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5 Levels of

a Digital Workplace

A roadmap for your digital workplace journey

When organizations sent people home during the COVID-19 crisis, many assumed we entered the future of work.
Not really.
A digital workplace is not something you switch on one day, and it’s not limited to remote work.
Digital workplaces evolve on a scale, similar to Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg’s article about the 5 levels of autonomy for distributed work.

A digital workplace redefines five core elements of work:

Technology

Collaboration

Productivity

Leadership

Culture

Each of these elements looks drastically different as it moves from Level 1 to Level 5. A digital workplace does not just improve our current understanding of one element, but changes its very nature. All the elements are interdependent, but organizations must work on each separately.

The guiding principle for advancing through the levels is valuing technology and humanity. Digital technology is powerful and can completely change the way we work. But it must be implemented in a way that honors human work.

Most humans have been forced to work like robots for the last century. Now that the real robots are here, we need to create a workplace where humans can do the work they are best at.

These levels of a digital workplace offer a roadmap to see where you can move next. While you may not be able to implement everything mentioned, you can do a lot. We only get to higher levels of a digital workplace by asking the question, “Why not?” Digital workplaces remove barriers and open up new possibilities.

Here’s a look at the five levels of digital workplaces.

Level 1

The office is the center

A level 1 digital workplace is a physical office that uses some digital tools to augment work. In a pinch, you can work from home for a day or two, but everything is office-centric. HQ is the sun around which everything orbits.

The office dominates the workplace. Digital tools are a necessary add-on to deal with the outside world.

90% of companies were here before COVID-19 and during the first week of remote work.

Level 1 Technology

Everyone has the basic tools of email, word processing, spreadsheets, slides, and a personal calendar. A few others in the company use specialty tools, but no one needs much more than this.

Level 1 Productivity

Being present is being productive. You can live under the radar for weeks by dressing up, staying awake, sending emails, attending meetings, and typing on your computer. Management wants to see a lot of activity and buzz.

Level 1 Collaboration

Collaboration is done either in person (meetings or impromptu conversations), or through email. On rare occasions, someone might join through a video call, but they are not prioritized.

Level 1 Culture

Culture is not considered. There may be posters on the wall, but in reality, anything goes that isn’t legally regulated. Values are undefined and inauthentic. People come to work to work and get money.

Level 1 Leadership

Managers lead by “walking around” and checking in on people to make sure they are doing their work. Mistrust is baked into the system. The assumption is that people are lazy and will only work if someone is watching.

Level 1

The office is the center

A level 1 digital workplace is a physical office that uses some digital tools to augment work. In a pinch, you can work from home for a day or two, but everything is office-centric. HQ is the sun around which everything orbits.

The office dominates the workplace. Digital tools are a necessary add-on to deal with the outside world.

90% of companies were here before COVID-19 and during the first week of remote work.

Level 2

Replicate the physical in the digital

A Level 2 organisation tries to replicate the physical office in the digital world. This was week 2 of the COVID-19 experiment.

In-person meetings become Zoom meetings. Presenteeism becomes surveillance management.

At this level, a digital workplace seems hard. It’s hard to build culture. It’s hard to be a good manager. It’s hard to get work done. It’s hard to be on video calls all day long.

This is the worst level to be in, but no one stays in it long. It’s so bad that you will either go back to level 1 as fast as possible, or you will move forward.

Level 2 Technology

Email still forms the core. But video calls and instant messaging replace walking up to someone and talking or having a meeting. Organizations either adopt the cheapest, most basic tools, or they overspend on lots of applications that don’t deliver.

Level 2 Productivity

At first, productivity seems to improve because there’s time to clear off pending tasks. But tasks are strewn about multiple applications and hard to follow up on. Work gets dropped because of so many meetings, distractions, and stress.

Level 2 Collaboration

Collaboration is dominated by synchronous communication: live video calls, instant messages, and urgent communication. Quick responses are rewarded. Communication is in giant heaps across different apps. Meetings are incredibly long and feel pointless.

Level 2 Culture

Everyone assumes culture is important and some values are mentioned, but there’s not much grounded in reality. There’s a lot of chronic stress and anxiety. Teams often mistrust each other and it’s hard to navigate the hierarchy.

Level 2 Leadership

There’s a lot of “How’s it going?” messages. Managers constantly ask for updates to prove that productivity is still a focus. They often feel they are working against the digital tools and forcing things into completion.

Level 2

Replicate the physical in the digital

A Level 2 organisation tries to replicate the physical office in the digital world. This was week 2 of the COVID-19 experiment.

In-person meetings become Zoom meetings. Presenteeism becomes surveillance management.

At this level, a digital workplace seems hard. It’s hard to build culture. It’s hard to be a good manager. It’s hard to get work done. It’s hard to be on video calls all day long.

This is the worst level to be in, but no one stays in it long. It’s so bad that you will either go back to level 1 as fast as possible, or you will move forward.

Level 3

See native advantages of digital

This is the first time you realize some of the native advantages of digital. You commit to a digital model and realize that you will need to make some changes.

Things are still hard but they start to become manageable. You start to see that a digital workplace is a viable model.

Level 3 Technology

Teams use synchronous collaboration tools like Google Docs and work together in real time. Departments find specialty tools that help them solve specific problems. Basic integrations are set up to trade data and the first processes are automated.

Level 3 Productivity

Focus shifts from activity to prioritization based on goals. Managers help to rank tasks for team members so they know what to do next. Being productive means getting the big tasks done. People start taking time management and distractions seriously.

Level 3 Collaboration

Conversations are threaded instead of a free-for-all. There are aspirational basic ground rules for what tools you should use and how quickly to respond, but they are not always followed. Meetings start to become less frequent, and are more centered on discussions.

Level 3 Culture

Real values are stated, but they are still aspirational. Leadership starts to be selectively transparent about decisions, while recognising shortcomings. They acknowledge long standing Issues off equity and belonging, and try to fix the presenting problems.

Level 3 Leadership

Everyone has a 1:1 scheduled with a manager that includes checking in on life as well as work. Leaders spend more time thinking about systems and creating processes and project boards instead of fighting fires.

Level 3

See native advantages of digital

This is the first time you realize some of the native advantages of digital. You commit to a digital model and realize that you will need to make some changes.

Things are still hard but they start to become manageable. You start to see that a digital workplace is a viable model.

Level 4

Optimize the workplace for time

This is where you really start getting the deep benefits of digital.

At the heart of most of the changes is a sudden value on time. People realize how much better their lives are when they are in control of their time and they become very protective of it.

Level 4 organizations take advantage of the asynchronous nature of the digital workplace. Time spent together is much more valuable and shouldn’t be wasted. Decisions might take longer, but they are better.

At this point, work from home turns into work from anywhere. You might widen your talent pool search and divest in office space, preferring to meet up a few times a year.

Level 4 Technology

IT tools start to consolidate around a central digital workplace instead of lots of different applications. Everyone is equipped with the same collaboration, project, and process management tools. Data is captured and starts to be analysed for better efficiency.

Level 4 Productivity

Team leads are given objectives to reach instead of tasks to stay busy. Productivity metrics are stated at the start of a project and measured based on the results. Everyone is free to work on their own schedule and manage their own time throughout the week.

Level 4 Collaboration

Collaboration defaults to asynchronous communication, giving people time to respond. Meetings are fewer, but much more meaningful with agendas and documented follow ups. Durable information is pulled out of chat and placed in a format that everyone can find.

Level 4 Culture

Values and vision are explicitly stated and honoured in decision making more often than not. Leadership is very transparent, accountable, and accessible. Decisions and solid steps are made to remove chronic stress and improve equity and belonging. Learning becomes a priority.

Level 4 Leadership

Leaders become coaches or mentors. They spend time removing roadblocks and improving systems. Leaders celebrate people publicly and find new opportunities for them to grow. They can perform mental health first aid and know how everyone on the team is doing.

Level 4

Optimize the workplace for time

This is where you really start getting the deep benefits of digital.

At the heart of most of the changes is a sudden value on time. People realize how much better their lives are when they are in control of their time and they become very protective of it.

Level 4 organizations take advantage of the asynchronous nature of the digital workplace. Time spent together is much more valuable and shouldn’t be wasted. Decisions might take longer, but they are better.

At this point, work from home turns into work from anywhere. You might widen your talent pool search and divest in office space, preferring to meet up a few times a year.

Level 5

Explore new opportunities

A Level 4 workplace looks like an extremely fine-tuned version of a Level 2 workplace.

However, a Level 5 digital workplace looks like something entirely different. It does not hold onto the earlier definitions of the core elements, but sees work from a new lens.

Level 5 Technology

Organisations embrace automation and AI and transfer large amounts of work to systems. Technology is used to augment the skills of humans. There are ethical standards for what types of tools are used. Technology serves humans and never dominates or demands attention from humans while they work.

Level 5 Productivity

Everyone on the team has objectives they are responsible for. They can design their weak in the way that maximises wellness, quickly reaches a flow state, and achieves results. People are free to pursue new projects in line with the company objectives.

Level 5 Collaboration

Collaboration is highly systematised. Everything you need is easy to find, but not overwhelming. Meetings are purposeful but infrequent, maximising time for human connection and discussion. Decisions are documented. Everyone assumes positive intent and communication breakdowns are rare.

Level 5 Culture

Values are deeply rooted and anyone can call out behaviour that falls below norms. Tough decisions are made based on the values, not only on profits. Decisions are extremely transparent. The organisation feels like a collective of trusted people, and not like a corporation.

Level 5 Leadership

Leaders spend their time learning how humans work best and how to optimise systems. Teams are self-managed, and leaders only provide coaching. Leaders have individualised approaches to team members and are constantly learning.

Level 5

Explore new opportunities

A Level 4 workplace looks like an extremely fine-tuned version of a Level 2 workplace.

However, a Level 5 digital workplace looks like something entirely different. It does not hold onto the earlier definitions of the core elements, but sees work from a new lens.

Where we are

Most companies right now are at a Level 2, trying to decide if they are going to move to 3 or back to 1. If you are a functioning Level 3 company, you are well above average.

However, the best future of work lies in getting as many workplaces as possible to Level 4. Only then can we hope that some will move to Level 5. Most of Level 5 is undefined and we are still figuring it out. We don’t have enough companies experimenting at that level to let us know the best practices.

Wherever you are, whatever kind of leader you are, we need to move forward.

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