organizational culture with dispersed virtual and on site employees (if not managed intentionally).
  • Employee burnout due to the feeling of being constantly “plugged in” to email, voicemail, smart phone, etc. (regardless of their physical work location).
  • Difficulties building effective working relationships among dispersed teams/work groups, especially if the team has never worked in person or doesn’t have a previous history from which to build
  • Virtual/remote employees in particular may struggle with feeling isolated and disconnected without the right mechanisms in place; left unattended, this can impact engagement and ultimately performance; effectively engaging, managing and developing these individuals is critical!

As more and more employees become virtual some or all of the time, our understanding of the “workplace” will become increasingly diverse, fluid and personalized.

While there is a learning curve for successful virtual work places, breaking down the four walls of the office can – and does – unlock new potential for individuals and organizations.

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