There are three things converging in my working life at the moment:

  1. Government client work on delivering modern IT services is at last at the point where we are starting to deliver actual technology into the hands of actual people who aren’t in the technology team. My work has been to help shape the activities around getting those people to adopt the new technology and adapt their current ways of working to take advantage of the new tools and services (cloud-based collaboration stuff).
  2. Reading the latest book from the WB-40 Bookclub, Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. It’s wonderfully written, and talks about three key elements that make for successful team culture – building safety, sharing vulnerabilities, and establishing purpose. I’m on the building safety part, and it seems to chime with my own research that puts Trust as a foundational need for teams to be able to collaborate with one another.
  3. Preparing for an interview with Neil Usher next week to talk about the concept of the Digital Workplace, something that I think I think exists but since looking at Neil’s book The Elemental Workplace I’m not so sure.

How these threads are converging is like this: what role does the workplace, physical or digital, play in providing psychological safety for people at work?

There’s no doubt that our environment plays a huge roll in how safe or otherwise we feel. Think about places where you want to be. Think about places you don’t. How much of that is determined by the sense of safety you feel in those places.

Think now about the patterns of how organisations go about changing working environments; the shift in so many places from fixed desks to hot desks. How does it feel in terms of safety to go from having one’s own domain to not necessarily being sure where you will sit from one day to the next (or even if there will be a place for you to sit)?

What are the fear triggers here? There’s no reason why people can’t work quite happily and fearlessly without the need for a fixed desk in an office. My hunch is that it’s primarily about familiarity – it’s hard to trust in the unfamiliar. We cling on to that that we know.

Now let’s think about digital workplaces – the devices and software that we use in work. Traditionally such things have either been thought of as machines that process information, or digital stores where information is kept. The increasing social nature of these tools, though, I think forces us to start thinking of them as “places” where we go. This observation is drawn from Danah Boyd’s book It’s Complicated in which the anthropologist draws comparisons between teenagers’ use of social networks and the way in which previous generations would hang out in shopping malls or at bus shelters.

What happens when you make a wholesale change to these digital places of work? A shift to Office 365 or Google G Suite, where almost everything changes for users? Maybe rather than thinking of such transitions as an exercise in training, what if we were to think of them in similar ways that you would introduce people to a new office space?

Which brings me to also think about the concept of “evergreen” software, internet-based services that are constantly changing. I’ve written in the past about the potential negative impact on user experience of constantly changing software. But again if we look through the lens of user trust in their working environment, what impact does constant change have in the long term on the safety that people feel in using systems if those systems are constantly in flux?

No conclusions as yet, but building a sense of psychological safety in the workplace to promote more effective working feels like it should be a key consideration whether those workspaces are physical or digital.

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