5 Differences Between Physical and Digital Workplaces

• Digital Workplace

Much of the world has suddenly and unexpectedly transitioned to remote work for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to the health and social challenges presented by the pandemic, managers and employees alike are faced with navigating a new way of working. While some teams will rush to return to life in the office as soon as possible, others will find remote work advantageous and decide to make the transition permanent. Still, others have been working remotely all along.

But how do the physical and digital workplace compare? Are they pretty much the same, just with more video calls and instant messages? Or are there more significant differences that digital leaders should consider?

Here are five ways that the physical workplace is different from the digital workplace, and what leaders need to know about.

Using digital tools

In a physical workplace, the digital tools we use are somewhat secondary. Of course, good tools are helpful, but if, for example, your software program is clunky or lacks fields for critical information, you can keep a chart or whiteboard to help the team stay organized. Or, you always have the option of just tapping someone on the shoulder to get the right information.

Not so in the digital workspace, where the tools you use make up the entire ecosystem in which your team operates. Your tools have to provide space and functionality for every piece of information. They must include intuitive and reliable channels of communication. In a digital workplace, tools have to give visibility and facilitate problem solving and collaboration. The tools you choose can make the difference between success and failure.

The advantage of a physical workplace in regards to tools is that you can rely on in-person collaboration when your tools are insufficient; you may need fewer or less sophisticated tools if your team operates well in the physical workspace. On the other hand, good digital tools offer many advantages, some of which we’ll touch on below. These advantages add up to flexibility and adaptability for the team, enabling quick transitions to remote work for some or all team members as well as easy connection to the digital workplace when meeting with clients or making a site visit.

Management

No matter which type of workplace you’re in, an important part of managing teams well is building trust. Trust is built with clarity and camaraderie, says Lessonly CEO Max Yoder [1]. The method of building trust necessarily differs between digital and physical workplaces.

In a physical workplace, clarity can come with casual check-ins throughout the day and camaraderie from shared experiences, office lunches, and coffee break chats. In a digital workplace, you have to be more intentional about developing camaraderie and clarity.

Clarity in a digital workplace comes from setting expectations, communicating well and often, and having tools that provide visibility and promote connectivity among the team. Camaraderie is more challenging because it can seem artificial if done poorly. It’s worth the effort though, for the sake of the team and each individual. Build camaraderie by encouraging casual conversation at the start of video meetings, set a caring and empathetic tone in your communications, be aware of the struggles individuals may be facing outside of work, and make sure to publicly praise good work and all kinds of achievements.

Communication

Entire libraries of books have been written on the importance of communication, and even if you’ve had a great communication track record on a traditional co-located team, you will probably find new challenges on a remote team working entirely in a digital workspace.

In a physical workplace, you can have meetings around the table with the benefit of hearing the tone of voice and seeing coworkers’ body language without the drawbacks of glitches caused by slow internet connections, people not realizing they need to mute/unmute their mics, or several people accidentally talking over one another at once. If you get an email in the office and need clarification, you can walk to your teammate’s desk and often have the issue resolved in a matter of moments.

In a digital workspace, communication has to be more deliberate. Remote teams have to make up for the lack of body language and tone of voice when employing written communication and the primary medium of collaboration. Tools and ground rules are critical. A digital workplace must include the right combination of email, chat, and collaboration tools, and managers must set expectations around availability, response times, and tone. It’s important to consider questions of synchronism, durability, and context [2]. While there are challenges in digital communication, the flexibility it allows is an advantage over teams that rely primarily on in-person conversation.

Meetings

When everyone is in the same room, meetings can be a bit more organic. Though a good meeting will always have an agenda, in-person meetings come with some bonuses that virtual meetings do not. Team members can grab a few minutes before the meeting to clarify a point they want to bring for discussion. Coworkers on different teams can touch base quickly after a meeting about a possible collaboration. During the meeting, if your team has built trust, there’s typically a natural energy that originates from people coming together to work on a shared goal. If that energy is absent, you can feel it, and you know there’s a problem to be addressed. The physical workspace itself contributes to the success of the meeting.

Meetings in the digital workplace can feel somewhat forced, especially if your team isn’t accustomed to meeting virtually. You have to deal with technology and scheduling challenges that are less of a problem on a co-located team. However, if you use the right tools, meetings in the digital workplace can give remote teams a sense of connectedness, renew feelings of camaraderie, create clarity around complex issues, and encourage collaborative problem solving. Virtual meetings have the advantage of allowing more people to participate more often than if meetings can only be held in your company’s physical workplace.

Productivity

In most business contexts, we emphasize productivity. There’s nothing wrong with thinking in terms of productivity, but we must adapt how we think about productivity depending on the context.

In a physical workplace, we tend to be task-focused, and we measure productivity based on the number of tasks accomplished in a given amount of time. The tasks are smaller pieces of a larger goal, and managers can easily see if and when employees accomplish a task. Workers can appear productive by sitting at their computers, being in lots of meetings, sending and responding to emails and other forms of communication, and by turning in work. There are many distractions and non-essential tasks in the physical workplace, but as long as a worker stays busy, it’s thought they are being productive.

By contrast, the digital workplace offers fewer opportunities for pseudo-productive activity, and there is a greater emphasis on turning in work. Productivity would be better measured by thinking in terms of objectives rather than tasks. Objective-focused work gives greater responsibility and autonomy to the team member, and this kind of self-management is better for remote workers operating in a digital workplace.

Spanning from digital to physical

Whether you work in a digital workplace or a physical one or find yourself temporarily torn between the two, understanding the differences can help you work more effectively. If your team needs an excellent solution for remote teams, take a look at Kissflow, a unified digital workplace helping teams around the globe stay connected and get things done.