Revolution in the Workspace

(Chapter 9 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)

Employees are not the problem

The typical workplace of today sucks. Big time. We most definitely need a new model for work. What went wrong? Technology was supposed to make our lives easier. In our personal lives, it certainly has, but when it comes to work, many of us are working longer and longer hours with horribly designed technology, and getting paid less. Stress is everywhere.

There may be a whole range of reasons for this, but at the heart of everything is that management does not value its workers. A 2015 poll by found that almost half of US workers said they “never” feel appreciated for their hard work. Only 10% feel that they get some occasional praise from their managers. These are truly shocking figures but they are sadly typical.

Management has broken the social contract with its workforce and bought into the myth that technology is the solution to the “human” problem. Management culture is on a relentless drive to eliminate jobs and remove benefits. Those employees that are left get hardly any focus. Yes, technology does replace jobs, but there are precious few organizations that can run on technology alone. The best organizations have great technology and great people, who are well trained and highly motivated.

Things are changing though, partly driven by the Millennial Attitude. “Decades ago nobody cared about the employee experience because all of the power was in the hands of employers,” Jacob Morgan wrote for Forbes in 2015. “The power has now shifted into the hands of employees. Organizations have always assumed that they can create a place where they assumed people needed to work there and are now realizing that they must create a place where people want to work there. The war for talent has never been more fierce.”

Unfortunately, in the majority of organizations, the “war for talent” has not yet resulted in much improvement in the work environment. Most employees are still seen as mere incidental bit players in a game where they will be ultimately replaced by machines or outsourced to some country where people work for much less. Thus, the role of technology in organizations is not to support employees but rather to track, manage and ultimately replace them. The idea that technology should be used to help employees do their jobs faster and easier is not even something that would enter the typical senior manager’s mind.

Knowledge workers think for a living. They use information to make decisions. They work with ideas. They design solutions to problems. They are the workers who are left after you’ve outsourced everything you can outsource and replaced as many as possible with new technology. Up until now, there has been an almost total lack of human-centered design thinking when it comes to how we use work-based technologies for these workers. Management does not care about the usability of the digital workspace of knowledge workers. They see technology as a means of management control rather than employee enablement. For the vast majority of managers this is not some malicious scheme but rather an old model mindset and culture that they have slipped into.

Because many knowledge workers are on a salary and thus don’t get overtime, management feels that it can use as much of this time as it likes. This cultural mindset has resulted in unsatisfactory work environments that are highly unproductive, dispiriting and overwhelming for employees. That’s all about to change.

What happened to the four day week?

“After World War II, Americans were told that if they worked hard and played by the rules, a technological utopia was just over the horizon,” Matt Novak wrote for Paleofuture in 2014. When Winston Churchill was UK Prime Minister in the 1950s, he believed that advances in technology would enable society to give “the working man what he’s never had — four days’ work and then three days’ fun.”

In 1997, McKinsey wrote a visionary report about knowledge work. It estimated that even at that stage, 51% of work in the US was knowledge work. Much of the report was genuinely insightful, predicting, among other things, that banking would be seriously shaken up. However, again it fell into the trap of technology utopianism when it predicted that all this wonderful technology would ensure that “workers could do their jobs in less than half of the time they currently spend.”

“The elephant in offices all around the world is that people are running on empty,” Tony Schwartz wrote for The New York Times in 2015. “If you are expected to work 60 or 70 hours a week, or to stay connected in the evenings and on the weekends, or you can’t take at least four weeks of vacation a year, or you don’t have reasonable flexibility about when and where you work, then your company can’t be a great place to work.” The evidence is everywhere. For example, Adweek reported in 2015 that 80% of marketers say they are overloaded and understaffed.

Decision factories

Why with so many technological advances do we have such awful, unproductive workplaces? Bad design. Most workplace technology has technical design but very little design that is focused on making the technology easy and fast to use. Management has bought into the myth that all they need to do is pay the bill for the technology, and this has led to a world of enterprise technology that is focused on selling itself to senior management, knowing that nobody cares about how easy it is to use. So, we get technology full of features and technical prowess that is quite simply a nightmare to use.

Knowledge workers work in “decision factories”. A good digital workspace should help them make faster, better decisions. “Companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers,” according to Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Their raw materials are data, either from their own information systems or from outside providers. They produce lots of memos and presentations full of analyses and recommendations. They engage in production processes — called meetings — that convert this work to finished goods in the form of decisions. Decision factories have arguably become corporate America’s largest cost…. And as China and other low-cost jurisdictions bring more and more manual workers on-stream, the developed economies will become ever more reliant on knowledge workers, whose productivity may therefore be THE management challenge of our times.”

This is the challenge for the enterprise designer! To make knowledge workers the most efficient and productive they can be.

If the typical knowledge worker “factory” was organized like a traditional factory, it would be shut down. Finding the right information or the right person is a cruel joke in most organizations today. (Unless you know who to ask.) Enterprise Search is considered a critical success factor in 78% of organizations responding to a 2013 global survey by Findwise, but only 3% of respondents considered it very easy to find the information they needed using search. “Research by Atos Origin highlighted that the average employee spends 40% of their working week dealing with internal emails which add no value to the business, according to The Guardian in 2012. “In short, your colleagues only start working on anything of value from Wednesday each week.”

There is an absolutely massive productivity gain to be achieved if we can create simpler, more effective digital workspaces. The way we achieve this is by focusing on employee top tasks and by measuring the outcomes of these tasks. We must measure whether employees are able to find the people and experts they need, for example, not whether we have a system for finding people. We must shift from managing inputs to managing employee outcomes.

Technology for management control

“This is going to be a very effective sales management system,” I heard the IT executive state. “It will deliver so much more rich information to management.”

“Okay, so the system that it replaces required a sales rep go through three steps in order enter a sales lead, and this new one has 13 steps …” I waited for him to see the absurdity of asking busy, stressed out sales reps to go through 13 horribly designed steps, when they were used to going through just three steps. But he didn’t get it. “Give them a half-day’s training,” was his reply. “They’ll be fine.” It is sad to say that this IT manager was typical of the managers I have met over 20 years of consulting on intranets.

As Bill Jensen wrote for Huffington Post in 2015, “The majority of corporate infrastructures, tools, budgeting, resourcing and reporting relationships are still corporate-centered — designed to make it simpler for the company to succeed — but usually more complex for each individual.” This new 13-step lead input system was going to deliver rich data to senior managers that would help them much more easily control their sales reps. The sales reps were essentially being asked to work harder so that they could be micromanaged more. Classic old model thinking.

In our personal lives, we control the technologies, we use them and they are there to serve us. In our work lives, it can often seem that the technologies are there to control us, that they are imposed on us. Not only are they horrible to use but the purpose of the information that we put into them is often so that management can have more control over what we are doing.

Employees are beginning to revolt. In 2013, for example, Avon cancelled a $125 million investment in a SAP enterprise system that had taken 4 years of effort to install. Basically, Avon sales people refused to use it because it was a usability nightmare. A 2013 study by Merkle Group found that 63% of these sales management projects failed. Numerous other studies show that up to 70% of IT projects fail. That’s beyond shocking.

There is no greater testament to the failure of traditional IT than the Bring Your Own Device trend. According to IDC, the number of employees who will be bringing their own devices to work will rise from 175 million in 2014 to 328 million in 2017. The core purpose of an organization should be to organize. This is a revolt of the employees against their organizations’ systems. If employees feel they must bring their own devices in order to be organized, then what is the purpose of the organization?

Organizations globally are sitting on historically high levels of cash, yet they are not investing it in order to make themselves better organized. Twenty five years ago if you told someone you worked for a large organization, they envied all your access to the coolest technology. Now, they sympathize with you. “Consumer IT spend has grown five times in a decade,” Mark Hurd, Oracle CEO stated in 2015. “Companies’ IT spend in that time frame is flat — and 82% of their spend is on maintenance; only 18% on innovation. Consumers are innovating. Companies are not. Companies have to keep up.”

Productivity is hurting

“A decade-long global decline in productivity growth threatens future competitiveness, profitability, wages, and living standards in both mature and emerging economies,” The Conference Board announced in its 2015 report on global productivity. The report was backed up by analysis from the Wall Street Journal which found productivity in the US had halved between the 1990s and the 2000s.

“A detailed analysis of different metrics since the mid-2000s shows the primary problem with productivity is not inefficient workers,” said Bart van Ark, The Conference Board chief economist. “Rather, companies and countries appear increasingly unable to translate investments in technology and innovation into timely gains in output.” Why? Lack of employee and customer-centered design thinking, lack of simplicity thinking, little or no focus on ease-of-use. And the wrong metrics. The old model measured the technology itself, not its use.

Focusing on use means focusing on things like findability. It means focusing on usefulness. How long did it take the sales rep to add a lead? Can we make it simpler and faster? How long does it take them to find the sales presentation for Product X? Did they have to call or email someone because they couldn’t find it through search? Was it useful when they found it? Was it up-to-date? Was it the best one? Or was it one of 20 other slightly similar sales presentations for Product X that left the sales rep confused and annoyed as they opened each one trying to figure out which was the best one to use?

In most organizations, these knowledge management systems are not much more than fetid dumps of out-of-date duplicates of information that wasn’t even much good to begin with. 80–90% of marketing collateral plays no useful role in the selling process, according to Andy Markowitz, from the Lead Performance Marketing Lab at GE. “Product marketing sits in an ivory tower and ‘creates a promotional potpourri … of sweet smelling stuff’ that is appealing to them,” according to Tom Evans, CompellingPM. As a result, “sales reps spend less than one-third (32%) of their time selling and pitching prospects, according to The Huffington Post. “They spend a near-equal amount of time (31%) searching for sales collateral or creating their own branded content.”

It all comes back to the old model culture of production, the cult of volume, the cult of content as ego. More and more and more. In 1997, I worked on my first intranet and since then in practically every intranet project, we have had to delete up to 90% of the content in order to make the intranet useful. That happens year-in year-out but organizations measure success based on the production of stuff, rather than on the sales rep being able to quickly find the right sales presentation. To change this culture you must test top sales tasks with real sales reps and show management what it is actually like to be a sales rep. If you’re lucky, their reaction will be one of shock because it will likely be the very first time they will have seen a real sales rep actually try to do their job using the unusable systems that management bought.

Email is a classic example of a production culture. In 2013, there were over 100 billion business emails sent every day, and this is expected to rise to 130 billion by 2017. And with mobile, we can send and read 24–7, from the train, on the toilet, in bed, on top of a mountain even. A study by Apex Performance found that 70% of respondents received more than 20 emails a day. Half of them checked their email more than 11 times a day, which is about every 20 minutes. Productivity requires focus. A 2007 survey by Microsoft found that it took employees an average of 15 minutes to regain focus after they had responded to an email or phone call. It’s a miracle anything gets done at all.

In a digital economy, the scarcest resource is good people and their time. Clayton Christensen believes that we have an outdated assumption that capital is the scarce resource. “But capital,” he explains, “is no longer in short supply — witness the $1.6 trillion in cash on corporate balance sheets — and, if companies want to maximize returns on it, they must stop behaving as if it were. We would contend that the ability to attract talent, and the processes and resolve to deploy it against growth opportunities, are far harder to come by than cash.” A 2015 study by IDT found that the organizations surveyed felt that only 27% of their business executives possessed the technology skills necessary for digital transformation, while only 39% said they had the skills required to manage Big Data. Despite this skills gap, only 10% of the respondents said that they had recruitment / training programs in place to close the skill gap.

So, we’re still at a scary moment. While organizations recognize that digital transformation is essential, a great many of them are not at all prepared for this challenges that transformation throws up. Thus, they are more likely to face extinction rather than transformation. You need to evaluate your organization on an ongoing basis.

New model organizations will focus on creating the simplest, fastest and most useful possible environment for the knowledge worker. These are the people who will make the digital transformation a reality. We must make the best use of their time. We must become obsessed with optimizing knowledge worker time — from the point of view of the knowledge worker!

In the Nineties (before Google maps!), I consulted for a very large global organization that had multiple locations, even in the same city. Finding an office or factory building was no easy task. There were countless maps and directions, much of them badly designed and out of date. We tested some “find a location” tasks and discovered that it took an average of 4 minutes to find a particular location. With a new design, ongoing management and a focus on simplicity, we estimated that we could reduce the time to find a location from 4 minutes to 1. There were 10,000 find a location requests every month.

When I presented this to a senior manager, he just shrugged. “Three minutes? They could be out smoking a cigarette.”

“Yes,” was my reply. “They could. But right now, these three minutes are lost. If we simplify, you get the three minutes back. It’s then up to you to use it productively.” He smiled at my innocence.

“These are just soft metrics,” he stated. “Tell me how many people I can fire after you save these minutes. Then I’m interested.”

Employees are fighting back

“The 80-hour work week is a sham,” Bloomberg wrote in 2015, “A recent study outed a group of people, mostly men, who play the part of the workaholic, feigning brutal hours, while covertly keeping a more humane schedule.” Only a total idiot would actually work an 80 hour week every week. People know they’re being exploited and are finding subtle ways to fight back. “The workplace is where people go to work,” Peter Fleming, of City University London, writes for the BBC. “But much of the day is increasingly padded out with less productive activities.”

This macho culture of putting in the hours is draining our productivity and creativity. Maybe it can work for a while in messianic companies like Amazon, who seem to attract extreme high achievers, who get a thrill out of burning themselves and their co-workers out, but in the long-term this testosterone-soaked landscape is poisonous to all but the workaholics.

“I wanted to introduce you to the 10 Power Commandments,” a leaked note to interns from an analyst at Barclays’ financial group stated. “We expect you to be the last ones to leave every night, no matter what … I recommend bringing a pillow to the office … Play time is over and it’s time to buckle up.” Is this exceptional? Not really. Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt died in 2013 as a result of an epileptic seizure after working 72 hours straight. He obviously wasn’t management material. And we wonder why management lacks empathy? And we wonder why financial institutions drove us over a cliff in 2007? Not surprisingly, “the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large,” according to Forbes.

Now, I know you’re thinking: I can’t change any of this. Yes you can. Behave like a Millennial. Ask why? Switch. Switch brands. Switch jobs. The foundation of the old model is built on our apathy and loyalty. Don’t accept these ridiculous working conditions. Find others who agree with you because all around you people are thinking: “This is a crazy way to have to work.” If the revolution in the workspace is to gain momentum, it must start with people like you. It certainly is highly unlikely to start at higher-up levels because the old model helps them rake in the mega salaries and bonuses.

Disengaged, overwhelmed employees

This is the age of disengagement at work. According to Gallup, in 2014 almost 70% of US employees felt disengaged with their jobs. Worldwide, Gallup estimates that 87% of employees are not engaged at work. Companies lose $350 billion a year because of employee disengagement, according to Dale Carnegie Training.

U.S. employee engagement: 2014

Two-third of employees feel “overwhelmed,” according to a 2014 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey of 2,500 organizations in 90 countries. 70% of people say that they would describe themselves as “happy” in their personal lives when interviewed for a Future of Work survey. However, only 29% agreed with the statement, “I can achieve my dreams and goals where I currently work.” A 2015 Workboard survey found that “disengagement abounds, as 87 percent of employees are not inspired to achieve goals, and 93 percent of employees can’t relate company goals to their everyday actions.”

Management disconnect

A 2014 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of US employees found that 45% do not trust senior management, and do not believe they provide effective leadership. In 2014, Harvard Business Review found that half of employees don’t feel respected by their bosses. In the same year, Forbes found that employees who stay in companies longer than two years get paid 50% less than those who switch. Yes, you read that right: the more loyal you are, the less you get paid.

53% of CEOs admitted, in a 2014 Teradata survey, that their employees don’t have access to the information they need to do their jobs well. That’s a pretty scary number. What is the purpose of management if not to provide employees with the information to do their jobs?

Employee access to information: 2014

However, an even scarier number arises when they asked employees. 73% said they didn’t have the right information to do their jobs. “CEOs are convinced that their organizations are doing a far better job with data analytics than they actually are,” the survey authors stated. Your rebel mission is to bring the experience of employees to management. Have them see first-hand what it’s actually like to work in the organization.

A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey in 2012 found that more respondents felt trust between management and employees was weak, rather than strong. However, as you went up the management chain, the feeling was that trust between management and employees was okay.

Today, 80% of Millennials are dual-income couples, while only 47% of top management are part of a dual income family, according to a report from Ernst & Young. “I really see that there’s an empathy gap in the workplace,” Karyn Twaronite from Ernst & Young told the Washington Post. “When there’s frustration about work-life balance in the workplace, and you think your boss doesn’t get it, that very likely could be true.”

The old model organization is hierarchical and disconnected. Management lives in a different world and interacts with employees through reports and screens. Very little empathy flows downward. If you work in such an environment, you don’t have to. There is a global skills shortage for people like you. Switch. Find a new model organization where management actually cares about employees and customers, where leadership is a collaborative process. Because that’s the organization that’s going to thrive in the digital future.

Designing purposeful work

It’s hard to be engaged with your work when it has no real meaning or purpose. Factory workers at least make cars and fridges and other physical things that have a clear and obvious use. What do knowledge workers make? They make documents and PowerPoints and web pages — and if they’re lucky — decisions. They make software and apps and graphics and interfaces. They make emails, and all sorts of other content. They make endless meetings.

Most knowledge workers rarely see what they make being used. I have known software coders and technical writers who spent years writing technical documentation / code that they never saw used. They saw their job as producing stuff. This lack of feedback is a classic symptom of the old model silo organization. The result is a debilitating, purposeless environment.

I once worked with a large intranet which contained a substantial amount of policies. We tested real policy tasks with real employees. They struggled to find the policies but even worse when they found them, most didn’t understand them. They misinterpreted them, left with the wrong answer. When we presented the results, the policy writers stared at us. One of them said: “Why are you telling us this. We just write the policies.” For this lady, there was no connection between the writing of the policy and its readability and usefulness. Once she published a policy, she could tick the “compliant” box and that was her job done, as far as she was concerned. And as far as the organization was concerned too. We could not find anyone in this large organization who actually felt it was their job to ensure that employees actually understood the policies. Nobody cared.

Some years later, we went through a continuous improvement testing process for policies at another large organization. One particular area moved from an initial 30% success rate to an 80% success rate after lots of work simplifying the navigation and content. When we presented the results, there was a spontaneous round of applause from everyone in the room. And the employees involved in the rewriting beamed with satisfaction. They had worked hard but they could see a result. They were helping employees solve problems. One of them told me that, in all the years she had worked with the company, this was the first time she had got useful feedback for her work.

The Web is the bridge between production and use. If we focus on use, and reward things that are easy to use, then we encourage purposeful work. Without feedback, life dies. Without feedback, work dies. Your organization desperately needs feedback pipes to be installed. Pipes that connect producer and consumer. You may not be able to solve the management disconnect problem, but you can help lay these feedback pipes, and that is a major start towards the new model. Positive feedback is more important than negative feedback. Tell employees about how what they did:

· Increased the success rate for a task.

· Reduced the time it took to complete a task.

Publisher saves time, visitor spends time

Old model organizations measure within the silo / department. A new model organization measures the impact the silo has on the network. In the old silo-based departmental model, the organization manages the time of the departmental employee, and ignores the time of the other employees outside a particular department.

For years, Tetra Pak has shown the slide on the preceding page to people who want to publish content on its intranet. If the publisher does things in a hurry and saves a document as a PDF and doesn’t bother adding any metadata, then it will only take 10 minutes to publish. However, it will take employees 60 minutes to find and properly understand this document. In the preceding example, 310 minutes of Tetra Pak time have been consumed. This is the standard management approach for an old model organization.

Publisher spends time, visitor saves time

However, if the publisher takes 60 minutes and edits the document appropriately, publishes as HTML and adds useful metadata, then it will only take 10 minutes for the employees to find and understand. 110 minutes of Tetra Pak time have been consumed. It’s a no brainer, isn’t it? The publisher should spend 60 minutes.

Except that this is totally not the case in the vast majority of organizations because they use the metrics of production rather than the metrics of consumption, and they measure the silo, not the organization as a whole. The publisher exists within a silo / department. Their time is being measured. They are asked why they are spending 10 minutes. Can they not do it within 5 minutes? The faster they do it the better. Because their cost is part of a budget.

The visitors’ / employees’ time is not measured — the person who exists outside the silo and needs to consume the content. Nobody is responsible for the time of other employees who are trying to find and use this content. Nobody feels responsible for those 30 hours a month the sales rep spend searching for presentations, and then, in frustration, making up their own. This is why productivity is not growing at the rate it should. We must ditch the old model where we only measured production. It is simply not fit for purpose anymore. We must embrace the new model that focuses on use. Focusing on use will transform the workplace.

Read the previous chapter: Millennial Attitude

Read the next chapter: A Map for the Digital Workspace

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