Is ‘digital by default’ really the future of corporate life?

Move to remote workplaces by Twitter, Shopify raises questions about implications for organizational culture

Is ‘digital by default’ really the future of corporate life?

by Sean Reid

"Our culture is strengthened by our people, not our offices."

This statement -- taken from a LinkedIn post by Shopify’s chief talent officer Brittany Forsythe -- nicely sums up the underlying philosophy behind the company’s recent decision to adopt a “digital by default” office strategy moving forward.

It is a bold and visionary statement, reflecting Shopify’s keen attention to shifting trends in organizational behaviour and broader market dynamics. It is a proactive bet by the tech giant that organizational culture can survive – even thrive – if employees are empowered to work from the comfort and convenience of their own homes.

No doubt the decision, which goes a step beyond that of Twitter a week prior, was informed by careful attention to the unique dynamics and demands of Shopify’s workforce – the needs, values and behaviours that give shape to the culture of that community of highly-skilled professionals.

But even if a “digital by default” strategy is the inevitable destination of a generation-defining trend in organizational development, whether it is actually a good idea remains an open question.

People are physical beings. We are social beings. We are built to connect with the people and the environment around us, not only visually and audibly via video conference, but with our full spectrum of senses. We are shaped at the deepest levels by nuanced, subtle, corporeal interaction with others – body language, non-verbal cues, physical gesture, and touch.

When we eliminate or drastically diminish the factor of our human physicality from the equation, how does organizational culture change?

What role does touch play in the high-energy relationships that fuel organizational health? What influence do all the small, private hallway interactions separating one meeting from the next have on the bonds within and between teams?

What obstacles to interpersonal connection, vulnerability, and conflict resolution are created when we no longer have easy access to a private or secluded space for that important or intense heart-to-heart?

Perhaps not everyone believes they need such physical connection to cultivate healthy teams and work relationships. But that does not mean they are correct in their assessment.

Every cycle of innovation has its pioneers and early adopters. But the broader corporate community need not rush to follow suit. Even the most forward-thinking, people-centric organizations would be well advised to watch carefully for the early returns on the “digital by default” strategy before joining the parade themselves.

At minimum, there are alternative models to consider.

The COVID-19 recovery is already spurring a renewed interest in all things “local.” While the days of massive corporate campuses may be coming to an end, middle options that preserve the benefits of physical team interaction are possible. Could, for example, a return to smaller, localized office sites and team spaces be an alternative to a general rule of “work from home”?

Time will tell, of course. But just because some of our tech leaders have chosen this path does not make it a path the rest should follow, not at least without careful consideration of the consequences.

Sean Reid is president and head coach at Arrowhead Coaching and Facilitation Solutions in Grimbsy, Ont., a coaching and consulting company committed to helping leaders build remarkable organizations with clarity and confidence.

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