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Digital Workplace: Design for a healthy work life balance

Regardless of what you think of as the typical workplace, you cannot deny that the concept of the modern workplace, workplace culture and the relationship between work and personal life are changing. Like so many industries, the modern workplace has received its own digital disruption. Since business software (e.g. SharePoint, Outlook) has become mobile-optimized, almost everyone can connect on some level to their workplace at all times of the day. Add to this the fact that more and more business apps and services moving to the cloud and online, allowing for remote work, flexible schedules and bring your own device” (BYOD) that expands the office’s physical location.

Not to say that this means you should be working at all hours of the day and night, or wherever you can find a decent internet connection. The perennial dilemma of separating your work and home lives no longer has that comfortable buffer of physical separation. Even the concept of work life balance is changing – Cali Williams Yost refers to it as “work-life fit,” while Dr. Hannah Valantine (quoted in the New York Times) prefers work life integration.” So how can a business help its employees maintain a healthy work life balance, or whatever you choose to call it, as you’re creating your digital workplace?

2 Keys to Design your Digital Workplace for Healthy Work-Life Balance

Before we get down to answering that question, it’s important to get some insight on how people are navigating this new digital work landscape as it stands. The findings from the Digital Brain Switch (DBS) project give us exactly that. According to the project’s website, DBS examined the changes in work life balance that accompany these digital transformations, specifically how employees switched between personal and professional roles.

“We have seen in our research that certain individuals — for example social entrepreneurs as well as those with line management responsibility — experience an urge to go online after hours in their effort to, for example, stay up to date with developments at work. For them, the online environment is a place in which they can engage in both personal and work-related activities. However, some of our participants felt getting ‘sucked in’ and highlighted an emergent need to disconnect, which they did by taking some time away from their electronic devices, oftentimes by taking a walk in the park or by engaging in a social activity with others (e.g. going to the theatre).”

Dr. Petros Chamakiotis, Lecturer in Information Systems at the University of Sussex, UK, discussing the Digital Brain Switch (@DigiBrainSwitch) project’s findings, October 4, 2016

So back to the original question: for those looking to build a digital workplace with a productive and agile team of workers, what elements can you focus on changing?

2 Keys to Design your Digital Workplace for Healthy Work-Life Balance

First, consolidate the online parts of your digital workplace into a simple and straightforward interface. The findings of the DBS project, as stated above by Dr. Chamakiotis, show that some participants felt “sucked in” to their online tasks and environments and doing more than they intended to, whether personal or for work. Placing all the tools, documents and applications that an employee needs into a user-friendly central location – whether an intranet’s main page, employee portal or team collaboration site—may mitigate the need for a worker to open up multiple tabs or browser windows to access that information, and thereby lessen the risk of being distracted by another part of the internet somewhere between these points. Even though participants in the DBS project (according to Dr. Chamakiotis) noted that the online environment did not belong to their personal or work lives exclusively, presenting a single online space for work activities can create a kind of boundary between the personal and professional online tasks for those who need or desire it.

This leads into a second key aspect of building a digital workplace sensitive to the work life balance of its employees. Companies looking to evolve digitally but want to help employees maintain a healthy relationship between their work and personal lives should put real effort into fostering company culture that accepts and even encourages personal maintenance of those roles. To reference Dr. Chamakiotis’ quote above, the DBS study found “that certain individuals — for example social entrepreneurs as well as those with line management responsibility — experience an urge to go online after hours in their effort to, for example, stay up to date with developments at work.” These feelings and urges on the part of workers in a more or less constantly connected digital workplace is another matter entirely, one that can’t be solved by enhancing workplace technology.

Take this for an example: according to a study cited by the Harvard Business Review, the perceived rigid boundaries between work and personal lives are actually generating more stress for individuals—and showed that having more fluid boundaries between work and personal roles allows employees to handle those cognitive transitions with more ease. The digital workplace is suited to technically loosen these boundaries – for example by storing business resources online, employees are capable of working remotely on their own mobile or desktop devices. However clear lines need to be drawn, particularly by individual employees using their personal mobile and desktop devices for work. We agree with the stance Deloitte takes in a report on the digital workplace and culture: the authors state that enacting digital policies and technologies in the workplace requires a culture that respects employees’ right to switch off at times.

Another way that a company can augment its digital workplace culture is through adopting flex-time programs. An article for the New York Times on work life balance discusses a case study in which members of the technology department at an anonymous company (nicknamed TOMO) were allowed to work when and where they saw fit so long as required tasks were completed. On the whole, the researchers on the project found that employees offered the flexible schedules were on the whole happier and healthier while meeting the same goals as the control group. In the same article, work-life experts Cali Williams Yost and Rachael Ellison are noted as saying that companies with flexibility options often don’t put enough effort toward making sure employees use those policies. Thus, the culture surrounding a digital workplace needs to ensure that employees are comfortable and supported in negotiating their own work life balance and role-changing, whether through respecting disconnection or through encouraging flexible work arrangements, or any other method that suits a particular business or industry.

While fostering this type of culture and accountability is something that may not be helped by technological means, there is software out there that can help you to consolidate the disparate tools, apps and files in your digital workplace into one user-friendly interface. One of these, LiveTiles, can sit on SharePoint or Office365 and run as a cloud software hosted by Microsoft Azure. Whatever the size or needs of your team, LiveTiles’ drag and drop tools allow you to quickly turn out gorgeous customized pages for productivity and collaboration.

Achieving a harmonious relationship between the personal and work-based parts of your life can get tricky, especially given the permanent presence of always-on mobile technology. For a burgeoning digital workplace, creating a centralized and usable online location for your business tools as well as cultivating a culture that supports employees negotiating their own transitions are two important elements that might help create a healthy organizational work life balance. This is by no means a new problem, but it has become a unique one due to the way that our personal and professional lives are now digitally integrated.

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