Interview with MIT CISR's Kristine Dery


WORKTECH 17 Sydney is only a week away and I recently caught up with Kristine Dery, who will be presenting a keynote to a mix of real estate, facilities, HR, technology, executive management, architecture, and design professionals about the "digital workplace".

Her current focus at MIT Sloan’s Centre for Information Systems Research (CISR) is investigating the design and management of the workplace to enable our employees to work effectively in the digital era - making her a perfect fit to talk at WORKTECH 17.

As Kristine and I both share a long-standing interest in exploring the relationship between technology and how people work, I used this opportunity to pose a few questions based on the themes and issues I am observing in my own work.

Bearing in mind we often see some push back or scepticism about the most progressive workplace strategies, I started by asking her why employers and employees would want to work in the kinds of high-performing organisations described in her research?

From Kristine’s perspective, it is less about why, but when and how. She believes that ultimately demographic changes in the workforce and a shift away from command and control management means new approaches to the workplace are inevitable, so the challenge is how to support that.

Using the example of DBS Bank in Singapore, she described the huge change in that workplace to become more open and flexible. But they found they had to focus on supporting, equipping, and training people for that new environment.

Kristine commented that the high-performing organisations seen in her research have realised you "can’t just let people sink or swim – that is just not helpful."

She also highlighted that it's not just about how people use workspace and swapping offices for activity based working or open plan, but how the organisation invests in leveraging the workplace as an attractor of talent. The right workspace design is really a framework for empowerment and innovation - it should have a multiplier effect for performance, not just be a pleasant place to work. So the design of the workspace has to be part of an integrated digital workplace strategy and technology is critical.

Along with openness and flexibility, 'agility' is another key workplace theme in both physical workspace design and management practice. I have been watching agile practices traditionally used by software and technology teams gradually cross over into the general business domain, but I wondered if Kristine thought there was any connection between the two.

It's easy to get distracted by the artefacts of agile in software development, like Kanban walls and stand up meetings. However, Kristine focused on the overarching concept of agility really being about introducing a whole new learning experience to organisations.

She commented that, "Test and learn is exactly that and we need to apply those principles more broadly to work across the organisation."

Implied with this idea is a culture that has a tolerance for failure combined with a culture of continuous improvement - this means empowering staff in a digital workplace must mean more that simply allowing more autonomy and delegating decision making.

This raised an important differentiator in a high performing digital workplace and suggests another strong connection to software practice - a focus on feedback, measurement and automation to help coordinate activity.

In the world of software development and technology management, the idea of 'ChatOps' is a concept collaboration through conversation, on tools like HipChat, Microsoft Teams, and Slack. Atlassian Software describe ChatOps this way:

ChatOps is a collaboration model that connects people, tools, process, and automation into a transparent workflow. This flow connects the work needed, the work happening, and the work done in a persistent location staffed by the people, bots, and related tools. The transparency tightens the feedback loop, improves information sharing, and enhances team collaboration, not to mention team culture and cross-training.

Conversation-driven collaboration isn't new, and ChatOps is its digital-age manifestation: a combination of the oldest form of collaboration with the newest technology. And this surprisingly simple combination will change the way you work.

Similarly, Kristine can imagine a workplace that operates under the same principles. Management interventions augmented by chatbots that coach people towards better performance, based on analytics collected as part of the digital workplace. I can also see a mentality where we break down the artificial silos of business functions and instead people organise around delivering great products and services.

She acknowledged that this represents a significant change to how we manage and work as individuals – "responsive leadership is about getting a window into what employees are doing, and then support them to make it easier for them to be better at what they do." Ultimately this will be a critical part of the digital workplace, not just the collaboration technology itself.

This not something to be taken on-board lightly while we work out the ethics and effectiveness of big data in the workplace. With the emergence of Workplace by Facebook, I do wonder if perhaps we should consider that implications of employees being the product. Rather than the organisations and workplaces as the containers for work, they are attractors of talent with free tools to help coordinate collective action.

Finally, we talked about the connection between employee experience (EX) and customer experience (CX). I asked Kristine if she thought expectations of customer experience are relevant to how we engage talent and create a better employee experience?

Kristine has observed, as I have, that often it is the customer experience that receives the most funding and focus rather than the employee experience. Yet the findings of her latest survey clearly show that employee experience correlates with customer experience. "The more you focus on employee experience, the better your customer experience is likely to be." Considering that so many organisations still provide poor service, they would be well served to invest more in building a workplace that enabled their employees to be the very best that they can be.

The barrier appears to be that the leadership need to drive a dedicated connection between customer and employee experience. There is no doubt that achieving this will also require partnering with integrated systems of engagement and automation technology, because it's unlikely any company will ever be able to employ enough people to service demand consistently.

Kristine summarised this in the context of the digital workplace as, "people and technology working hand in hand to deliver customer experience."

Thanks again Kristine for taking the time to talk about the digital workplace - I’m looking forward to discussing more at WORKTECH 17.

Chief Technology Solutions / Digital Workplace Company are official media partners for WORKTECH17.