The road to remote, part 2: spaces, support and comms

Woman working at home
Photo credit: Corinne Kutz, Unsplash

The week or so since our last post has seen some major names move toward a remote-first future. Mastercard announced it expects staff to work at home until there is a vaccine, while Facebook shared their plans to shift around 50% of staff to permanent remote work.

With the landscape moving so quickly, Matt and I spent some time last week working through the remaining themes we identified as priorities for organisations that want to make remote an enabler of (rather than a barrier to) delivery of their strategy.

In our first post we looked at systems, structure, shared values, skills and roles and strategy. Take a look.

Now we turn to the final four themes


For a long time, offices – like factories before them – where were you accessed the equipment necessary to get work done. The availability of cheap laptops and ubiquitous broadband means this hasn’t been the case for at least a decade. 

Nonetheless, offices continued to be the primary place of work because of their secondary purpose; the belief that bringing people together in the same place helped to foster collaborative working. Rows of open plan desks gave way to mixed environments offering impromptu meeting spaces to facilitate this. Even the most digital of companies such as Google and Facebook continued to encourage employees to come to the office in order to foster innovation.

Covid changed all of that, forcing all to figure out how we can work individually from home. In the past 10 weeks we’ve used collaboration tools to try re-create the in-person interactions we had while working in the physical office.

Spaces are now sitting empty, and people are wondering what we do with them next. There’s an assumption that we’ll continue to work at home for individual tasks, with offices being re-configured for more collaborative in-person working such as workshops once this is all over.

However, early indications suggest that assumption could be some way off the mark. Social distancing rules dictate that even where offices are being re-opened, meeting rooms and breakout areas need to stay out of bounds. A room that could have hosted ten is now strictly capped at two. How do you manage a group brainstorm around the whiteboard while keeping everyone two metres apart?

You don’t. You need to do what Matt and I did for this session and find ways to do this online. 

(We used Miro, a tool we’ve both become evangelical about in recent weeks, because it allows you to do things collaboratively with people in a way that you can’t do in physical space, focusing conversation yet making it possible to integrate other media. It’s what hypertext was supposed to be.)

People will need to learn how to use such tools for virtual collaboration. But putting collaborative tools into the hands of every employee democratises them and, in turn, drives up the quality of collaboration. Especially when compared with scarce physical tools such as interactive meeting room whiteboards.

And once these skills and habits have been gained, it leaves open the question of what physical workplaces are actually for.

But physical spaces serve other purposes. These include:

  • Access to specialist equipment: clearly a research scientist is not going to set up a complete lab in their spare bedroom
  • Status symbols: those big glass towers making up some of the world’s most expensive real estate in New York, London and Hong Kong send a clear message about your brand and stability
  • Proof of life: for smaller companies, a physical office is considered evidence you exist, helping to build trust with customers
  • Grounding in the community: this is especially true for local businesses, public/voluntary sector organisations or those with a longstanding connection with place

Additionally, there will always be some people who can’t – or don’t want to – work from home. For example someone living in crowded accommodation with children at home. 

So organisations shift to remote or distributed work, their use of physical space will change but not disappear. The focus will move to supporting smaller numbers of staff with specific needs for office space, and those secondary purposes listed above. Office space – and the roles supporting it – becomes a cost to be minimised. 

This has some potentially huge second-order effects for property markets and for cities. WeWork’s business model looks even more precarious than it was, as corporate tenants retrench from secondary spaces on short leases to their owned properties. At the same time, we could see the rise of local co-working hubs providing office space for those who need it without the long (and in these socially-distanced times, potentially dangerous) commute. The Irish community organisation Grow Remote provides a useful model here; they champion physical and virtual hubs to those working remotely diverse organisations benefit from connection with one another and with the communities in which they’re based.

One outstanding question is what, if anything, replaces the function of the building as a signal of prestige. What’s the digital equivalent of the client floor or the tower projecting its logo across Hong Kong’s harbour? 

Corporate communications

Organisations and their leadership need to communicate to their people about their goals, values and progress. They want to align employee action with their purpose and objectives, and keep people engaged and informed. 

In the past couple of decades the internal communications profession has moved away from a top-down distribution role to one of curator, controller and advisor. They understand what is going on in the organisation at all levels, ensuring that employees are in the loop, and facilitate two-way conversation between employees and leadership.

Covid has forced corporate communications into crisis mode. The priority has been to keep people informed about what their employers are doing to keep them safe, keep customers happy, keep people in work and ensure the business stays solvent. And at the same time, many of the most effective tools in the communicators’ armoury aren’t available, like the old-fashioned poster and digital signage.

The result has been an overwhelming shift to broadcast channels. In a straw poll during my keynote at last week’s Brussels Digital Workplace Event, 87% of attendees said they had relied especially on email and 82% on a traditional intranet to keep employees in the loop. But at the same time, organisations have had to more actively listen to what employees, using things like sentiment analysis.

As organisations shift to this New Abnormal, corporate communications can’t simply go back to what they were doing pre-Covid. Instead, they need to redesign their channel architecture and content strategy around the needs of employees who rarely come into the office.

That means:

  • Understanding employees’ need for communication, and taking a user needs focused approach to designing and delivering it
  • Offering a mix of push and pull channels, so people receive the information they need, but also have the means to find what they want and be confident it’s accurate
  • Finding ways to cut though the (now somewhat overwhelming) noise and ensure what people get is relevant and timely. This could mean borrowing techniques from digital marketing and using data to target employees effectively. But equally, it could mean looking at how messages naturally propagate within organisations – via the grapevine – and hacking that.
  • Finding the right balance between listening to employees and understanding what they want, without surveiling them

Getting this balance right means relying less on copying best practices, and rather on understanding employee needs, experimenting with new approaches, and seeing what gets cut through. All of that requires a more robust approach to measurement.

Organisational communication

Related to this – and often using the same channels – is how people within organisations communicate with one another to get work done. 

In a physically co-located team, communication is implicit. That is, you pick up on conversations happening around you. You can lean over the desk and say “Hey, Dave, are you working on this? Do you know where this file is? Can you tell me the latest on this customer?”. That communication is largely synchronous, in that it happens while you’re both in the room, and much of it is tacit; we communicate without even thinking about it, through our body language and tone.

In recovery mode we’re still working synchronously, but we’re having to work much harder to do that, and be more deliberate. But that’s exhausting. It also demands more of our energy and attention; Zoom fatigue is a very real phenomenon. 

Making this work long term means retaining that explicit, deliberate communication, but adapting it to be less time-consuming and attention-demanding by embracing asynchronicity.

That means mixing up modes and channels, using interactive channels (like Miro) or collaborative documents, rather than video feeds. 

Embracing asynchronous working has secondary benefits, too. It means more knowledge and conversation is committed to corporate memory, and allows people to work more flexibility across shifts or time zones. 

To shift to asynchronous communication and collaboration in order to become truly remote-first, organisations need to give people training, coaching and time to experiment with a flexible suite of tools.


Organisations offer support to employees to get their work done – from providing transactional services to troubleshooting issues and problems with equipment, facilities, software and so on.

Traditionally this is offered on a tool-by-tool or service-by-service basis, meaning the overall support landscape is as fractured and siloed as the organisation itself.

In a traditional workplace this is augmented by informal support. People will turn to a longer serving or otherwise helpful colleague to help them resolve problems.

Shifting to home work has left employees reliant on digital channels to get work done, but often struggling to access help to resolve problems or learn new systems, as colleague support is unavailable and helpdesks overwhelmed.

For organisations to turn remote work into a strategic advantage, they need a greater focus on supporting employees to be engaged and productive. They need to understand that employees are reliant on a complex and fragmented set of tools to get work done, and when these aren’t working employees are left frustrated and productive time is lost.

This means:

  • Replacing fractured single-system help with a concierge approach focused on unblocking problems for the user quickly
  • At the same time, helping employees to build their digital skills and confidence to use the tools they have and resolve their own problems
  • Consider the overall digital employee experience and, where possible, streamline and simplify this so it’s designed around the needs of staff and not the structure of the organisation
  • Build informal support networks to help resolve issues and unblock problems, and to share advice and learning with one another as it’s learned
  • Managers understanding the role they play in unblocking barriers and creating a successful work environment – and leading by example

On reflection, it makes sense to roll this into the ‘Roles and skills’ theme we covered in the last session.


Across all of our themes there were some clear principles:

  • Re-thinking how work gets done rather than translating existing office-based ways of working to digital channels
  • Taking a user needs-focused approach, understanding barriers to effective distributed/remote working and how these can be ameliorated
  • Helping people build their skills in communication and collaboration so they can embrace asynchronous working
  • Trust underpins all effective remote working. Organisations must look at how this can be built and sustained at scale and for the long haul.

In his WB40 podcast, Matt talked to Dave Coplin about his recent research. Coplin found trust for managers in their employees was important, but so too was trust in peers. Managers need to know that work is being done (and done properly) and employees at all levels need confidence that their peers are pulling their weight too. 

Measuring productivity in knowledge workers is notoriously difficult. Very little work can easily be attributed to outcomes, forcing us to measure outputs and throughputs instead (particularly in public sector organisations, where there may be pressure to demonstrate value for money). But such measurement is largely inaccurate (as anyone who receives weekly emails from Microsoft’s MyAnalytics can attest) and open to being gamed. 

Striking the right balance between demands for productivity monitoring, sentiment analysis and creepy employee surveillance presents one of the first thorny challenges organisations face as they move from recovery mode to the long haul. 

The two whiteboard sessions enabled us to evolve our model a little. Here’s version 2. It’s still a work in progress and we’re keen to get your thoughts on how it can be improved. Let us know in the comments.

What’s setting social alight in 2017?

It’s a year since I got out my crystal ball and made some predictions for social media in 2016. Was I right? Partially.

It was indeed a steady-as-she-goes kind of year on social, with brands focusing their resources on a smaller number of channels rather than experimenting with new ones. Meanwhile, the platforms themselves have evolved, driven particularly by a desire to compete with upstart mega-unicorn Snapchat. Chat and real-time interaction grew. But the financial services sector has been slower to move than I predicted, so my suggestion that banks would finally embrace Instagram and move mobile wallets to social wasn’t as accurate.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see where social media is going; it’s becoming more visual, more creative, more interactive – and more commercial. But that’s balanced by growing demands for quality and veracity. So what’s going to set the social world alight in 2017?

Going live

The biggest new trend this year was live video, which burst on the scene in 2015, but really took off this year with Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Instagram Stories all trying to copy Snapchat. Live social video was at the centre of several big news events, and it quickly became a key tool in the news producer’s armoury.

Forward-thinking brands such as the FT are already on board with this. My guess is that the ‘mass market’ will follow suit soon, as a means of giving audiences a view behind the scenes while delivering engaging content quickly and cheaply. The platforms themselves are starting to roll out support for pro users (such as Periscope Producer) and by the end of 2017 brands should have live video as a central plank of their social media strategy.

Twitter: turn it off or turn it up

It’s been a tough year for Twitter with its share price dropping following failed takeover talks. But it’s responded to rumours of its demise by pivoting from a social network to a real-time news and entertainment company and embracing its place as a second screen in an attempt to regain lost audiences.

As a result brands will question the value of Twitter as a delivery mechanism for content and links to websites. Some will close their channels, but more switched-on communicators will up their Twitter game to capitalise on the strong relationship between Twitter and TV.

Twitter audiences are smaller but highly influential compared to those on other channels. 35% of Twitter users regularly share their opinions on people and brands; these people are a third more likely to actually convince people of their opinions. They have a discovery mindset and seek content that is live, open and shareable so they can influence and engage others in an informed way.

Top-performing social brands can leverage this by using their feeds to provide the “pub argument ammo” this influential group want. That means shareable visuals which inform and educate, plus key facts that help them back up an argument.

Twitter’s not dead, but it’s a very different beast to 2008 so brands need to revise how they use it to make the most of its current strengths.

Enabling self-expression

In this year’s Internet Trends Report Mary Meeker charted the evolution of social tools that enable people to express themselves by creating an artefact – beginning with simple emojis through to Bitstrips and, more recently, Snapchat, with its simple-to-use lenses.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with apps like playground phenomenon  taking off this year. In 2017 brands will need to find new ways to enable their customers to be creative if they want to win the battle for eyeballs.

Hybrid public-enterprise social

Facebook’s now well established as a customer service channel, but the long-anticipated launch of Workplace, Facebook’s first foray into the enterprise market, creates new possibilities for conversation to flow in and out of organisations seamlessly.

So for example a customer could raise a query on the brand’s public Facebook page, a customer care team could pick it up and use Workplace to investigate and discuss it, before responding to the customer via Messenger. Workplace’s app platform could make it easy to track conversations flowing between public and closed social spaces in order to deliver better customer experiences.

Quality filters

With the rise of fake news, inaccurate polls and political attacks on experts, 2016 has been a challenging year for the concept of truth – and nowhere more so than on social media. The tech firms have already announced drives to clean up their newsfeed, but this is likely to be a race to stay ahead of the spammers.

The desire for quality could push users to seek out trusted names to help them filter, using humans rather than algorithms. So while some have declared the reign of the celebrity influencer to be over, the demand for content quality could create a new generation of influential ‘quality filterers’.

Facebook have released Signal for journalists to help them with the task of curating content to improve content quality, and I expect further moves from all the main platforms to rebuild trust in shared content.

Inside-out advocacy

The dawn of the post-truth era brings new challenges for organisations and brands, who need to find more creative ways of getting their messages through to an increasingly cynical public. This year’s Ipsos-Mori Veracity Index highlighted how little faith the public have in business leaders, politicians, economists and civil servants – yet trust in ‘the ordinary man in the street’ remains strong. Brands can take advantage of that trust by equipping and encouraging ordinary employees to share on their behalf.

There are a host of social amplification apps on the market which allow comms teams to upload content for their employees to share. But this has to be a voluntary process – the employee needs to choose to open the app, choose content and share it on.

Faced with the need to make content appealing enough to be both read and shared, companies who want to leverage their employees’ networks will be forced to up their content game. 2017 could be the year companies start giving employees content as compelling and engaging as that given to customers.

Chatbots take off

Customers increasingly expect prompt service via social channels, placing pressure on companies to resource real-time social customer care. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help manage that demand, in the form of chatbots – computer programs that you interact with by “chatting”, for example in threads in messaging apps. These are an important new human/machine interface, simulating intelligent conversation, answering queries and managing simple workflows, increasing the speed of engagement with customers.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the Facebook Messenger Platform to third party chatbots in April, and in the months since more than 30,000 have been built.

2017 will be a year of conversation, with customers talking to brands on Messenger, WhatsApp or Slack. Bots will enable that growth as they become more realistic and more human.

Chatbots are able to bridge the gap between services designed for humans (like text message) and those designed for machines, by breaking complex transactions into conversations. And these conversational interfaces will open up digital engagement to groups who have previously struggled to use online services, by making them more human in design.

Conclusion: convergence creating complexity

The most notable trend for 2016 has been the race for each of the main platforms to ape one another. Snapchat copied Facebook by adding Memories. Instagram encouraged users to share Snapchat-like content by adding Stories. Facebook is testing Snapchat-like disappearing messages and added Twitter-like trending topics.

This creates more complexity for users – and for brands, who now have to plan for multiple different content types within each of their channels. In the short term this gives communicators the option to experiment with different, visual content types to see what works. But by the end of 2017 I expect most will have worked out where they get the most bang for their buck and will settle into a more regular publishing pattern that’s more focused in order to reach the right audience with the right content.

What the 2016 Meeker report means for the digital workplace

Each spring analyst Mary Meeker releases one of the most hotly anticipated slide decks of the year (arguably, the only hotly-anticipated slide deck…). Packed with stats on adoption and use of internet technologies, over the past decade it’s become the most comprehensive analysis of the State of the Internet around.

Her 2016 report was released a few days ago (1 June), and I’ve had a chance to pick out some trends which I think may create demands on digital workplace professionals in the coming years.

Arise, the Snapchat generation

In last year’s report Meeker noted Millennials were no longer an opportunity or threat to prepare for, but now the majority in the workplace.

This year she talks for the first time about Generation Z – a group she describes as “tech innate”, using five screens at once. While Gen Z aren’t yet making themselves known in the workplace, they’re only a few short years away from doing so.

Gen Z, Meeker notes, have a notable preference for image-based platforms such as Snapchat over text-based ones. In my last blog post I warned against lazy generational generalisations – and that’s borne out by the report too.  While Snapchat use has ballooned amongst younger people, use of it and similar image-based tools is growing (albeit not as fast) among all age groups.

That’s because images work; they impact us both cognitively and emotionally, which makes them able to tell a story in the blink of an eye. By embracing the power of images and design we can make digital internal communication more effective. But at the same time this creates challenges; image-based communication is difficult (often impossible) to index for search, and problematic for accessibility. Proceed with care.

Messaging is massive

There are now an astounding three billion messages sent daily on Snapchat, Facebook (inc FB Messenger), Instagram and WhatsApp.

And a significant proportion of messenger-based conversation will be about work. Most DW practitioners will admit that WhatsApp has become the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise collaboration. With employees now carrying more advanced and more usable technology in their pockets than they’re given by corporate IT, they’ve voted with their feet and opted for shadow IT on an unprecedented scale, particularly tools like WhatsApp and Slack.

Too many corporate IT teams have their heads still firmly in the sand on this one. It’s particularly challenging for those in regulated industries to admit their employees are eschewing corporate channels for untrackable personal tools – but it’s now far too widespread to ignore.

Beyond conversation

With Facebook now over a decade old, people have become more sophisticated in their use of social tools, which they now see as delivering far more than simply messaging with friends. The growth of business-focused conversation is driven in particular by Asian IM2.0 apps WeChat, Line and Kakao.

People aren’t content to be passive consumers of information anymore; SnapChat is simply the latest in a long line of tools which enable self-expression and creativity.

Corporate communicators need to consider ways to embed and leverage this innate need to create and converse in their communication processes and tools. Lengthy news stories haven’t cut it for a long time, and they’re unlikely to win in a battle for attention with a sponsored Snapchat filter.

Messaging apps are fast becoming platforms for commerce, and it follows they will soon expect to be able to transact in a similar way using their enterprise tools. Smart companies need to start thinking now how they can use things like Slack integrations to deliver this.

People have become adept at filtering out unnecessary information, demonstrated by the explosion in use of adblockers that Meeker notes. 81% of people will mute video ads – and chances are they’ll do the same with your dull corporate internal comms video too.

But good content still works, if it’s relevant. People have come to expect hyper-targeting, and they expect something of value in exchange for their attention. This requires corporate communicators to have a radical rethink of the way they create and share information – an app or mobile intranet isn’t likely to do the job.

You talkin’ to me?

One of the most talked-about stats in this year’s report was a prediction, from Baidu’s chief scientist Andrew Ng, that 50% of searches would be via voice or image search by 2020

Voice recognition accuracy has come on leaps and bounds, averaging around 90% accuracy – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by users. Already 65% of American smartphone owners use voice commands.

The growth of voice interfaces has a huge commercial and productivity benefits; the average human speaks at 150 words per minute, but can only type at 40 words a minute. Moreover, freeing people from keyboards makes connectivity vastly more convenient when on the move, and opens up greater possibilities for information to be more targeted and contextual.

If voice interfaces and voice search goes mainstream as predicted, people will quickly expect the same from their enterprise tools and systems. How can your digital workplace adapt to a switch in primary interface from keyboard to microphone?

Have you read this year’s Meeker report? (If you haven’t, here’s the slideshare). What were they most interesting – or controversial – points for you?

Delivering Digital Democracy ≠ delivering better democracy

On Monday the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy launched its long-awaited report on how digital can deliver a better functioning and better informed democracy.

Their final report  concluded with five fairly conservative recommendations – which in itself is no bad thing, as they feel both realistic and achievable. Having worked in Parliament, I’m well aware that what feels unambitious on the outside will take a superhuman effort to make a reality in the context of an establishment that’s resistant to any kind of change.

The five targets are:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.

Four of the five focus on making Parliament more open and accessible – though releasing data and media, more active engagement and communications campaigns, and by inviting greater participation in the legislative process. Simple in theory, but many of the dates proposed are incredibly ambitious by Parliamentary standards. I applaud the Commission for laying down the challenge.

It’s absurd that Erskine May, the guide to the workings of our democracy, is only available as a £300-a-pop dead tree book, and it’s absolutely right that the Commission are finally forcing the issue of opening this up, as well as pushing for open formats and improved searchability for Parliamentary data and debate.

It’s also good to see the report written in such a clear and accessible way – in itself highlighting how arcane Parliamentary language and protocol contributes to disengagement. Laudable efforts are being made by GDS and others to make government more accessible, but the suggestion that Parliament itself has a role to play in actively engaging people with the issues, rather than simply publishing transcripts of debates is a sensible and valuable one.

Critically, the report highlighted the need for Parliament to become more outward-looking, learn from external organisations, and to close feedback loops for those who take the time to engage with debates. The big question now is whether they will be adequately resourced to do this.

Similarly, it’s great to see pressure being put on the Parliamentary establishment to finally make data sources like Hansard available in open data formats. Whether this is achievable by 2016 remains to be seen, but it will certainly focus minds in the Palace of Westminster.

For the media, however, it was recommendation four which caught their interest – that online voting should be made available for the 2020 election. I remain unconvinced by this. Leaving aside the many security issues this raises (well summed-up in Tom Scott’s video here), this seems like a distraction from the real issue of widespread disengagement from the political process. Which is a shame, as the other four very sensible recommendations are likely to get lost in a load of frothing over voter fraud and civic duty.

It’s patronising to suggest that young people don’t vote because they can’t do it on their phones. They don’t vote because they don’t feel they have anything to vote for. Today’s news that Twitter will offer postcode-targeted advertising in time for the UK general election illustrates the point well; thanks to our voting system, the election is decided by a small number of voters in a small number of swing seats, who in turn become targets for intense campaign activity. In the coming election, parties will focus their resources on those.

It’s not simply that young people aren’t engaging with the political process, but also that the political establishment isn’t engaging with them, or with anyone outside those crucial swing voters.

But given the UK said ‘meh to AV’ in the referendum just a couple of years ago, we’re not likely to see voting reform on the agenda anytime soon. Politics is about the art of the possible, and we have to work with what we have.

The proposals set out by the Speaker’s Commission set out pragmatic and sensible steps to open up our democracy so that people understand what politicians and parliament do, have more opportunities for meaningful engagement with the legislative process, and access to information so they can better hold politicians to account. But we can’t sit back and assume this will happen. These are changes that are necessary and long overdue; it’s up to us all to keep up the pressure so these ambitious targets are met.

Nor can we assume that more information about Parliament will fix democracy. That won’t solve the problem of large swathes of the population feeling unenthused by the voting options on offer.

Politics is a participatory sport. It’s incumbent on all of us to get involved – to engage with debates, to vote, to join political parties and help to shape the policy agenda. Because if we leave representative democracy to everyone else, it will never represent us.

On finding solace in sharing

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen while travelling around Asia in recent weeks who seem to put more effort into recording and sharing things than actually enjoying them.

Walking around Angkor over Christmas, for example, I was amazed at the number of people who walked around filming the place on the phone rather than looking at it with their eyes. Most baffling of all was a young couple who set up their GoPro to film the sunset – then sat back playing Pokemon on a retro Game Boy rather than experiencing the magnificent sight happening right in front of them.

In my last blog post I wrote about why I tweet, based on George Orwell’s motivations for writing. Chief amongst these was historical impulse, what Orwell described as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

As I said then, by sharing with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

And yet it was this same impulse to record and make sense which motivated engineer Jordi Mir to post online a video of policeman Ahmed Merabet being murdered on the streets of Paris last week – a move that was criticised by the Merebet family, and which he now bitterly regrets.

Mr Mir told The Associated Press he posted the video out of fear and a “stupid reflex” fostered by years on social media. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing, so he recorded it. And then he didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of something so inexplicable.

“I had to speak to someone,” Mir said. “I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.”

An error, absolutely, but Mr Mir is hardly alone in being at a loss to explain why he filmed – still less shared – the chilling video.

“There’s no answer,” he said, blaming it on a decade of social networking which has trained him to share whatever he saw.

“I take a photo a cat and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex,” he said.

Recording and sharing has simply become a habit – we share to show off (like the Angkor sunset pair), but we also record when we simply don’t know what else to do, or we don’t know how to respond to what we have seen, like Mr Mir’s footage from Paris.

Has the urge to record and share become uncontrollable? Perhaps. In the past decade sharing details of our lives online has grown from niche hobby to hourly habit, reaching epidemic stage in 2014 as overshare was named Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.

As Keith Porter wrote on the Live Simple blog, we all need to learn to put the phone down and be present – to soak up the atmosphere and truly experience what’s happening right in front of us. It’s easy to criticise something as patently ludicrous as going to a concert and experiencing it through a screen, or filming a sunset rather than looking at it.

But while many have lined up to condemn Jordi Mir for sharing a video of the brutal murder, his response is more comprehensible. When reality is simply too awful to look at or understand, sharing it can help us to seek reassurance, or help, or simply to process what is happening. When sharing is a habit that we use to make sense of the world, the urge to do so in the darkest of times is completely understandable.

Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

man scanning qr code

Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.

Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.

And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.

Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:

  • Put in pin code on phone
  • Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
  • Scan code, usually more than once
  • Redirected to browser
  • Browser takes me to page

Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.

QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.

An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.

Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)

The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.

Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.

I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:

qr bar graph

Number of times people have used a QR code in past month.

Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.

As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.

Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.

tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.

Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.

Developing trust in the digital workplace

Here’s a little something I wrote for CMS Wire, as part of their series on intranets and the digital workplace this month.

In offices the world over, a quiet revolution is underway. The costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed; after many years when it was simply an aspiration, or a buzzword, the digital workplace is fast becoming a reality.

Using social and collaborative tools, more and more of us are breaking free of the office and working flexibly for all or part of the time – so that work is an activity, not a place.

While secure, reliable and usable tools are an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place too – and the people involved need to trust one another.

A recent survey by Microsoft found 82% of businesses now support flexible working. But while seven in ten managers say they trust their employees to be productive when working from home, employees are far more cynical about one another: only 52% trust their colleagues to be productive when working away from the office.

This presents a barrier to continued growth in online working; teams cannot deliver unless they trust each other. But to build trust in virtual teams – when often the members have never even met each other – employers need to ensure the right factors are in place to enable it.

So just how can organisations develop employee trust in their digital workplace?

First, realise that trust doesn’t just happen. Too many organisations introduce collaboration technologies, and simply expect silos to disappear, with productive, cross-functional teams emerging in their place. Often, silos exist for reason – because the people in them know each other, and understand their own role. Successful digital workplaces recognise that virtual teams need time, space and tools to develop solid working relationships.

Conversely, virtual teams often have a honeymoon period, a brief time when people are willing to give them a shot. Under pressure to perform, groups quickly develop what’s termed swift trust – a kind of benefit of the doubt. This tends to decay quickly, but it can provide the glue that keeps teams together until more lasting trust has developed.

Developing deeper bonds in the digital workplace requires us to use our tools in less obvious ways. Often digital workplace strategy focuses on facilitating work tasks, but not on how to reproduce the experience of a being a member of a workforce in order to reduce feelings of isolation and increase engagement.

Ambient awareness

Lee Bryant of Dachis Group champions the importance of ambient awareness – the office chatter which gives people a greater understanding of their organisation’s work – as something which “oils the wheels” of digital workforces. While some argue social activity streams are an unwelcome distraction from ‘real work’, in replicating those overheard office conversations they keep people in the loop and can ultimately lead to improved productivity.

Successful digital workplace launches have found tools have had wider adoption – and achieved greater success – when they can be used for social as well as more obviously work-related activity, for instance by including interest-based social communities. Allowing people to talk about both their personal and professional lives builds empathy and interpersonal trust between people who may not have met face-to-face.

Provide tools, not rules

This connective tissue is stronger when it’s able to develop organically, with employers providing the tools but not prescribing precisely how and when they can be used. There are parallels here between physical and online spaces; when a business creates a meeting room, it defines the rules for the room (how you book it, when it’s available), and sets up the space, but never defines precisely how the room must be used. Social spaces are like meeting rooms.

In German there’s even a word for this: Nutzungoffenheit, which – loosely translated – means the potential of technologies only manifests itself when people have made sense of them and incorporated them into their own routines.

This phenomenon means it’s difficult to predict precisely what impact digital workplace tools will have on the workforce until they have been introduced. Corporate culture also impacts heavily on the degree to which collaboration will be embraced.

Lead from the middle

However, in all but the smallest organisations the introduction of enterprise social marks a significant shift from top-down to peer-to-peer communication. While a move away from old ‘command and control’ management contributes to networked productivity, it moves the balance of power away from managers and leaders as gatekeepers of information.

One unintended consequence is that this – combined with the decreased visibility that comes with flexible working – can further undermine trust in leadership. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer found trust in CEOs fell by 12% in the last year alone. With teams increasingly working virtually, senior execs need to find new ways to connect with their workforces to gain and maintain trust in their leadership.

Senior leaders need to ‘walk the talk’, using enterprise social tools and blogs just as others might ‘walk the floor’ in a more traditional organisation, while recognising that in a digital workplace a command and control style of leadership is often less effective than modelling desired behaviours.

Jonathan Phillips suggests leaders should be highly visible on the intranet, and not just in news stories and CEO blogs: “They should ask questions, participate in online debate, solicit personal feedback, seek input to key initiatives. They should comment on other employee blogs.”

Leaders must demonstrate that they believe enterprise social is work and not work avoidance; by using social tools themselves, leaders give employees permission to do the same, and in turn let employees know they are trusted to deliver.

Successful organisations will trust their own employees to work effectively without command and control, and provide them with tools and time to establish social bonds with their peers in order to work effectively in virtual teams. Such organisations recognise that trust is a reciprocal relationship between employer and employee, where trust is repaid with greater flexibility, engagement and performance on both sides.

Declining trust defines new role for intranets


The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, published last week, finds a deepening sense of distrust in governments, businesses and institutions. The annual global study, which questioned 30,000 people in 25 countries, reveals a dramatic shift in the value people place in information sources – which, in turn, has some interesting implications for communicators and intranet managers.

Across the globe, blame for the financial and political chaos of 2011 landed at the doorstep of government, as trust in that institution fell nine points to 43 per cent. In seventeen of the 25 countries surveyed, government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right. In twelve, it trails business, media and non-governmental organizations as the least trusted institution.

The private sector fared slightly better: trust in business fell from 56 percent to 53 percent, with countries like France and Germany, in the heart of the Eurozone economic crisis, experiencing double-digit decreases.

“Business is now better placed than government to lead the way out of the trust crisis,” said CEO Richard Edelman. “But the balance must change so that business is seen both as a force for good and an engine for profit.”

One of the biggest changes over the past year is the decline in trust in CEOs, which fell by 12 points. Faith in government officials fell like a stone too this year, down 14 points to just 29 per cent. It’s not unreasonable to assume this is reflected inside organisations too, so many will want to look again at CEO blogs as a means of increasing visability and trust in senior leadership. Over on Intranetizen, Jonathan gives some sterling advice on making executive blogs work.

Employee advocacy could be one way out of the mire. The survey found that credibility in average employees rose dramatically this year, so they are now the most trusted resource within an organisation. To capitalise on this, organisations must work harder to ensure their employees are informed and engaged – and then trust them to talk on the company’s behalf. This approach – what Edelman call radical transparancy – empowers employees to drive the conversation amongst their peers.

But to do this, organisations and leaders need to trust their employees first; companies which block access to social networks are preventing their employees from advocating on their behalf, and so missing a huge opportunity to engage with customers.

The barometer found people need to hear the same information about a company three to five times before they will believe it. This emphasises the importance of a proper communciations strategy which mixes on and offline channels to ensure the message gets out there. 

At the same time, trust in social networks as sources of information grew  by 75 per cent over the past year. Smart companies, then, will take advantage of this and embrace the value of conversations (by employees and the public) as a means of establishing identity and trust.

One corollary of this is that the growth in use of social networks, both internally and externally, means news travels fast. Employees can easily find information about their own company online, and all too often will hear (and believe) news from external sources before they do from their own manager.

This has huge implications for company transparency; corporate communciations structures need to keep pace with the changes. A good, social intranet – and improved access to these from a range of devices – gives organisations the means by which they can get their message to staff before they hear it from elsewhere. But this isn’t just a case of building it – leadership buy-in, and changes to the way corporate comms work with social intranets are essential to make it work.

Edelman’s report sets out long- and short-term approaches to rebuilding trust. In the short term, trust in a business is firmly tied to the bottom line. But future trust is more strongly linked to softer, societally-focused factors such as business ethics, placing customers ahead of profits and treating employees well. In the current environment, informed, engaged employees are best placed to communicate that message to the public – and intranets have a vital role to play in building that engagement.

Photo credit: Thorinside on Flickr

The (anti) social intranet at #ukgc12

Social intranet session

While UKGovCamp overwhelmingly focuses on how we use digital to engage with the public and improve public services, I firmly believe that to make that happen we also have to make public authorities themselves work better. So I was keen to have a session on intranets.

Fortunately, so was Stuart Murdoch of Surevine. It turned out to be a popular topic – so much so that we had to get a much bigger room. Stuart’s take on things was rather different from mine; he’s introduced social intranets at many organisations, and is a firm believer in social to make a better digital workplace.

Whereas I’m more critical of social for social’s sake, and feel the real value for intranets over the next 3-5 years is in transactional, making the intranet deliver real business value and helping people to do their jobs better. So this made for quite a lively debate, and we all had plenty to say.

Stuart contends that people are the most important part of intranets. I’d agree that the focus is fast moving away from documents and policies; content is no longer king, and the intranet is no longer simply a vast repository of HR documentation. Nor, the group felt, was the primary role of the intranet to push information at people.

A couple of people talked about the value of building a community around information. It’s one thing publishing hundreds of pages of HR policies, but barely anyone will be bothered to look for them. The social intranet could enable people to ask questions, and get answers from internal experts, who can then signpost them to information or resources they need.

One person suggested that “social can help you find the people in your organisation who can help you do your project”.

However, this is based on a simple fallacy; that these people want to be found. In almost all cases, in large organisations people are heavily silo-ed. An individual’s objectives relate entirely to the team or department they work in. Their performance will be measured on this, and in many companies (particularly in financial services) individuals will get financial rewards based on the value they deliver to their own team and projects – not anyone else’s.

If you work in Group Risk and someone rings you up out of the blue, having spotted that you speak Russian in the company expertise finder, you have no particular incentive to drop what you’re doing and help, do you?

Next we moved on to the question of what the intranet is and who it’s for. This isn’t as straightforward as it once was. Local authority intranets, for example, deliver content to council employees. But as departments are being merged into cross-borough shared services, and private firms and voluntary sector firms take on the role of service delivery, the simple question of who is the audience for an intranet isn’t at all clear-cut.

In such a diverse landscape, the one-size-fits-all intranet is no longer sufficient. Dan Harrison suggested we move beyond the idea of the intranet; the internet includes millions of sites, so why should the workplace web have only one? The answer is the heterogenous intranet, comprised of a variety of sites and services that meet the diverse needs of users.

Another participant gave the example of the RAF, which has different levels of intra- and extranet sites with different groups given access to each according to user need, blurring the boundaries between internal and external sites.

On the Twitter backchannel, Alex Manchester suggested the city as a metaphor for the digital workplace, with different suburbs and neighbourhoods that people visit for different reasons. Think of the corporate front page news as Piccadilly Circus, collaboration as Shoreditch, and the HR policy pages as Pinner.

We moved on to the question of how you encourage people to participate in social intranets. Most were, like me, pretty cynical about gamification, asking what value it delivers for either the individual or the organisation.

A few participants noted bottom-up, grassroots solutions often had more traction than corporately imposed ones. One example given was where a Yammer pilot was replaced with a corporate (Sharepoint) tool that quickly fell flat.

But bottom-up solutions often exist for a reason; where people find the tools they’re given at work aren’t up to the job, they’ll find their own – whether that’s using their Gmail due to tiny inbox sizes, or starting a Yammer network to collaborate on a project.

The key difference with grassroots solutions and small-scale pilots is that they are allowed to quietly fail. This process of trial and error enables people to find the right solutions that marry technology to organisational culture – a process that a big Sharepoint project is rarely able to go through.

A big variable here is organisational demographics; different solutions are needed for organisations full of knowledge workers and those with a high proportion of workers out on the coalface. But for both types (and all those in-between), the question of whether social functionality is what people actually want or need should really be asked before top-solutions are imposed.

Social is not an outcome. Making the organisation work better should be the desired outcome (measured in money saved, projects completed more quickly, enquiries dealt with, etc.). Social functionality can be part of the solution, but should fit alongside redesign of processes to make the intranet deliver real business value and efficiency.

Will 2012 be the end of email?

end of email

2012 begins with a slew of predictions that this year will see the back of email. Back in November, multibillionaire foetus Mark Zuckerberg declared “email is dead”.

It must be true, I read it on Twitter. However, Zuckerberg is hardly an impartial observer; he’s got his Facebook Messenger to flog (a system which, ironically, has a user experience akin to using Yahoo webmail in the late 90s).

ATOS boss Thierry Breton is taking the whole business more seriously; he’s making it his personal mission to end the use of internal email by 2014, arguing that 85% of his staff’s time spent on email is unproductive.

Breton noted that his new graduate hires didn’t use email; they’d grown up on social tools such as Facebook. It was only on starting work, he claims, that this cohort were introduced to mail – and found it wanting.

Research by ComScore reckons younger people don’t use email, eschewing it in favour of IM and social networks which provide “instant gratification”. This is precisely the kind of meaningless statistic regularly used to prop up claims that email is on the way out (usually peddled by people with a messaging system of their own to promote). Until I joined the workforce I’d never participated in a meeting, made a round of tea, or heard the word Action used as a verb. Yet all of these things are still going strong in the most digital of workplaces. That people don’t adopt common workplace practices until they join the workforce should hardly come as a surprise.

Let’s get this straight right now: Facebook messenger, Twitter and Yammer aren’t about to see off a communication medium which has been going strong since 1972. Not now, and probably not for a long time.

Claims that one type of new technology will swiftly usurp established practice are nothing new; Plato claimed that the spread of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember.

The ComScore research found visits to mail sites such as Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo fell by 6% in the past year. Crucially, however, it doesn’t find that that volume of email received and sent has actually fallen. And as more and more if us are using smartphone and tablet clients to manage our personal emails, it kind of follows that this should impact on the number of visits to webmail sites.

In the workplace, things are different. People are attached to their Outlook. This has long been a source of bafflement to intranet managers and others working in enterprise tech. Outlook, as we all know, is rubbish.

Well, it is; it’s particularly rubbish at the things it wasn’t supposed to be used for, like collaboration and archiving. But this is like moaning that a hammer is crap at cutting a piece of wood in two.

What Outlook is mostly quite good for is emailing. As a program for reading and writing emails, facilitating communication between two or more people, it’s really not bad at all. It integrates with Office. It has folders and a calendar, and if you’re very clever you can add voting buttons, which at least half of the recipients will miss.

And the fact is, people like email. They know what to do with it. They can attach stuff to it. Crucially, at some future date they can retrieve their email from the bowels of their Personal Folders in order to cover their own back. Granted, it does mean that disk space is optimally used, or that versions aren’t ordered, or that they’ll definitely be able to find what they’re looking for, but for most this is a small price to pay.

The times, however, are a-changin’. Attached though users are to Outlook, the fact is that IT teams are not. If 2012 is anything, it looks set to be the year of the cloud. Usability and functionality of cloud-based office apps has now improved to the point where they present a genuine alternative, while at the same time budgets are being squeezed. For many IT departments, switching to cloud based email is fast becoming a no-brainer.

It’s this, together with the increasing use of smartphones as the primary means of reading emails, which may finally break the office’s addiction to Outlook.

And that, my intranet-loving friends, is an opportunity. If people are – for other reasons – going to change their workplace tech habits, then for the first time ever they might be genuinely interested in your collaboration platforms and document management solutions.

If your organisation is aiming to move to cloud-based mail this year, then now is the time to get planning.  While we know the benefits of a social, collaborative intranet, in most organisations they haven’t yet taken off; 72% of employees use internal social functionality less than once a month.

This isn’t because they don’t know how. The same group of users will happily update Facebook daily. No: it’s because they haven’t figured out the point yet, and find your collaboration platform fiddly.

So what can you do about this?

First, make your internal social network better. Find out what people want and need and give it to them. What do they want to communicate about, and with who? What features do they need? File sharing, task management? These are all things people do (badly) in Outlook. For your internal social network to take off, it needs to be genuinely useful and help people to do their jobs better.

User experience is a vital component of this. Facebook has the traction it does because it’s intuitive and easy to use. Internal networks need to watch and learn. People won’t put up with a clunky interface simply because they’re being paid to be there.

Many will claim to have already cracked step 1. Good. Then why aren’t people using it? Perhaps they don’t know it’s there, or don’t understand the benefits of using it.

Employees need to understand how internal social can improve their productivity, or they won’t see the point in using it. Make sure the benefits of using the system are clearly spelled out. As well as marketing the product, you need to cultivate the network.  Like any social network, internal ones need to reach a tipping point – a critical mass of users and a decent range of content – before they really become interesting and useful.

Here, 2012 provides another opportunity; with many being asked to work from home during the Olympics to reduce demand on the transport network, people are actively looking for solutions to support home and flexible working.  These newly homeworking employees could provide a valuable case study, demonstrating how intranet 2.0 can improve communication and collaboration, leading to more innovation, better knowledge-sharing and ultimately increased revenue.

Start talking to these people now and ensure they have the right tools in place by the time the Games come around. If the tools work for them, they’ll have an incentive to keep on using them after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Email isn’t dying. If anything, it’s suffering from growing pains. But with the changes to workplace technology in the pipeline for 2012, this is the time to develop and promote the alternatives in order to make your organisation work more effectively. Your workforce needs you.