• Sam Colyer

Getting personal in the “digital” workplace

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Digitalisation has massively impacted the employee, or in fact, anybody, working for a company. Not just the ways in which people work, but it’s affected who they are, and how they interact with one another too.

Personalisation is one of those words that can be interpreted to mean many things. Employee identity is a big part of it, but it also comes down to individual personalities, ways of working, and even personal space in the office. Like everything, technology has had a huge effect on personalisation in the workplace, and like everything, there have been good and bad outcomes.

Personalisation versus standardisation

Personalisation versus standardisation. Where do you stand? Standardisation is all about formal processes with a primary focus on efficiency and productivity. It doesn’t focus so much on the people involved in the processes, but the processes themselves. Processes can become stale, they can lead to the dreaded lethargy of doing things because “they were always done that way”. Standardisation is starting to feel like a concept that needs updating, or at least something that needs to evolve itself in this digital age.

Personalisation is a concept which in many ways has been working in partnership with technology and also against in other ways (which I’ll explore further). A focus on the person and not the process will yield very different results. However let’s not forget that if we move wholly away from standardisation and process, the alternative concept has to be successful enough for businesses to adopt it.

Personalising the workplace: creating a home away from home

In the past, many employees brought their personalities into the workplace via the accumulation of “stuff”. Before hot-desking was a thing, employees used to “own” a small section of the office, be it their personal desk or cubicle. Workers would create a little piece of home in their few metres of office space with photos of spouses, stress balls in the shape of a golf ball/ tennis ball/football (delete as appropriate) and oversized plants.

But whilst some of us might be relieved that photos of our co-worker's dog with a birthday hat on are a thing of the past, flexible working spaces and clear desk policies have eradicated the physical evidence of personalities in the workplace. So what’s taken its place? Well, without the physical items, we’ve turned to technology to help create a version of personalisation.

Technology and personalisation

When it comes to providing personal experiences, it’s fair to say that technology gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Where technology has helped personalisation

As mentioned, flexible working has enabled employees to choose where they work. This is a big deal and continues to disrupt the “9-5 at your desk” notion. “Bring your own device” (BYOD) is a portal to a ‘virtual desk’ which means that employees can also tailor the way in which they work: be it on their own PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone: it can depend on personal preferences. BOYD is much more complex than just choosing which device you prefer, it also links to which brands or the operating system we use at home (iOS or Android). Who hasn’t been confronted with a device they aren’t used to using? It can take days, weeks or months to feel our way around.

Employees are also starting to expect a personalised experience in the workplace. Along with the option to work where they choose, they might expect a personalised career development plan or perhaps create their own personalised career path. They also expect technology to be a part of this experience: the Workforces 2025 report shows that over a third (38%) of employees expect VR to be part of staff training within the next 10 years.

Interestingly though, the same research shows that only 19% of people thought VR would replace face to face meetings. This is quite a surprise: with more people working out of the office, face to face meetings will become more of a challenge. You could argue (and I am), technology is enabling personalisation by bringing individuals together via video conferencing and VR meetings. No, it’s not the same as being in a room together, but it’s more personal than a standard phone call or email, and may also help save on unnecessary travel (that’s a whole other topic though!).

Where technology has hindered personalisation

As businesses continue to see technology enhance practices and interactions in the workplace, is there a risk we are becoming so focused on digital innovation that the ‘actual person’ is being overlooked? Is this the same issue we have with standardisation where the individual is getting lost? Automation has been undeniably great in some aspects of business, but employers would do well to remember their own people will have great ideas and a unique take on things.

Individual traits should be utilised and nurtured to inspire innovation and transformation.

And whilst we’re talking about the uniqueness of people, technology still isn’t quite there when it comes to grasping the complexity of different generations in the workplace. In one team alone you might find employees from generation X/baby boomers/millennials/gen z. These people will, as expected, have different needs, different experiences and expectations. This is particularly relevant when it comes to how people can be enabled to do their job, how they might develop and how they might learn.

Personalities in the workplace

So there’s more to personalisation in the workplace than having a big aloe vera plant on your desk, or even having the option for flexible working. It can also come down to the personalities within the workforce too.

Consider for a moment your own personal attributes. Why do your friends like you? Maybe you’re really good in a crisis. Maybe you’re calm and unflappable. Perhaps you speak your mind with no BS. Or perhaps you’re the most sociable one in your team. Many of these attributes can be very transferable and relevant in the workplace too. Why do we often feel that personal attributes couldn’t possibly be relevant in business?

Productivity may well be shaped by standardisation in the past, but why not have the personalities of a workforce help shape productivity instead? It kind of feels like employers are missing a trick here. Many companies are keen to develop a corporate culture. A corporate culture encourages people to think in a certain way with shared values and attitudes. However, these environments can be the very thing that stifles a personal, creative and content workforce. Maybe what employees need is:

a safe space for people to step outside of the corporate box to allow employees to share their personality and true potential.

Businesses should say ‘yes’ to personalisation

This is a huge topic to cover in one sitting, but the takeaway is that businesses should be celebrating personalisation in the workplace, in all senses of the meaning. They also need to be aware of how technology can both help and hinder their workforce.

Remember that:

  • Personalisation in the workplace can have many interpretations. It’s the individual personalities in a workforce and it’s the attributes of those people. But it’s also about ways of working, and even personal space in the office

  • Personalisation can work in partnership with technology, but if we move wholly away from standardisation and process, the alternative concept has to be successful enough for businesses to adopt it

  • Productivity may well have been shaped by standardisation in the past, but personalisation can help shape and enable people to be productive in the future

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