5 Ways to Put Your People First in a Digital Transformation

Digital transformation

The same five essential factors of work have existed since prehistoric times, as Workfront CEO Alex Shootman outlines in a recent article. Whether we’re hunter-gatherers or modern knowledge workers, our daily labor consists of workers, tools, location, time constraints, and division of tasks. Put another way, it’s the who, what, where, when, and how of work.

Here’s a simplified look at how these five factors have evolved throughout human history:

Simplified look at human history

What’s notable about work today is that “for the first time, all five factors of work are changing at the exact same moment, making modern work particularly challenging,” Alex says. I couldn’t agree more. The level of change modern knowledge workers are facing is unprecedented, and it can be disorienting. I say this from experience, having worked with digital leaders of more than 200 enterprises all over the world in the past 3 years, assisting them with digital transformation initiatives. I’m not there to merely replicate existing processes digitally; the goal is to get these organizations to think about how to orient their workers to work smarter.

I work with savvy leaders who recognize the need to platform their work digitally and rely on modern work management technology, but even they are not always prepared for the human capital challenges that come with the territory. Based on my work with enterprises of all sizes, I’ve collected five tips to help leaders lessen the impact of these challenges on their most important asset—their people—and elevate the individual experience in ways that benefit both the knowledge worker and the technology.

1. Give people the why

The chart above includes four W’s (who, what, when, where) of work. But there’s an important W missing: the why.

When you’re hunting game or growing crops, you know the why—to survive. When you work in a factory, you also know the why—to build your part of the widget. In a knowledge economy, where our work is digital and we’re not always producing tangible products, the why piece of the puzzle can be fuzzy. And if our people don’t know the reason they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s difficult for them to stay engaged in the work.

Digital advancements have made it easier than ever for us to assign work, keep people busy, and keep the wheels of industry turning. But today’s leaders must consciously take the time to connect their people to the why behind it all, so every worker at every level of the organization can feel pride in their work and know that it matters.

One example I return to again and again is time tracking. This topic really tends to push people’s buttons when it comes up in client meetings. Leaders tell me all the time that they’ve tried asking their people to log work hours in the past, only to be met with resistance and noncompliance. And it usually comes down to the same bedrock issue. If you don’t tell your team why you want them to track their hours, they’ll assume you don’t trust them to stay productive and on task without your Big Brother oversight. Nobody likes that.

Instead, take a specific project or single work activity and ask people to track hours for just that initiative. Explain that you’re looking for process improvements and efficiency gains, so you can pinpoint how to shorten cycle times and deliver quality work faster. To do that, you must first know how long things take in the first place. When your people can see a clear reason for the ask, they’ll be far more diligent, responsible, and honest about the hours they report.

2. Know how people work

A worker is not a machine. We’re no longer looking for any capable body to operate a station on an assembly line. We’re working with Amy and Jordan and Marco, and we need their unique thought processes and individual creativity.

When you know more about how the individual people on your team approach their work, you’ll be far more effective in leading them toward a common goal. For example, do they tend to front-load or back-load their work? I have two daughters who, if they have something due on Friday, will crank it out the Monday before. My three sons, on the other hand, would wait until Thursday or Friday, right before the Varsity football game.

If I’m working in an environment that offers limited visibility into people’s workloads, I might give all of these individuals the same 5-day duration to complete a task, even if I know it only takes 2 days of actual work. I have to build a 3-day cushion into the request because I don’t know how many other tasks they’re juggling that week. While this approach might work fine for my daughters, it wouldn’t be ideal for my sons, who are more likely to deliver their work “just in time,” and will easily find other ways to fill the interim hours.

Luckily, a modern work management platform gives us the ability to base our assignments on real-time availability, so we’re not building in unnecessary cushions and just hoping for the best. It also makes it easier for us to tailor our assignments to the individual personalities we’re working with.

3. Aim for a minimum viable process

We’ve all heard about the minimum viable product, but we can apply this concept to our work processes as well. I recently worked with a customer to analyze a project with more than 70 individual tasks. His team was spending too much time updating dates and statuses and completion percentages, so I helped them condense 17 of those tasks down to four. This reduced a significant amount of administrative time, while also giving more autonomy and accountability to the workers involved in those tasks. Each team member then had more freedom to figure out how to get the nitty-gritty of each task done, rather than having it dictated from above.

By way of example, if you assign a writer to produce a piece of content, you could get really granular and create separate tasks for:

1.     Select interview subject

2.     Schedule interview

3.     Transcribe interview notes

4.     Create outline

5.     Write first draft

Or, you could create a single task titled “write first draft,” and trust that your writer knows how to break it down from there. Not only does this demonstrate trust in your writer’s abilities, it also allows them to spend less time on administrative updates and more time cranking out engaging content. And in a world where the average knowledge worker spends just 43% of their time on their primary job duties, every little bit helps.

4. Involve your people in the build

I’ve often heard from leaders who are frustrated about team members failing to follow a particular process they expect them to rely on. I like to ask, “What were the team’s thoughts when they were involved in creating the workflow?” The response is usually, “Well, we didn’t ask them. We just built it.” No wonder they’re not engaged.

Involving your people in whatever you build—from a multifaceted process to an individual report—serves two purposes. First, it’s an opportunity for you to understand how your people work (see tip number 2 above). Second, it allows you to ask clarifying questions that could end up improving how they work:

If you give someone a process that they helped you build, and they still don’t follow it or do what’s required, you may have narrowed down the real obstacle. You might have a performance issue to address, rather than a process or platform problem to solve. Or you might have a little of both.

5. Make sure visibility goes both ways

As we become more modernized in our work, and we scale down from large projects to small tasks that are tangible and doable, we tend to create lots of smaller, more nimble teams, which can deliver work quickly. This is essential in our rapidly accelerating world. But it’s all too easy for these specialized teams—especially remote teams, which are on the rise—to lose sight of how their contributions fit into the whole. And while a modern work management platform offers unprecedented visibility into both individual and team work, the individuals themselves don’t always get the big-picture visibility they need to be the most effective and engaged.

My team consists of five dispersed team members who travel to meet with customers all over the world, and I’m the only one located near company headquarters. One way I help connect them to the larger Workfront organization is by encouraging participation on other ad-hoc teams in the company—maybe a product team or customer success team. Not as a liaison, but as a participant and contributor. We’re also deeply connected by our work management platform, which keeps us seamlessly in sync, whether we’re in Salt Lake City, London, or Australia.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for increasing upward visibility. Just be aware and look for opportunities to make sure your organizational transparency goes up the chain of command as well as down.

Bridge the distance between the work and the why

In a world where everything around us is shifting all at once—including the who, the what, the when, the where, and the how of work—visionary leadership is more important than ever. People need to understand the why behind their “disaggregated work,” as Alex describes it in his article. He’s referring to the ever-narrower specialties workers are required to cultivate today, often with job titles that didn’t exist as recently as a decade ago: iOS developer, social media manager, Scrum Master, user experience designer, SEO analyst, automation architect, Chief Listening Officer, and the list goes on.

“Specialization and disaggregation means that the worker today is often distant from the final product or the customer,” Alex writes. The average worker in our knowledge economy is not performing tactile tasks like hunting wild beasts, cultivating crops, or assembling automobiles. So it’s up to enterprise leaders to paint the full picture. You need to help your team members see how their work aligns with enterprise initiatives. You need to understand their motivations and involve them in process-building. And you need to reduce administrative overload and empower them to innovate.

As you influence how people see themselves inside their work, you can bridge the distance between a worker’s daily tasks and the organization’s greater mission. Not only does this increase individual engagement, it also instills a sense of purpose that has a tendency to spread throughout the enterprise.