“Let’s build a partnership between IT and HR, and figure out how we can actually serve employees better instead of just making one department’s job easier.” — Neil Miller

As a society, we’re still shackled to this industrial-age idea of what productivity looks like. Our exploration of the potential of modern productivity has just begun, and there’s still so much we have to learn.

In this episode, Neil Miller, Host of The Digital Workplace Podcast, joins us to chat about the future of productivity in the modern workplace.

We discuss:

  • The relationship between technology and productivity
  • Key principles of digital productivity
  • Toxic digital work environments
  • Building a partnership between IT and HR

For more amazing DEX content, including podcasts, articles and exclusive research, head over to the DEX Hub (dex.nexthink.com)

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Speaker 1 (00:01):

You’re listening to Digital Employee Experience: A Show for IT Change Makers. Let’s get into the show.

Tom McGrath (00:07):

Well, hello change makers. This is Tom McGrath. Welcome to The DEX Show. It’s another timidness episode, I’m afraid. You’re stuck with me as host, but don’t worry. I have an excellent guest and an excellent theme. More on the latter, anon. First of all though, let’s welcome the guest, Neil Miller. Among other things he’s the host of the excellent digital workplace podcast. And Neil and I will today be discussing the pertinent and mutually relevant topic of staying productive in the digital or remote or distributed, or if you will, hybrid workplace. Neil, welcome to the show.

Neil Miller (00:38):

It’s a pleasure to be here, Tom. There’s so many names for it, right? We can call it anything.

Tom McGrath (00:43):

It’s still work though, at the end of the day, isn’t it. Let’s be honest. Let’s be honest.

Neil Miller (00:47):

It is. It is.

Tom McGrath (00:50):

Well, since we can’t really discuss, I think productivity without mentioning COVID, let’s start with a word about the latter. How have you personally, Neil, coped professionally, productively, personally, during the last, however many months we’ve all been more or less locked up.

Neil Miller (01:06):

So I’ve been working remotely since 2016, I would say. So for me, I didn’t really notice much except that I was home just as much as… I mean, I used to travel a decent amount, so that was gone. Other than that, it was the same day over and over again as before. So it wasn’t really a big thing for me. I was trying to help some of my teammates who were getting used to working at home on different things. But yeah, overall for me it was about the same.

Tom McGrath (01:34):

So I’m going to make an estimate, might be wrong, but I’m going to make it anyway. Therefore you don’t have kids, is that right Neil? You don’t as yet have children.

Neil Miller (01:43):

I do have kids.

Tom McGrath (01:44):

You do have kids? Well, how could it be the same? It wasn’t the same. You suddenly had to teach them to read and stuff. It was radically different. This was the only thing, I was working from home too, but suddenly I was working from home surrounded by children. That was a fundamental switch. Anyway, move on from our respective progeny and speak, Neil, about the big picture. My first question for you is, how do you conceptualize the dynamic for relationship between technology on the one hand and productivity on the other?

Neil Miller (02:15):

Yeah. Like so many other parts of work, I feel like productivity is on the verge to really redefine what it means. I feel like, we’re trying, trying, trying to emerge from industrial age thinking, which meant productivity was just, how many widgets did you get done today? And how many were you able to ship out? I think that that is something we’ve got to be able to drop. And the problem is technology can accelerate either side of that discussion. Technology can help us know exactly how many widgets you made per second and help you micro figure that out. We can use technology to figure out… You can monitor people’s screens to figure out how many keystrokes they’re doing and it can really drive that productivity discussion way deep down into that hole.

Neil Miller (03:04):

Or productivity can… We can realize that, wow, now we don’t have to look at it that way. And we can really see time as not something that we want to measure by productivity standards, but really to honor time and find a different way and really move towards, what I would prefer is more looking at productivity based on objectives, reach, and outcome, and really divorce it from strictly time. I mean, there’s always room for seeing time as a part of the productivity discussion, but it doesn’t have to be so central and so much a part of that formula.

Tom McGrath (03:35):

Mm. A thing that occurs to me lately is that there is indeed this big emphasis on quality over quantity, as it were, or quality over time worked, to be more specific and aligned to what you just said. But it does strike me that a lot of work does occur, if you will, cumulatively, right? Like you produce a lot because you’re searching for that diamond in the rough, and it’s maybe hard to be as premeditative as we would all like to be about knowing, well, this is what’s going to deliver value. Sometimes it’s through energized creation that you find the value. That would be my counterpoint to this trend.

Neil Miller (04:15):

Yeah. And I definitely agree with you, there are some jobs out there, like we said, that are industrial aged jobs that you know if you put in this many hours, you’re going to get this output from it. But most of us are into worlds and into projects where it’s like, it’s the great unknown, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can work on 50 things this week and maybe none of them are going to make a difference or maybe one of them is going to make a difference, but I got to do those things and I’m not really going to know for sure which one’s going to be there.

Neil Miller (04:40):

So yeah, I hear your point. And there’s definitely room to see like, yeah, we have to keep trying things. Being a leader I feel like, in the new digital age requires that very much the ability to assume that your first stabs at something are going to be wrong and you’re going to need to adjust and pivot and find new strategies for it. But coming back to what that means for productivity, I feel like if I have a week where none of my darts hit the board and it just is not working, I shouldn’t necessarily classify that as a terrible week. But maybe I learned some things that I’ll be able to adapt on. And if I get that one thing that hits, then that was a great week, even though maybe it only took me 15 minutes to get that done.

Tom McGrath (05:20):

And it brings us back somewhat to COVID or the effects of COVID. A favored industry figure of speech at the moment, which is, I think a very English way of saying cliche is that work is a thing you do, not a place you go to. But there is a fascinating dynamic between the two. The most obvious example is that when we… All of us always went into offices once upon a time, maybe before our times, Neil, the working day nine to five or whatever you want to call it was more of a concrete thing. And now it’s long since escaped those bounds, through technology, through home work and post COVID it’s escaped those bounds all together. So there’s a living dynamic between time and place, if you will. And I wonder what your reflections are on the impact of lockdowns and mass home work on the wider theme of productivity in general.

Neil Miller (06:17):

Yeah. And I’m glad you brought up both sides of time and place. And especially as companies are considering, or they’re saying, Hey, we’re going to do hybrid work. Well, are you talking about place? Are you talking about time? Are you talking about both? When it comes to making the realization that we can do a decent amount of work from a place other than all together in one office location. I mean, that’s a big revelation for some people just to see, and just to believe that it is possible. I think of all the parts of work that were least affected by the pandemic and the lockdowns that were there, I feel like productivity was probably the least effected. You think about collaboration, you think about leadership, you think about culture. All those things have taken a hit, and we have to really make some big adjustments. But when it comes to just getting the work done, I think for most companies, within two weeks to three weeks, they had it figured out, how to keep things going and keep things moving.

Neil Miller (07:11):

But back to your point about this time and place, we can recognize that we maybe don’t all have to be working at the same time. It doesn’t have to be eight to five, you can split that up. You can take a break in the middle of the day. You can work later, you can work earlier. And also we’re free from time and place restrictions. So it doesn’t have to be at a certain place and maybe we do need to be together in the same time, a few times a week, or a few times a quarter or a few times a year, but we don’t have to necessarily assume that it has to be one way or the other. And so I think the freedom to see those as variables that you can mess with and levers you can pull and see what happens when you do those things, I think that’s a big lesson from all this. And I think it’s going to be helpful going into the future.

Tom McGrath (07:54):

Okay. And to productivity technology, where does that insert itself into this conversation? What can be done that isn’t being done presently with technology to facilitate more qualitative based productivity?

Neil Miller (08:09):

Oh, what would you consider a productivity tool?

Tom McGrath (08:12):

A productivity tool? I guess I will offer up Teams, for it’s for sheer convenience.

Neil Miller (08:19):

Yeah. And even to call Teams a productivity tool, I feel like is a little bit strange. When I think about productivity tools, I think about, how do I know I’m doing a good job? That’s my base definition for productivity is, did you do a good job today? Did you do what you set out to do? And everyone agrees that this was a good thing to do. So for me, something like Teams is more of a way to collaborate. And even when you’re talking about like Google G suite, workplace, whatever it’s called these days. Similar thing, it’s there to help facilitate work, but you can get lost.

Neil Miller (08:55):

You can spend all your day in Outlook, you can spend all your day in Gmail and not be productive at all. Same goes for Slack. Same goes for Zoom. So to call those tools productivity tools, I think is a misnomer. And it really distracts us from assuming that just because you’re at work or just because you logged in that you are working and being productive. And I think we need to break that and realize that in order to be able to be more productive and have more time back to ourselves, we can move away from that.

Tom McGrath (09:22):

So how does technology weigh productivity more accurately then?

Neil Miller (09:29):

I think productivity and technology have a better relation in the fact that there are more metrics that we can track now than we ever did before. So if you’re in the marketing team and you want to increase the brand recognition of your company. You’re not necessarily looking at sign-ups, not necessarily looking at leads at that point, but you’re just wanting to increase their brand recognition. There was a point earlier when that would have been difficult to do, you would have had to do expensive surveys or focus groups that are out there to try to figure out how things are done. But with the present technology, you have a slew of metrics you can choose. What do you want? What kind of brand uplift survey do you want? There’s 20 that are out there to figure out what that is, or to figure out what your search volume is, or to figure out what your search volume is for a very particular region.

Neil Miller (10:17):

I feel like the strongest connection between technology and productivity is giving those kinds of additional options and new ways to look at things. Now, there are other productivity tools out there, even things like a time management software, which is a double-edged sword, because a lot of companies will say, oh, great time management, that means I can make sure that my employees are working eight hours a day. They have to log in and I can see all the websites they’ve been to and all sorts of things like that. That’s not the way you want to use those things.

Neil Miller (10:47):

But time management apps can actually be great for individuals who want to see, Hey, how am I doing today? What were my distractions? What were the places that I was wasting time? And that I didn’t need to go to? And recognizing that, yeah, I probably only put in four hours of productive work today, and I had another three or four where I was wasting time. Maybe on personal things or maybe on other types of things. And that could even make you realize well, but I still had a great week. So if I can find those three hours, find those three or four hours and really condense that and really focus and make sure I’m not on other sites during that time. I mean, that’s great for individual productivity. Again, I would not recommend to use that corporate wide as a monitoring software. But those tools are helpful for individuals.

Tom McGrath (11:32):

Yeah. I mean, do you think, if you think about the future of workplace technology, is there any way to avoid it becoming as it were increasingly intrusive on the side of employers. Other than a internal cultural resistance to it?

Neil Miller (11:49):

Yeah. I don’t see… I mean, the natural path is, yeah. Just keep monitoring more, keep being more intrusive, keep figuring out more things. There has to be a concerted effort on the behalf of leadership to say, look, we’re not going to do that. If you just follow the ways and I think you saw this, even with Teams, Teams had a feature that allowed you to see when your people were active or when they were being most productive, it used lots of different metrics that were there. Same thing that you can apply here when people first saw that. And I think Microsoft tends to be bad at this. They’ve corrected it, but they tend to just offer up a metric and just say, Hey, here’s your productivity metric. I don’t remember what they called it at the time. But when people first see that I think their instant reaction and instant instinct is to say, okay, how can I optimize this number? How can I make sure all of my people are spending more time in chat conversations, talking about things more, collaborating, more, being more productive in Microsoft Teams.

Neil Miller (12:52):

That’s not really the way that you want to go, but we’ve been conditioned to that way. And we’ve been all thought about industrial age thinking pushes us that way. But those insights are useful. If you can go back and say, well, let’s actually analyze this from a mental wellbeing type standpoint, let’s still use those things. But man, this person seems to be working really late hours and it’s not usual for them. This person seems to be working long, long weeks, much longer than everybody else, and that’s not usual for them. Maybe we should check in with them and see how they’re doing. Maybe there’s something else going on in their life that’s forcing this to happen. So it’s going to take an effort on leadership to change their thinking and push against some of those instincts that have been drilled into us and be able to use these tools for good rather than to continue to monitor people.

Tom McGrath (13:40):

So, I mean, if you had to articulate key principles of digital productivity, what would they be? Or is it that they’re entirely flexible and what technology can do is illuminate them in specific individual instances?

Neil Miller (13:54):

Yeah. I would say if you’re talking about productivity principles, this is the one thing that’s… I mean, it’s kind of like that feeling. I don’t know what it was like for you, but here in the US when you’re going through all of your grade school and all of your high school, your secondary education, everything is planned for you, you know exactly what you’re supposed to do every day. And I remember the moment I graduated and had that summer between high school and college, it was this very strange feeling of like, oh, no one cares what I do today. I can do anything I want, I don’t have any assignments to turn in. I don’t have anything like that. And there’s this really weird feeling about what do I do with my time now? How do I approach that?

Neil Miller (14:37):

Now you enter into college and maybe have a little bit more autonomy in those situations, but it’s still fairly structured. But that feeling, I think a lot of people are going through in their day-to-day lives. Feeling like, oh, maybe I can wake up at 10 o’clock today and work and my boss isn’t checking in on me yet. I only meet with my boss once or twice a week, I really have all this freedom, but we don’t really know what to do with it because we’ve spent the last 20, 30 years being used to having somebody checking over our shoulder, checking the clock to see what time we logged in those types of things.

Neil Miller (15:10):

So I think we have a lot of work to do when it comes to modern productivity, in terms of managing our own schedules, figuring out how our energy cycles work. Figuring out how we can do better at prioritizing tasks so we’re not just doing mindless things or things that don’t actually lead towards good objectives. All of us struggle with distractions. I feel like that’s a big thing that we need to learn about ourselves. Like when distractions come, how do you interact with them? When do you give into them? When do you take a break and go to something else? I think there’s a lot of research and a lot of room left to discover new ideas about productivity as it comes into a technological center.

Tom McGrath (15:49):

So it sounds like quite an open field still, would you say?

Neil Miller (15:52):

Oh yeah. I think if we go on a positive path, I’d say we still have a good 10 years left before we can really say, Hey, this is what it takes to be successfully productive in a totally distributed and digital environment. I think there are definitely individuals, people, there’s a few success stories in companies out there that have done this really well and can do it at a good pace. But in terms of that going mainstream, I think we’re still several years away.

Tom McGrath (16:18):

And perhaps with the freedom that you described, which has come organically with mass remote work. It’s interesting, it reminds me a little bit of the current trend in an unlimited PTO and what you actually find when you give people total freedom to choose their own PTO, or to choose their amount of PTO is nobody takes any, or people take next to none, because you’ve suddenly put the responsibility on them. In general, people quite like boundaries. And I think you’ve seen a a growth to a degree of workaholism with mass remote work as a consequence of there no longer being clearly demarcated boundaries within which people work. And that’s presumably something people need to learn about on a personal level as well.

Neil Miller (17:03):

Yeah. I 100% agree. We should be aware that the last year and a half, it’s not like you could go a lot of places anyway. So there’s some of that going on, but it was happening even before the pandemic. You saw companies being progressive and hip and saying, Hey, unlimited PTO, take as much time as you want, but you still got to get your work done. And therefore, no one took any time off.

Neil Miller (17:24):

Well, I interviewed a guy on my show that that was like that. And they actually shifted to more of a mandatory PTO type situation where it was required that you took one week off every quarter. But then they even had to adjust that as it went on, because then with the way holidays would fall, then everyone would be off at a certain time. Or you would see everyone lumping all of their time in one spot. They ended up doing, at the end of the year in that Christmas time, just closing down the whole company for a week and then doing something similar where they shifted instead of quarters to seasons. So that you had one spring season, one summer season and tried to ease the burden there.

Neil Miller (18:08):

I’ve seen other companies that even in the summer have taken a break. Have just said, Hey, the whole office is closed for this week, don’t come in. And that way you’re also not feeling like, yeah you can go off and take a month long vacation, but all your work is going to be stacked up and piled up when you get back, it doesn’t really feel like much a vacation. So I like the companies that are experimenting with that model. There’s obviously flaws with that too. But I think that’s something that we can be excited about and looking forward to and learn from those companies.

Tom McGrath (18:34):

Mm. Mm. So, one thing I’ve seen you discuss, which is interesting to me is the digital toxic work environment. And I think it’s a fun and engaging concept, and I’d be interested in hearing something about it and how it differs from a standard or conventional or traditional toxic workplace.

Neil Miller (18:54):

Yeah. So when you think about toxic work environments, you typically have that idea of like the boss is looming over everyone. You’re all scared to speak about something or you have a lot of gossip and a lot of political backbiting and just a very difficult place to be. But when it comes to a digital environment, digital environments can be just as toxic as anything else that’s there. Sometimes it looks the same, it’s just that replication of what was there before, where your boss is still every 15 minutes pings you something and says, Hey, what are you doing? Let me know what you’re working on. That kind of thing. And you can still have those political infighting. You see some companies where they open up a portal like Slack, and if they actually read all the private messages that were going on, they’d be floored at the amount of politicism and gossip that goes on behind the scenes and all those types of things.

Neil Miller (19:45):

So those types of things are just replications of one versus the other. Sometimes those digital platforms just make those easier and more smoothless because you don’t have to worry about being overheard by someone else, but there’s also a record of it. And it goes on and on like that. But there are some also unique things that I would say that can make a toxic work environment worse in a digital environment. Mostly I would lean towards the feeling of isolation, I think is a big one. It’s pretty easy for someone to just get along, do their work, but maybe have one or two interactions per week with other coworkers. It feels like they’re being separated and it feels like they don’t have that clarity on what needs to come ahead. So I think that that one is difficult, just not being able to be together and see those things.

Neil Miller (20:35):

I think when people start to realize that they’re… I would say the reason people would leave a in-person job because it was toxic was because the manager, the leader of the team was just being more actively bad and actively difficult to deal with. Whereas in a digital environment, it’s more that that leader is being more passive and is not engaging with you, is just letting things sit there. And it’s been days and days and days since you had any feedback, no one knows what you’re doing. The rest of the company just seems like another country to you. So I think those are some of the unique ways that digital environments can be more toxic.

Tom McGrath (21:14):

Yeah. That’s interesting. I mean, onboarding people over the last year and a half one has been very conscious of the ease of which, particularly if you came in fresh to a workplace, you could find yourself isolated simply because you didn’t have those happenstance interactions that would happen when you were going to a physical destination.

Neil Miller (21:31):

Yeah. I mean like, Tom, if you got hired to a new place and it was in person and you got there and your manager didn’t realize that it was your onboarding day, you could still have a pretty good day. You could still walk around, see people, talk, you go to lunch and maybe you find a new friend and different things. And they’re like, okay, I’ll get you your stuff tomorrow. Sorry. You just come back. Whereas if it’s a digital environment and it’s your first day and your boss isn’t ready for it, what are you going to do? Nothing.

Tom McGrath (21:59):

Going on YouTube, more often than not.

Neil Miller (22:01):

Yeah. Yeah. You got no options there. So I think that’s again, that active versus passive thing you see in leadership, you’re going to see more of passive leaders are just going to… It’s going to grind people and it’s going to make them feel really terrible.

Tom McGrath (22:15):

Mm. Mm. A lot of our listeners are in charge of, or participate in the provisioning of technology. And I mean, what lessons, predicated on the above that we’ve discussed, would you pass on or recommend for them to keep in mind as they try and facilitate digital employee experience in users?

Neil Miller (22:36):

Yeah. I think the biggest thing, and I mean, everyone in IT knows this, IT is a tool for good or evil. It depends on how you apply it and how you use it. Rarely is a platform going to save your culture. Rarely is bringing in a new tool going to fix the collaboration problems that you had or fix the leadership problems that you had. They can definitely… Every tool has got a bias and you have to be aware of that as you’re bringing it in. So, Zoom just announced they have Zoom apps coming out, which makes being in Zoom much more easy. And you can do much more in Zoom meetings, which is exactly what we all want. We want to spend more time in Zoom. No, we don’t. We’re already in there enough.

Neil Miller (23:20):

So recognizing that every tool you’re going to introduce has a bias, it’s going to want you to be in that platform. Or I think, without getting too paternalistic about it, you want to be protective of your team members and the people that are there. And recognize that if you bring in a tool that just bombards people with notifications and doesn’t respect their privacy and makes it easy to drag them down, then you want to stay away from that, even if it’s got some nice features to it. So I think finding… We talk about culture fit a lot when we hire employees and it’s like, does this person fit our culture, but we need to be equally concerned about culture fit when it comes to the technology we bring. And is this technology going to make our culture better? Or is it going to allow us to continue on bad paths that we are? Or is it going to push us towards a bad path we’re not on yet? I think those are big questions we should be asking.

Tom McGrath (24:17):

Mm. Mm. And I wonder if you have any, almost finally, any thoughts on something we’ve observed increasingly over the last year and a half, which is the growing proximity between IT and HR and the ability, particularly in an almost completely digital workplace for IT to help HR assess well-being, assess morale, support employees, ensure things like isolation don’t become too prevalent, at least on the macro level. And is that a trend you’re observing and where do you think it goes from here?

Neil Miller (24:50):

Oh yeah. Absolutely. IT and HR are going to be together for a long time. I think on one level, IT should have been involved in HR a long time ago because there’s so much… HR tended to be a bloated department, because there are so many processes, so many forms that you have to fill out and do things. And IT could have solved most of those problems pretty quickly and helped people get through that. And it’s come to the point where now HR has almost a mindset, they have to work against the employee and HR technology for a long time has been there to make HRs job easier. Only in recent years have we started to see some HR tools that are actually meant for employees and the employee experience to make that better. But moving away from the mindset of like, okay, IT is going to come in here and help me as an HR person make my job easier.

Neil Miller (25:42):

We have to, we have to move beyond that and say, okay, let’s build a partnership between these two and figure out how we can actually serve employees better instead of just making one department’s job easier as it comes through. And that’s just on some of the standard processes and things. I mean, teaching people how to work well with other humans, how to lead well with other humans, that seems to be what HR should be doing. Not processing paperwork and trying to continue to move people towards this idea of we just need to hire more resources. So anything that IT can do to help that, help promote that, help treat people more like humans and let HR develop those skills. I think HR professionals around the world, and they would agree, would say, yeah, we should be learning more about that. And we’re not where we should be in 2021. We should be much farther along than this.

Tom McGrath (26:36):

No, I think that’s a great note to conclude on Neil. So thank you so much for coming on the show. Before we leave you, tell our listeners where they can find you, follow you, listen to your own podcast.

Neil Miller (26:49):

Sure. So the podcast is just called The Digital Workplace podcast. We’re at thedigitalworkplace.com. We have a new assessment tool that’s out that helps define what level of a digital workplace that you’re at. So it’s just a fun, little quick assessment you can fill out to find that. And yeah, we’re LinkedIn and Twitter all around the places and it’s a fun journey we’re all on.

Tom McGrath (27:11):

Brilliant. Neil, lovely to have you on the show. Thank you so much.

Neil Miller (27:15):

Thanks, Tom.

Tom McGrath (27:18):

That was great.

Speaker 1 (27:19):

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