Designing the Digital Workspace: What We Can Learn from the Physical Space

As we learn more about what helps people to be productive at work and the kind of environments that enable collaboration, companies are investing heavily in the design of their physical workspaces.

On the other hand, the conversation about the digital tools used for productivity and collaboration rarely goes beyond, “What tool shall we use?”

I have found that little thought goes into designing the digital workspace in a way that is in line with the organisation/team’s culture; or in a way that helps us change it when we need to. And little thought is often given to how employees will interact emotionally with the space, or how it might encourage spontaneous interaction between people.

The conversation around what makes an ideal office design is getting interesting, so why don’t we listen in to it, and apply what we’re learning in order to better design the digital workspace?

And while we’re at it, let’s remember that even in companies not going “remote”, people are still getting most of their work done through technology - so this conversation is relevant to most organisations, regardless of whether they’re taking an “office optional” approach.  

The Physical Workspace

I recently attended an event in London, “Experimenting with Workspace”, where we looked at how the layout of an office space influences where we sit with others to work on a task together.  

We considered how we can design workspaces to encourage certain interactions, and how workplace design can affect our interactions. We often need spaces where people can have impromptu conversations in the open, and we also need spaces where people can have private conversations or carry out work in isolation.

For example, one way of encouraging people from different departments to interact is to have only one set of toilets - which means that in order to go to the toilet, you need to walk by quite a number of people you might otherwise never come across.  (And if you’re interested in the psychology behind designing toilets, here’s an article for you:

This is a very practical solution and one which can’t (yet!) be transferred to the physical space, but the concepts behind it can spark some questions to ask ourselves when making some decisions about what our workspaces - physical and digital - could look like.

The Importance of Culture

What’s the culture like in your organisation? Are you collaborative or competitive?

If you are competitive, designing an open space for discussion where everyone can hear everyone else and see each other’s designs or scribbles, might not be the best option... unless we decide to deliberately challenge and change that culture, through changing the environment.

The same thought needs to go into designing our digital workspace. If we want to encourage collaboration, we can set up online tools and processes through which everyone makes their work visible to everyone else. However, if we are really competitive, these spaces might end up being unhealthy bragging notice boards. Or worse still, no-one might update their activities, and we end up with an unused space that screams, “Nobody cares”.


What Behaviours are You Nurturing?

When introducing any kind of tool, we need to consider what behaviours they’re likely to result in, and what behaviours we’d like to encourage. For example if we want to encourage more transparency in an organisation that’s not used to it, maybe we can start by encouraging different levels of sharing of the work - such as in smaller groups in a team space, as opposed to an organisation-wide space, or else in a private group or channel.

Or we might start by facilitating a greater flow of information in live synchronous conversations when we have more control over who we share information with (mainly whoever is there), and where you don’t end up with the permanent record that results from communicating in writing.

If we want more collaboration, we can also start by asking for more visibility of the work at a more superficial level (task level, events level) and then gradually build the “narration of the work” to sharing of the thinking process, decision-making process and wider pieces of work.

Or we might decide that our competitive culture is just what drives our business forward, so we avoid setting up systems that are going to dampen that sharp edge.

In any case, give consideration to the kind of space you’re building, and whether it fits your culture -  or whether it’s going to help you to shift it to a more desirable one. As you can see, what can help a company grow in the right direction, could have a negative effect in another.

Identity and a Sense of Belonging

One very specific function of a building is to separate the organisation from the outside world. When you come enter a building, you know you belong to that place, and usually you know what role you are playing in it.

When designing the digital workspace, we need to be thinking about that as well. This is often reflected in the way intranets are designed. Intranets are not just customised to follow brand guidelines, but also to signal to employees that they are now in “company property”.

At the team level, you can often see this customisation in applications and online tools - in the way folders are named, how they’re organised, the background of project management boards, etc.

So, especially if you are transitioning or putting a team ecosystem together for the first time, ask yourself:

  • How do you want people to feel when they enter the digital space?

  • What can you do to remind them of where they are and who they are, in relation to that space?

Something as simple as changing the background on a project board; or having a prominent image that’s not the company logo, might create a greater sense of connection with the team. It really depends on where you want the locus of engagement to be: Do you think people benefit from feeling like they belong to the team, or do you prefer to remind them that they belong to the wider organisation?

First Impressions

When designing a new office layout, a lot of thought goes into what the first thing people see when they enter the space, and what it prompts them to do.

At a very simple level, the reception area is usually the first thing you see when you enter a building. That makes sense, because it’s what visitors are usually looking for, and no-one wants their visitors to get lost. But you could also make the decision to have a prominent staff picture, or a monitor with examples of the company’s work, or one that displays a news channel, reflecting how important it is for you to stay up to date with what’s going on in the world.

Thinking along the same lines, what do you want your people to do, or even to think, when they log onto the digital workspace?

I’ll give you an example that I came across recently on the Happy Melly podcast.  

Zappos, the online shoe and clothing store reminds their employees every day of the importance of being familiar with other employees in the company. When an employee logs onto their system at the beginning of the day, the picture of another person in the company pops up, with the question, “Do you know who this person is?” and five names to choose from. If you don’t pick the right answer, the system tells you the person’s name and redirects you to their profile, so that you can learn a little bit about them.

Zappos is not a remote company. However, they’re seeing the company grow and they are very deliberately fostering that sense of connection by making the most out of technology. It is a prime example of the need to pay attention to the digital space, even when your people are in the same building.

Going back to the collaboration areas in the digital workspace, how you label them will also encourage different kinds of behaviours and will influence people’s relationship with the space. So it’s worth giving some thought to how you name the groups, channels, boards, lists etc, all those areas that make up a collaboration space. (Remember that Language Matters.)

As the lines between the physical and digital workspaces continue to blur and merge, we can use aspects from each environment to inform the evolution of the other - until it all becomes just “work”.

If you want to continue reading about how to designing your digital workspace to influence how people interact in your team or organisation, read the second part of this article.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.