The Biggest Barrier To The Modern Workplace is Us

Credit: Microsoft ClipArt Gallery
My career has so far spanned 15 years. In that time, I've worked at 12 companies and held a total of 15 different jobs. And you know what? Although tech has been getting faster, smaller and more refined, at its core today's workplace is very similar to how it was back in the late 90s. Even the mid-80s.

I'd even venture to say that the workplace evolves to incorporate evolving technologies but the workforce does not evolve at the same pace.

Let me reiterate: The "workplace" could change faster if it wasn't for all the people.

Yeah, I said it.

What's holding us back from truly embracing technology and alternative work methods is: people. Why do you think there are so many blogs, books, articles, webcasts about embracing change, talking about innovation and the changing workforce? Because there are still a significant number of people who don't. People who resist the need to change how we work. People who think that technology itself will enable change, that they don't have to do anything to actualize it.

Take teleconferencing, for example. Why is it that after having it in the office for decades, people still can't figure out how to mute on a conference call? Or to pause when addressing someone offsite so that they have a chance to unmute? Basic skills for a kind of interaction we use almost daily, but people just can't seem to figure them out. Then of course, there's the constant tech blame when a video or web conference fails. Because it can't possibly be the people.

Email and the Internet have changed how we exchange and find information, but social and collaborative methods of working (and other alternative work methods) haven't yet changed en masse how people do their day to day jobs. Consider:

  • Gamification is still misunderstood and perceived as a waste of time instead of embraced as an effective method for collaborating, problem solving and learning (see my piece on the Stigma of Gamification).
  • The workplace is fully enabled to be mobile but remote work is still eyed with skepticism, even at tech companies like Yahoo.
  • Meetings are still booked for large blocks of time (e.g. 30 or 60 minutes), while Agile methodology has told us that short, standup meetings are the most effective and productive.
  • Wikis and internal social networks are still perceived as places for where conversation happens but not perceived as places to get things done.
  • Reporting is still done at scheduled intervals in lengthy reports and cumbersome spreadsheets instead of frequently and simply.
  • Documents are still produced using jargon and "business English" instead of plain language.
  • Oh, and the printing. All the printing! Let's be honest: the paperless workplace can't happen until we remove the printers!

These aren't technology issues, they are human issues.

I was interviewed a few months ago by someone developing a course on social media and was asked: "How will social media change the way we work in 5 years?" And I responded: "It won't." The interviewer was stunned and stammered, "Wh-What do you mean?!" Now, this person is aware that I am a tech pundit and a fan of all things shiny, new and social. So, she was thrown off by my response. But I explained: social is wonderful and I use it to find information and share my knowledge but it's not commonplace enough in the workplace to assume that it's impacting everyone everyday everywhere. It's not yet part of "the way we do things"; paper, meetings, reports, presentations, formal structures... these traditional methods of work are still embraced as the norm.

Alternative work methods are still perceived as novelties: fun, entertaining and unsustainable. Like offsite team-building, they only happen infrequently and when they do, are often perceived as taking people away from "the real work."

These human decisions and perceptions hold us back from being truly collaborative, agile and mobile at work. To be sure, I don't think this is a generational issue; I think it's a perception issue: We don't need to show people the benefits of better incorporating technology into the workplace, we need to seamlessly incorporate technology and alternative work methods into their day to day so they don't keep reverting to their comfort zone of "same old, same old".

Technology can't save us from ourselves. Only we can do that.

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