Seven ways to create meaningful interactions with colleagues in the digital workplace based on IKEA’s Swedish practice, ‘fika’.
Recently I led a book talk/workshop at IKEA’s HQ in Sweden called Imagining and Delivering a Digital Workplace Fit for the Future. Before the day began I visited the bustling IKEA office café in Helsingborg and remarked on the great food and the ‘vibe’ that you could just about smell in the air.
It turns out that what I was sampling was an experience and unique word at the heart of Swedish life and work – ‘fika’ (pronounced “fee-ka”). I was told that fika is impossible to translate but according to the Swedish Culture website it is described in this way:
“Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. Fika is much more than having a coffee. It is a social phenomenon, a legitimate reason to set aside a moment for quality time.
Fika can happen at any time, morning as well as evening. It can be savoured at home, at work or in a café. It can be with colleagues, family, friends, or someone you are trying to get to know. It is a tradition observed frequently, preferably several times a day.
One question raised in the workshop was that physical contact at work will always be essential for IKEA because the company has to experience fika – and I agree that, 100 years from now, IKEA employees will still enjoy fika, just as they do now, in whatever physical workplaces they then have.
But on the journey home to the UK I began to mull over why it is that my own boutique consulting and membership company, the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), with our 90 or so people across several continents, manages to cultivate an almost tactile sense of connection and intimacy, even though for three years now we have had no fixed offices and we work persistently in a digital workplace?
This made me consider how you create fika in the digital workplace. Is it impossible, difficult or (as I see from the DWG history) just new and therefore a largely unknown area?
So here are 7 ways to create IKEA ‘fika’ in the digital workplace (based largely on how we work in DWG but peppered also with what I have seen happening in the digital worlds of work at clients such as Virgin, Barclays, Adobe, Genentech and (yes) IKEA.
Communicate frequently and constantly
In DWG we are always active on collaboration tools like Yammer and Skype instant messenger. We post links to interesting items. This morning, within one 30-minute period, I had posted content coming out of Davos, while a colleague had shared latest benchmark results from Anglo American, then a question popped up from Regan about enterprise social on our next show, while Kelly reported that one of the servers was behaving oddly and Elizabeth announced she loves her new barefoot running shoes!
The point is that in the physical workplace we know we can relax and chat to people when we see them (unless they work at a geographical distance, which so many people do these days), but in the seemingly more detached digital world, we need to work harder at connecting, talking and feeling close. Connecting becomes a deliberate rather than assumed experience in the digital workplace. In DWG we say that you do not need to be present physically but you do need to be present digitally.
Be open, vulnerable and honest
When my 93-year-old dad (pictured right) got sick last year and died peacefully on 24 November (I miss you a lot dad), I shared pictures of him and my mum, and also explained to my colleagues where I was on a practical level as well as what I was experiencing. In one team meeting call around that time, my colleague Ephraim in Seattle noted that I was absent and shared (as I had done) what he learned from his dad. On Yammer later, a stream of ‘What I learned from my dad’ posts appeared.
Not every day is as intense as that but what works in the digital workplace is to reveal what matters to each of us. I am equally open about reminding our people again and again about our three-year business strategy and what this revolution in how organizations work means for our members and clients. Speaking in your own authentic voice is essential. Honesty creates intimacy in digital worlds just as much as it does in the physical.
Place your leadership front and centre
The beauty of the digital workplace is that it has qualities that are impossible in the physical world. So take IKEA for example. In the physical world, the C-level executives cannot be everywhere in person having coffee, cake and chatter with colleagues. But in the digital world, through real-time and other collaborative services, they can be “felt” across the 200,000 staff far more frequently and with a much greater reach.
Today I posted some reflections on Yammer and Basecamp about changes I am sensing in our marketplace, what these might mean and also why we are ranked number one by Google search for “digital workplace”. Through my tone and immediacy, colleagues in the US east and west coast will pick that up as they start work later today. The actual effort for me and other leaders in DWG is far less than is required to generate fika in a physical space, given travel, diaries and logistics.
Use all the technology you can to bring you closer
Only today I heard of a new digital workplace connector called Work Angel and yesterday I was blogging about Facebook’s new foray into the work world. In DWG we grab every new tool that may make us slicker and faster, as well as strengthen our bonds and connections. We also do this because we like to be a “digital workplace lab” for our members and clients; we are in a position to experiment with new services in a way that large clients such as The Coca-Cola Company and Citi may not be.
When new services fail to make the mark they get discarded (for example, we have tried some ideas using LinkedIn and then retired them). But, on the other hand, when we were piloting Yammer in 2008, we suggested to their CEO David Sachs that we trial a use of Yammer beyond our own email domains – that took off not only for us but for Yammer as a service as well. In the physical world, fika can be experienced in newly styled offices, but the range of innovation and opportunity is far greater in the digital world of work.
Make the social side of connection richer and deeper
In DWG we dislike the term “social media” or “social business” because it creates confusion in organizations. Social for me is things we talk about and do that are explicitly not work – they are social. And the social streams we have online in DWG and the ways in which we use them are clear and distinct, engendering personal connection and relationships inside the company.
We have to be one of the fittest companies I know because we have had a ‘Call yourself fit’ stream for several years that covers physical and mental fitness and even touches on the meditative side of living. Runners encourage new runners, workout enthusiasts inspire others to ever harder challenges, and the yogis are everywhere. The point is we share our lives – pets, families and homes – with each other. This generates the type of culture of closeness that the Swedes so value.
Use your own voice to talk and listen
I mention voice particularly because on a phone call, teleconference or Webex we are talking and listening in real time. So far the only aspect of me as a human being that can be communicated digitally in the same way as if we are sitting together is my own voice, tone, intonation. I believe how we listen also matters hugely and when someone is listening to another person attentively, the talker can “feel” that quality of listening.
When we open up online calls and meetings in DWG, we try to talk and chatter as the call starts and use humour to share ourselves with each other. We also challenge each other and have debates and even arguments when needed but we do that using our own voices because our vocal cords are such a powerful and distinct part of who we each are. Video is really not there at all yet, though telepresence does a good job – but that requires all parties being in a dedicated studio.
Meet in person when you can and make it matter
Sometimes for some virtual teams this is either impossible or just rare, but using opportunities to meet in the flesh does make a difference.
It is not that we need to meet often (and for many distant colleagues once a year is enough) but, if we can meet in person, it can only add to the richness of the fika we are cultivating digitally.
Once a year in DWG the senior staff from the US and Europe spend a working week together. We hire a lovely house and pretty much live together for the week, shopping for food, cooking, meeting there and generally hanging out. I call it the ‘Big Brother House’ (minus the cameras and dramas I might add). The point is that even a virtually located company like DWG enjoys human in-person connection and we value it all the more because it is so rare.
So… perhaps there are aspects of the IKEA fika that you can create inside your digital workplace to enable you to enjoy that atmosphere and chemistry of connection the Swedes love so much. The only part missing is the coffee and cake, but I guess we’ll just have to wait for 3D printing of food and drinks to add that to the digital workplace menu.
This represents an exciting, if challenging, opportunity for those in intranet and related professions to step up and lead in the digital world of work.