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Adapting our behaviour to the digital workplace: an interview with Russell Pearson, Change and Adoption Manager

​Businesses of all shapes and sizes have had to adapt to a digital world in recent months. But in getting accustomed to new platforms and ways of working, there are not just technological challenges to think about – there are also the accompanying behavioural challenges. Rory Wood from our Business Change and Transformation team recently spoke to Russell Pearson, an expert in digital workplace adoption and change, about the behavioural changes needed alongside Office 365 and Microsoft Teams implementations.

Could you give me a brief description of your background, your experience of working in digital workplaces and how it’s changed over the last couple of months?

I’ve been working in a digital workplace since the very early days. Initially it was a project at Derby University. My job title was something like Computer Media Communications Project Officer. It didn’t pay a lot, but it was my start in this area! They’d got a bulletin board system running on a Mac network in the art college. which had all the nascent parts of what you put in Teams. It didn’t quite have the video capability yet, but you could exchange messages, share files, upload things. It was pre-web. We set up a web-based configuration using the software. We were probably the first in Europe to do that.

It was interesting to watch the students and lecturers use that. They came up with solutions I hadn’t even thought of. Those who had a year out in Europe all communicated with each other while they were away in France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, as they didn’t all have email accounts. It was probably one of the most active areas of the site as they shared experiences.

I joined Cisco on an e-learning project. After the dot-com crash, we started using virtual classrooms for virtual meetings, which was a novelty then – Cisco ended up buying Webex for the capability – but at the time we had a project all about reducing costs. To reduce travel costs, we said ‘why don’t we have virtual meetings?’ as we do now.

We had John Chambers, then CIO of Cisco, talking about Web 2.0 and it chimed with a lot of the stuff I’d done at Derby University. He said, ‘this is the future of work.’ It was round about 2005. They were heavily invested in IP, telephony, telepresence, video conferencing. I’ve watched the excitement in the way technology has grown and been developed.

I left and started contracting in various sectors – oil, banking, media advertising – all focused on the digital workplace. I did a lot of work with some software called Jive, looking at creating digital workplaces, using technology similar to Teams. The functionality was important, the number of modules you could add on. You could create some innovative and productivity-raising digital workplace solutions which people could administer and customise themselves, build to suit their own business needs. It’s about employee engagement, optimising the employee experience and using the technology to create a more agile way of working, so remote working was a key part of that ability to break silos.

We’ve seen these sorts of projects take a year, 18 months. We’re now doing them in six to eight weeks. Now they’ve got the technology, what areas do you think businesses have missed in the value they can add?

A lot of businesses brought in the technology to keep connected and carry on working remotely. Teams was rolled out rapidly and people probably had basic training, so a lot of the richer functionality is probably not being utilised. They have video conferences but the exchange of documents is often still taking place via email.

Teams has a central hub to store documents and collaborate on them and it’s very easy to create folders and channels, upload files, collaborate in real time. People are using some of the functionality but whether they’re using it well, structuring files to find them in the future, naming them in a way that they can be easily found, I’m not sure that’s taking place or not.

There’s meeting functionality where you preload an agenda, upload documents ahead of a meeting – I wonder how many are using this. People are sometimes also not aware they can mute people. I read an article in a political journal recently about the PM and his team using Zoom. The quality was really bad because people weren’t muting. You had kids in the background, dogs barking!

An area missed by some companies is governance. That is - who can create a team, delete a team, create channels? Having at least two admins on a team, in case someone leaves, means they don’t get marooned. Do you allow guest access, do you allow them to upload documents and do you share to them? Data leakage. It’s a key area some companies have not really addressed in full.

Another bug bear - quite often people don’t reply directly, instead they start up a whole new thread. Then you get a disjointed conversation. It’s a less fluid, less structured user experience. This has even been seen in Swoop Analytics’ data benchmarking across different companies where the data gets thrown out by too many new threads being created. Looking forward to when Microsoft make the user experience more obvious here.

Are you finding that there doesn’t seem to be a drive to push everything through one platform, with companies missing out on the benefits that come with that?

There’s complexity if a company has been running Skype and rolled out Teams as well. There can be difficulties if you’re jumping from Skype to Teams, particularly with notifications. If one company using Teams wants to collaborate with another using Skype, do they go in and use the Skype platform or invite their partner to use the Teams platform? If you’re thinking of migrating, there will be a time, 2021 has been pencilled in, when Skype will end and everyone will have to move over to Teams. There’s complexity in doing that.

I’ve spoken to clients about engaging the workforce from a wellbeing point of view. People miss the office mainly due to that interaction. Are there any functions within Teams that can provide the social aspect that people are missing?

The live events, the ability to have a townhall meeting, means an organisation can reach out to the whole company. It’s a broadcast where people can ask questions by text, but it doesn’t have that one-to-one personal touch. We’ve got the ability to have video conferencing and share files, but what imaginative things can we use them for? Virtual pub quizzes are always fun, getting people to make videos of their home office and share them. I think it’s down to imagination rather than the functionality as such. Thinking ‘okay, we can join people together, get conversing and having fun, but how do we do that?’

People understand now that there will be a phased return to the office and most businesses will never return to the old way of working. The digital workplace is here to stay. If you’re a business and looking to the future, is it a case of providing the right training to get the most out of Teams, or is there another approach to the digital workplace?

Training is key if you want to get people using more of the richer features available. Every time you log on there seem to be new features. It’s an incredibly powerful business tool. There’s a whole load of extendibility with Teams that we’re only just seeing.

I liken it to the early days of the iPhone, when people said, ‘what’s this?’ Then a few apps arrived. Now we’ve got this multibillion-dollar industry all around the different apps you can download to an iPhone. People are using the apps much more than the phone call side. It’s part of their social web, part of the games they play, part of their navigation. You name it, if you’ve got a niche hobby, it can support it. Now we’re seeing the same with Teams. People are getting very inventive in terms of creating different templates that you can use to extend that functionality, to get Teams to connect up with other applications.

Microsoft is promoting this idea of no-code development. You can actually create flows and apps that support a business process or carry out automation. You can build this function without being a coder. You go into the tool itself and build basic flows of information. That I’m really excited about as it empowers people to build their own solutions and to customise the ones that are out there. I think that’s going to be the big power of Teams moving forward.

When it comes to delivering mass training on Teams from remote places, what are the challenges of getting the right sort of training to the right people?

It can be done online. I think it’s having that personal connection so if you get stuck, you can reach out to somebody. A self-help area. The ‘train the trainer’ model is powerful. Have a champions network and train up those guys. Have an approved answer – another governance thing, a stamp that says this is the official answer to the problem. People helping each other.

Do exercises and find areas they’re not using. Maybe they’re aware of the other functions and don’t know how to use them. Maybe they haven’t had training and don’t know how to. Finding out if there are gaps in what people know, would like to know, would like to get extra training on, are confused on.

If you’d like to talk to us about the behavioural changes needed in the digital workplace, or you’re looking for your next hire or next role in business change and transformation, please get in touch.