The modern workplace has a lot of challenges to solve when it comes to technology and the basic rules around how we work. Erik Nicolai from Workspace 365 shares how his company is tackling these challenges.
Centralization vs. decentralization of technology
When you look at the whole organization, you often want to standardize the technology used by teams. Things work best when everyone is on the same messaging platform, uses the same project management tool, and the same automated process platform.
But each team is different and may have slightly different requirements. Letting each team have the autonomy to choose their own tools is also a powerful concept in modern business.
These two forces don’t have a good answer for how to reconcile them. Offering a suite of options to teams allows for some standardization and also flexibility, but this is much harder to pull off than it seems.
Work from anywhere vs Work from office
Another great tension is where people work. Letting people work from wherever they want is extremely liberating and important to creating a better work environment. But you can’t deny that a physical location is usually much better at creating additional energy that is required. Collaboration is often much more fluid, albeit disruptive at times.
Erik compares the value of the home gym vs going to a group gym. You will often push yourself harder when surrounded by other people and will achieve more, but going to the gym every day is also a burden.
He also used the analogy of long distance relationships. They can work, but require a lot more work, effort, and intentionality to create that energy which is often present naturally when people are next to each other.
The modern office has become extremely complex. It’s to the point where you don’t expect someone to be productive in a role until they’ve been there for six months.
Erik compared this to someone who is a hairdresser. It would be ridiculous to think it would take six months to get them onboarded and productive. So what’s so unique about office environments? A lot is the additional complexity of manual processes and policies that get in the way of work. He recommends pursuing automation, but always with the employee experience in mind.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today we have a special guest. We have Erik Nicolai. He is the founder and CEO of Workspace 365. Hi, Erik. How are you?
I’m good, Neil. How are you today?
I’m very good, excited to speak with you. You’re somebody who’s been in this world of thinking about digital work for a long time. So, that’s going to be great. I’m excited for this discussion. But let’s start off with your CAPTCHA question to prove your humanity. Erik, I want to know what pet did you have or did you want to have when you were a kid?
Polar bear. So, you got to explain that a little bit more. Where did that start?
I just like the color of them. I was born as a very blonde guy and I’ve always been associated with blonde animals, like it’s touchy. I don’t know why.
Are there any other ones like the polar bear or was that just like the pinnacle?
You have the albino, like many, many animals have an albino version. And I have always been fascinated by this as well. I didn’t want to say an albino dog or an albino whatever, so that’s why I said polar bear.
Wonderful. It would be pretty awesome to have a polar bear as a pet. So, I’m going to qualify that as a certified human because that is a very human answer to want a polar bear as a pet as a kid. Cool. Well, Erik, thanks for being on the show. Tell us a little bit about your product, about Workspace 365.
Workspace 365 is a digital workspace where we allow organizations to unite all their applications and information to a centralized workspace. And basically, we just try to conquer complexity, which is obvious in the IT landscape, where employee faces or I’d say confronted with many different ways to access application, information throughout the day.
Well, it’s obviously a big topic that’s been there, but your company has been around for more than 10 years, right?
Yeah. So, we started our journey in 2010. We were a bit early to the party, to be very honest. It’s almost like we started with a vision and throughout the course, we had many people say, ‘Okay, there’s no opportunity yet.’ And to be very honest, it wasn’t. So, we had a vision that every application moved into the browser, while most applications still running in a data center, or being locally installed, or in SaaS, which is not very strongly represented in the workforce. And as SaaS was growing, the opportunity for us was getting bigger and bigger, as the kind of legacy application side of the organization was coming to minority, rather than majority as it was in 2010.
Yep. So, it seems like things are much more complicated when it comes to seeing all the technology you have. Software is supposed to make things hopefully simpler and see things. But that seems like, as we add in more and more SaaS applications, it just gets more complex, right?
Yeah. The funny thing is, when we foresee the future, it always just feels like things are getting simpler. I think at the end of the day, it’s more complicating the whole factor. So, when we look at the future, things are always looking to be more easy, say simplified, if we think about the future rather than the past. Because in the past everything seems complex and recurrence is the same while when we look to changes, thinking about SaaS, thinking about Google, thinking about Microsoft, and all the changes they’re making, it appears to be simpler. But I think at the end of the day, we have remained to have legacy coming from all the systems combined with the new IT build which is coming from, let’s say, SaaS or other service, and you have to combine them in a certain way.
Yeah, so trying to reach that combination. And also in larger organizations, you have many different teams using different applications. It’s not going to be the same throughout. And it just seems that looking forward in the future, do you see a day when there is some kind of consolidation around these work tools that we use? Or will it continue to be pretty fragmented for the next 5-10 years?
To be very honest, I think we started with the idea that we always try to standardize the tooling we use internally. If I look through the teams and other project management tools for use, every team makes their own decisions. So, you can try to force it. And then there comes a point when you have to centralize it again, because more and more teams are working together. So, it’s almost like a, how do you call this, like a curve. You go centralized, decentralized, centralized, decentralized. And I think this is the same for every trend. It’s going from every company. Every place has to go through the same phases of centralization and teams making their own decisions.
So, talk about even that within your own company. You have about 50 employees. Have you also found that same oscillation back between trying to standardize everything versus ‘Hey, let everyone make their own decisions’?
Yep. We are just a normal company. And you can fight it or you can just let it happen and try to correct it if it happens. And sometimes when you think the impact is, as I say too big, I’m trying to avoid that we make that mistake. But at the end of the day, every team needs to go through their own learning curve. Because going through your learning curves, that’s where you learn the most. And having me as a CEO, trying to avoid people make mistakes, that’s just a foolish thing to do.
Yeah, well, let’s get into that a little bit later, this idea of letting people make their own mistakes. But let’s come back to the idea of what your product is, and specifically trying to bring a central place for all these tools and all the information that’s there. It’s like we’re trying to create a headquarter, so to speak, of the organization. So, I want you to just reflect on how the notion of headquarters has shifted over the years, in your own company and in some of your clients. And specifically, if you’ve seen people move from a physical location as a headquarters to a digital location.
Yeah, so let’s answer it in twofold. I think when we had the lockdown in COVID, I heard many people complaining that the gym was being closed. And I heard no one complaining about the office being closed, because I could work from home. If I kind of take a trend, on average, of course, I don’t want to isolate people who can do it well, on average, most of the people don’t do well in their home gym, right? So, we can build one. We tend to use it occasionally, but not very necessary permanently. And we tend not to push ourselves as much as we do in a gym, let’s say, if you are in a group, or we train in a group, or either with a trainer. So, what I learned of this exercise of the gym is that people go further and go better if they work in a group or they exercise in a group if you still compare it to the gym.
So, I think having a remote workforce can be very good on the productivity side. But at the end of the day, if you work together on a physical location, you tend to push each other to next levels. As you work together, it’s very different, if you see a solid, I’d say, face-to-face, rather than just via webcam. Because I think the same thing applies if you compare it to home gym, or to the actual gym where you meet other people.
So, do you see the primary function of the office to be that collaboration space to be able to spur each other on?
Yeah, definitely. I think for me, the reason why I’m going to the office is just for the energy. The same reason why I go to the gym. I can do half an hour exercise here at home, but I’m done. In the gym, I could do an hour and a half. And the same with the office. In the office I can go for, let’s say, 8 to 10 hours without getting tired. If I were at home, and I’d done 6 hours, I think I’m done for the day. And I might be more productive, but it just takes away the fun. And that’s kind of the collaboration side of what work should be, right? Work should be fun. It’s just a waste of time if you do something you don’t like. And I just want to get energy from the other people around me.
So, how have you managed that? Are you all back full-time? Everyone’s in office all day? Or do you give some flexibility in that?
Yeah, the first lockdown, we went to full lockdown. And second lockdown, we tried to be more sensitive as we have a lot of young people and younger people tend to be very sensitive towards isolation if they just live by themselves. So, in the second lockdown, we tried to be smart, like, what type of people can be in the office? In what amounts? How can we get the distancing in place? So, now we try to take two days per team in the office. So, you can have at least two days in the office if you want to. It’s not an obligation. It’s just something that’s available.
And we see that many teams try to use this two-day rule. And it is, I think, the perfect combination, where you can spend two days or three days in the office and be very productive at home, but the energy and teamwork is done in the office. I’m not trying to generalize. If people say to me, we can do it quite well remotely, fantastic. I just see the energy in us in creating, and especially when you create something. And every day we have to solve different challenges, you know, go to market in our expansion in trying to find the right talents. And even having a Teams go or via Zoom, there’s just a different energy than just being in a room and trying to solve a problem together.
Have you found that you’ve had moments of energy in digital spaces as well?
We try to. So, to be very honest, in many customer meetings prior to COVID, we were always face to face. And our partner approach, so we work with MSPs around the globe who resell our product to their customers, that was already, let’s say, via Teams and via Zoom. So, that was already in place and that didn’t change much since COVID. But I think in COVID what we learned was that customers also had to be open to online meetings. And I think the first informal conversation was going well. But second, getting the decision without having seeing each other face-to-face, is trusting someone you haven’t seen actually yet. And to me, I still think that having just look someone in the eye is making a difference rather than doing everything online.
So, would you say that for you to define what your headquarters is you would also equate that with the central source of energy for your company?
So, then what would you use to describe your digital tool set? Would that be on a platform like Workspace 365 or a different one? Is that just a tool set that you go to when it’s time to do some focus work or how would you describe that?
Yeah. So, I think if you compare any vertical, right, so if you either run a restaurant or a gym, any vertical, any operation, you just have a location where the work is done. And luckily enough, we are in a space where we can do many things remotely and virtually. And then if I look at the things that I use, let’s say, virtually on my laptop or on my phone, it’s just access to information applications. And from a product perspective, as a company, we try to standardize and simplify this as much as we can. And I think the perfect example is that for some of our customers in some verticals, we even tried to simplify interfaces where we just tried to get rid of existing legacy applications with very complex system interfaces. And we just try to simplify that. We just help people to get through the complexity. But from a physical perspective in getting things done, there is just a way for us working together, and regardless of any tools, right. You can use a project management tool. It’s just tracking your projects. But at the end of the day, the project remains to be done.
When it comes to how people switch between this solo work where it’s like, okay, I got to be heads down today, I know what I need to do, I got my own focus thing, versus collaborative work, where I need to be interacting with a lot of different people to decide what’s going to come next, what the next big thing we’re going to do, what do you feel is a good blend for that? Do you feel these hybrid models work where people can come together for more collaborative work and work at home for solo work? Do you think that’s a good model? Or are there other ones you’re exploring?
Let’s say, if I take myself as an example, it does. But I think if I take myself as a benchmark for my colleagues, it does as well. So, I think throughout the company, we see many people who kind of live from the energy from their colleagues. We have some functions that are more isolated, where people can still be productive, let’s say, five days a week. I think even in that case, it’s worthwhile to get the energy. Because if you work completely remotely, work very easily just becomes something you just do, right? So, you don’t enjoy it. It’s just like I do my job. And if that’s the way you want to live your life, that’s fine, right? I’m not going to blame anyone for just doing their job. But personally, for myself, and all my colleagues, I like them to love their job. And to love what they do, and to get the energy for it to be rewarded. And for me, that’s only happening if you see someone. And there are sometimes you just tap someone on their shoulders and say, ‘Well done’. It just feels different than just sending them a message to say, ‘Well done’. It feels different.
Yeah. We often talk about the fidelity of conversation. So, if we’re just texting, we’re just able to see those words go back and forth. If you add a voice call, now we get some tonality in what we’re talking about. And we add a video call, now we can see a little bit more of the body language and how that interrupts and codes the message that we’re trying to send. But there’s a level of that face-to-face interaction when you’re actually physically in the same spot. The word you said is energy. But definitely, it’s very, very difficult to replicate that in digital means.
Ask anyone with a long-distance relationship who has said that their spouse has been traveling or just away for the job. It’s okay for a week or for two weeks, and then somewhere it just starts to get difficult, because you don’t feel the energy from each other.
Yeah. And how much work you have to put in to create any energy that is there. Whereas if you just throw people into a room together, some of that energy just naturally creates physically or chemically or however it happens.
Yeah. And just a smile can be enough sometimes. Right? So, you just walk to the corridor, you get coffee and you just smile and say ‘Good morning’, which is just sometimes enough to feel that energy for the day.
Yeah. Good point. Let’s talk about what people are looking for out of a product like what you have, especially compared to the early days when you were out there versus what they’re looking for now? What is the central problem that you’re trying to solve for people? And how has that evolved over the last 10-15 years?
Yeah, good question. So, I think from our perspective, our starting point for many customers till today is kind of centralizing all the applications. Because in any organization you have let’s say virtualized apps that’s either using RDP, Citrix or any technology. So, we centralize the application side of the business. But ultimately, we see the next step is not about us centralizing the application access, it’s about how much information can we simplify for people to know what they have to do on that specific day. So, the amount of training required for people to become productive on the job is immense.
Because, let’s say, many companies use 10-15 different tools just to perform your job. And if you focus on your primary task, that’s fine, right? With everything secondary, like expenses or day off request or holiday request or anything else, which is just something you have to do occasionally, it has to be as simple as possible. You can just focus on what you do best. So, we try to simplify this with just having a standardized interface for all those different sub-processes and allowing companies to just focus on what they’re really good at.
And that shift has been something we’ve seen through the years. The whole idea around the workspace 11 years ago was simplifying business processes. And we just found that companies were not ready to do it. So, that’s why we took a huge pivot in first framing this awesome application portal, where we can aggregate all the applications being available in your organization, before we start implementing step by step simplifications for the employees in the organization. And that’s why we chose the mission ‘conquer complexity’, because every day if you take a small step in solving a complexity challenge, we see we just conquer complexity step by step a bit more.
So, what I hear from you is that when a company is able to reduce the complexity that an employee experiences, when their work is more simple, or at least the information in front of them is more simple, that enables a deeper level of productivity. Would you say that you agree with that?
Yeah. And it also makes it easier to onboard new colleagues. Right? So, I think many CEOs will agree. And if you ask them how long does it take for an employee to be productive and up and running in your company, most people will say three to six months. If you compare it to a hairdresser, they will say one or two days. So, not wanting to compare our company to a hairdressing salon, which is a beautiful occupation, and you can tell I need to go again. But I think at the end of the day, sometimes we envy those types of occupations where it is much simpler to onboard new colleagues.
So, what could we do to really simplify the onboarding for new colleagues? And of course, what happens naturally becomes simpler for everyone. At the end of the day, the complexity level in many organizations, true to the different tool sets, different work processes, and the fragmented information going everywhere, is something. If you can solve that challenge, companies should just run far more productively and efficiently as a whole.
Yeah, I like that a lot. And even that analogy is great. A hairdresser has a lot of clarity in what their job is. It is very clear what they need to do. And they know, you know, if you have some eight hours in a day, you should probably be spending seven and a half of those hours cutting hair, like that’s the key function. But most people that we hire in organizations, if you actually look at how much time they spend on their core function, aside from answering emails, aside from making day-off requests, aside from filling out expense reports, it’s probably a very disheartening percentage of their time that’s actually spent on the core processes.
And I’m going to tell you another thing Neil. So, I’ve stopped doing emails for the whole day, for many years. I just do half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening and that’s it. So, I just keep my focus hours. I’m trying to advocate this internally. And it’s just hard to get everyone on the same page. It’s just a lot of disruption. And this information is for trying to get your mind on what you actually want to do. So, getting focus hours in the organization is something I’ve been trying to do for a very long time. And that’s regardless, if you work in the office, or you work remotely. Because just focus on your day, and do what you’ve planned for yourself rather than what other people planned for you.
Yeah, well, let’s walk into that. Because I think it’s a topic a lot of our listeners are excited about. They find some technique or some strategies such as limiting when you check your email to just once or twice a day. But cascading that throughout the whole organization could be tough. You don’t want to be the kind of person that mandates it and says, ‘Hey, it works for me, therefore, it’s going to work for you. And therefore, we’re going to legislate it and make sure it happens.’ But at the same time, you might find things that are very successful for you, and you want to pass them on. So, how have you found that to work within your organization?
So, several of my colleagues, internally, they get an auto response on their Teams, for example. I don’t respond to Teams between 10 to 4. That’s something I find fantastic. Because you just create your own focus, and people don’t expect an answer. Time is the biggest problem solver of all times. Because if you just wait, many problems will just go away eventually. It sounds a bit lazy, but many people can solve their own problems, if they can’t get any help. It’s actually very helpful for the individual just to focus on your own problems, and find your own solutions. So, it’s something we support. We don’t obligate to do. It is something and just saying in some roles it goes better. And in our previous companies, we had focus hours for development where there was a big sign on the wall, ‘Do not enter between 10 and 4’. And development was just being and staying isolated from the rest of the company, because so many people were just walking in asking questions, and it was just a disturbing factor every day.
Yeah. And that’s great to think about the fact of letting the problem just sit for a while. Because I think we feel we’re in this high paced world where if I have a problem, I’m going to solve it immediately, which means I send you a quick message. You’re not in focus time. You’re also kind of available, notifications are coming in, so you’re distracted from what you are doing. And I say, ‘Hey, can we meet?’ Because in the office, that was the solution for everything. It was like let’s get together and talk and have a meeting about this. And so, going through everything, like you said it, it may have just been letting that problem sit for three or four hours, and then coming back to it later, it may have a lot more clarity around it.
But I’m also thinking it’s also down to the rhythm you create as a company. So, we work based on scale up methodology. That means you have a weekly, a monthly and a quarterly rhythm in your organization. And that means that per week you set your own goals, per week you have your team goals, per month you have your team goals. And I think this really helps to get the rhythm right where not every question needs to be answered immediately. It’s best I think to create a rhythm. And I think creating a rhythm with daily huddles, weeklies, is really helpful to also have people to have focus time because there’s always a way to address the question at a later moment of the day.
Yeah, I like that idea of rhythms a lot. But like you said, both in a daily rhythm, a weekly rhythm, a monthly or quarterly, and even like a seasonal rhythm, to say. I know a lot of companies right now are saying, okay, it’s been a rough summer, like last year and a half, for a lot of people. So, expecting this summer, maybe our productivity is going to be down or giving people a little bit extra time off, or some people have a rhythm to say at the end of the year, hey, we’re all taking off doing things like that. Do you have any yearly rhythms you implement in your organization?
So, we do try to rhythm in a party. So, we try to have a rhythm, let’s say, a pre-summer barbecue, and after summer a boat trip, and let’s say New Year dinner with partners. So that’s the sort of rhythm we have just to have some fun activities. And for the rest, Europe is known for the summer holidays. I know the US is a bit different. So, many people take two or three weeks in the summertime, which is always, of course, like a more quiet time of the year. So, I do kind of try to support people to take on the holidays, even if you don’t have kids. It’s a more quiet time. And if you’re fueled by other people’s response, like sales or marketing, you can’t do much if other people don’t respond to your messages or to your phone calls. So, it’s really helpful to go on holiday when your customers are going on holiday as well.
That’s true. It’s good. Well, Erik, let’s call off this discussion. Talking a little bit about leadership and decision making and how we can push that forward, we talked about this a little bit before the call. So, give me some of your reflections on where progressive companies should be moving towards when it comes to just the concept of leadership and making decisions.
Yeah, so I’m quite simple in this. If you hire smart people, you also should let them make their own decisions. So, I think there are many verticals where you have workers that work best if they’re well informed, and not instructed to what has to be done that specific day. You need to control every step they do, either because it’s complicated, let’s say, if you work at Boeing. You need to check every step an engineer makes because it is just a two-way reflection of every decision. I think if you are a software company like us, you have smart people doing the job. I think a lot of freedom actually helped them to be a better person for themselves. It will just create an awesome time in a company. And just try to be there if they have questions.
And I think not trying to control the workday of employees, saying this needs to be done now, this needs to be done this. It doesn’t work that way. And I try to compare it with a group of friends. If you just go out and organize a weekend away, everyone is quite capable of organizing everything for themselves like this person arranges the car and the traffic, and the other one does the groceries. It all happens naturally. So, if you let a group run their own activities, everything goes quite well. And if you just have an overarching theme, or as a goal as a company, everything just becomes very stressful if people run at their own pace with their own goals. And that’s just super to see internally, that this is actually happening.
Yeah. So, it seems like it comes down to the idea of treating people as adults instead of just treating them as children. But I think when I talk to other CEOs, a lot of people want to have this mindset and want to have that, but then they say, if I turn it over, then they do make mistakes, or they don’t follow up with things or they act like children in these situations. So, how can you bridge that gap between understanding that there will be mistakes, there is this learning period, and being able to actually let go of some of that authority and some of that decision making?
I think the analogy about children is actually beautiful. Because I have three young kids myself. And one thing young kids do is that every day they try to do something new. And to grow up, many of us, including myself, we’ve stopped trying to do new things. So, one thing I use in many presentations internally, with customers, with partners, is to try to get a child out of yourself in regards to how to do new things every single day. And don’t be afraid to just not can’t do anything or not knowing how to. You just keep doing it.
And then the comparison towards children, it’s not about teaching them, it’s about helping them. So, if you have a question, help them. Like my children ask questions every single day. And sometimes in the day you just get the energy. Sometimes you yourself feel depleted after a long day and you have less energy to respond. I think that’s the same for a company, right? If you have co-workers, the questions they have are just questions to help them in the right direction. And regardless of your function, questions can be addressed to anyone.
Yeah. When I look towards the future, thinking about children, I have two kids, and there’s no way that I can give them all the answers they’re going to need to be successful in the next 20, 30, 40 years. The world’s just going to change too much. Things are going to be different. So, there’s no way I can iron out every detail for them. And I feel the same way when I look at people that are working with us on our teams. As leaders, we cannot have the audacity to assume that the way we see the world is the way it’s always going to be, and we always have the answer for those things, and recognizing that you’re going to have to turn those decisions over to other people and recognizing those.
And I don’t really enjoy knowing everything, right? So, I enjoy learning new things every day a little bit. And it’s either in regards to sports, in regards to business. Every day the world is changing, some things on a big scale, some things on a small scale. And that’s something I really enjoy for myself.
Yeah. That’s excellent. Erik, this has been a fascinating conversation, just to think about where the world is going, where we’re all moving towards, the idea of bringing in technology, bringing in a place to be able to talk about those things and bring them in. I’ve enjoyed this a lot. Let people know where they can go to be in touch with you and learn more about your product.
Yeah, so thanks, Neil. I really appreciate the conversation as well. And of course, I tried to respond to your questions, I think along the way. So, I think the whole conversation started with you saying Erik, tell me a bit more about Workspace 365. If you’re interested in learning about our platform workspace365.net. A lot of sources in regards to how we help different companies, different sizes, in the way to conquer complexity. The end of the day, we just want to run a successful and fun company where people enjoy working. And if they retire, they look back at the time, at least in our company, and I will be very proud if people think, hey, those were the best years of my working career. And that’s something I put a lot of effort in, just to create this experience. Of course, all the people working in our company, I just want to treat them the way they want to be treated and allow them to be successful.
That’s great. And a great inspiring note to end on. Erik, thanks for being on the show. We look forward to staying in touch with you and learning more about your journey as you go forward.
Thanks, Neil. Have a great day.
Since 2010, Workspace 365 boosts people by simplifying work with an adaptive workspace. Bring back focus on what’s important: you and your work. With his team, Erik’s goal is to streamline your workday and empower you to do your work, not just the way that is necessary, but the way that suits you best. The team is adaptive, and continue to listen, develop and improve to seamlessly suit your needs. This continuous dialogue helps us to improve, which helps you to improve.
Together, we build the future of work.
Workspace 365 defines the digital workspace for organisations. It breaks them free from IT restrictions, saving hours dealing with burdensome processes. This empowers people to have a happier, more productive work-life. As this applies to organisations around the globe, we work together with the partners they trust: their Managed Service Provider (MSP).