The secret to a happy, productive and creative digital team

With the explosion of the digital economy, the best digital professionals are much in demand and expensive. How then do you retain good staff and ensure you get the best return on investment?

This post was first written by me for

Although I began my career as a web designer working in the faceless cubicles of IBM, I now spend most of my days advising clients about their digital strategy. Even though I have moved on, my painful experiences at IBM continue to have a profound effect on how I think digital workers need to be managed.

When we think about digital strategy, most of us immediately think of digital assets such as websites, social networks or mobile apps. Rarely do we spend much time thinking about the team that creates and maintains these apps. Lots of attention is given to governance issues such as reporting lines or policies, but little to the happiness or creativity of our staff.

This strikes me as madness considering these employees are much in demand and their effectiveness so crucial to the success of our digital strategy.

How then can we ensure our staff are happy, productive and creative? How can we get the most out of them?

The importance of the working environment

There are many factors in getting the most from your digital staff, but one factor that should be near the top of the list is the working environment.

As part of my work I visit a range of companies from large corporates and traditional businesses to the new generation of digital companies. The difference between pre and post digital organisations is striking.

Walk into most pre-digital companies and you will find cubicle hell. As you walk down the aisles, heads pop over the barriers glancing around like frightened meerkats afraid of a predator. There is little noise apart from the tapping of fingers on keyboards and the occasional person on the phone.

Walk through a post-digital company such as Google, Valve or Twitter, and the atmosphere is totally different. They are almost always open plan with half finished work and wireframes covering the walls. Huddles of people sit together talking and sketching out ideas. There is a buzz in the air and a bustle of activity.

Google Offices
Offices such as Google have a buzz in the air and bustle of activity.

One is an environment that nurtures collaboration and interaction. The other has an almost factory line mentality, with people working in isolation.

The factory line does not work in the digital economy. Successful digital projects require multiple specialists working closely in collaboration with one another. It needs the designer and developer sitting side by side. It requires the copywriter and project manager close at hand. It requires a more agile, iterative and dynamic approach. Something that is hard to achieve in most traditional workplaces.

What then can be done to improve the working environment? The first and most important step is to pull down the walls.

Flexible work spaces

You will have gathered by now that I hate cubicles, but not all open plan offices are any better. Yes, start by pulling down the physical barriers, but you need to challenge the mental ones too.

Cubicle hell
Working in cubicle hell at IBM taught me how crucial your working environment is.

If everybody in your office has always sat in the same place and each person has their own assigned desk, then perhaps it is time to shake things up. Ben Chestnut, the CEO of email marketing company Mailchimp, does exactly that on a regular basis by periodically rearranging the desks. The idea is to prevent everybody from being stuck in their silos and never interacting with other parts of the business. His aim is to encourage collaboration across teams as well as within projects.

The games company Valve goes a step further. All of their desks have wheels and employees are encouraged to move their desks around the open plan office. If you want to work with somebody, simply wheel your desk over to them.

I am not suggesting we all need to strap roller-skates to our desks, but we do need to create a work space that will flex to accommodate changes in teams and projects. This might be something as simple as having spare desks spread around the office that people can use, or desks big enough for two people to sit at comfortably.

Flexibility is about encouraging collaboration, but it is not the only way to achieve that. Having the right places to display and discuss also help.

Places to display and discuss

I have come to dislike meeting rooms. Not only do I dislike the idea of going to a separate room to talk to a colleague, the practicalities often turn into a nightmare.

Because of organisation’s obsession with efficiency (a concept stuck in the mentality of the industrial economy), they rarely ever have enough meeting rooms. They often have to be booked days in advance and you cannot afford to overrun by even a few minutes.

However, my biggest problem with meeting rooms is that they are a temporary meeting place. You go to a meeting room, discuss whatever and then return to your desk. Sure you can pin up work, sketch on whiteboards and plaster the walls with post-it notes, but they all have to come down at the end of the meeting.

For a digital team to be at its most effective they need areas that support impromptu discussions and allow work to be constantly on display for quick reference.

Mailchimp resolve this issue by having a large number of whiteboards that can be wheeled around the office. If people want a meeting they grab a whiteboard and pull it over to their desk. People can huddle around and discuss things right there. Best of all the board can be left up after the meeting for future reference.

Mailchimp Offices
Mailchimp have whiteboards that can be wheeled around the office allowing impromptu meetings anywhere.

Of course all of this collaboration can lead to a noisy open plan office. What about those moments where you need some quiet to think?

Spaces to think

We have all seen the lavish offices of companies like Facebook or Google. With rooms full of bean bags, hammocks and even giant bee hive pods, it would be easy to dismiss such spaces as extravagant or just down right ridiculous, but is that actually right?

Strange bee hive office pods
Are office spaces like this a ridiculous luxury, or do they serve a purpose?

Although the decor might not be appropriate for every company, the principle is sound. Places like this are areas where employees can go and work in comfort and quiet. A chance to isolate themselves so they can better focus.

These are also places that people can go to just chill out and step away from their work. This is surprisingly important. Admittedly in a company culture focused on time sheets, efficiency and productivity, this may seem counter intuitive, but in truth you will get more from your digital workers if you give them time away from their work.

There is a reason why many digital companies have pool tables, relaxation areas and other non-work facilities. They know that if people have time away from their work, this provides time for their sub-conscious to process a problem. We all know that if we sleep on a problem (take a break from it) we often solve it much quicker. Providing these kinds of spaces allows that to happen and gives employees time to de-stress too.

Stress is a significant factor in undermining the productivity of any knowledge worker, and digital workers are no exception. Nothing will make a knowledge worker more stressed than having the wrong tools.

The right equipment

You would be concerned if you hired a plumber only to find that he was using the same cheap DIY tools you had. You would expect a professional to have professional tools and yet so often our digital workers are expected to use the same tools as everybody else in the company. They are expected to work on the same computer as somebody in accounting, operate on the same locked down network and go through the same processes to install software. This is just not acceptable and will significantly hamper them from doing their job.

It is so important that your digital team has the right tools for the job. That means the I.T. department may have to make an exception to their policies. I understand that I.T. departments like to simplify their work by standardising, but that shouldn’t be at the cost of other peoples efficiency.

The truth is that a digital team cannot do their job without access to a wide range of operating systems, devices and software. They need to be able to install their own software, buy their own hardware and have largely unrestricted access to the network.

Often I have worked with digital teams who have had to go home in order to circumvent network restrictions or bring in their own hardware because the company wouldn’t by them a mac or a smartphone.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the workspaces in digital companies and the ‘fancy’ kit are all luxuries used as perks to attract demanding staff. However, I hope I have demonstrated that this is not the case. Yes, they will attract staff but not because they are seen as a perk. They will attract and help retain staff because they are being given the tools they need to effectively do their job. When people are facilitated to do their job, rather than resisted, they are ultimately happier and more productive. Everybody wins.

“office work” image courtesy of

  • Laurence H Chandler

    A really nice read there. I have to agree that employees are looking more and more for flexible working environments providing the work life balance that has become so important.

    I find, here at CIM, by allowing members to work more remotely and not commit to weekly face to face meetings boosts their productivity. We can hold a web meeting to cover any cracks or push forward new ideas etc. However we still hold face to face meetings once every month or two. The human interaction is still vital to a team. We have tried a couple of tools over the years but are currently using a free one (to help keep costs down) called Drum (

    Working remotely has most definitely boosted the teams productivity rather than hinder it. I continue to encourage it within the team.

    • I agree Laurence. Although I think remote working is great, face to face interaction is important too.

  • Great post. For collaboration & project management, you can also take a look at

  • Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work.Freelance Web Developer

  • Mitra Rooban

    I have worked 1 year with a company I found absolutely comfortable, but they didn’t continue saying that they are not of much having trust. As a technologist above 40 I hate the fun culture in corporate esp. smaller sizes, when we grow up we have responsibilities both at family front and at Office, the very boring routines like birthday parties, group activities (in the name of team culture ) actually irritates.. some companies are immature enough if a resource not participating they see that as a odd ball. Next irritating stuff is , when a technologist not growing to management but would like to stay as they are, they are just treated as a resource all are same from 2 years to 20 years experienced.. due to changing technologies at time a resource can’t grow as a technical architect too but remain as senior consultants or programmers, but they need to sync with the less experienced mentalities !! When we see minute things which may not be so good to pin down, I would say almost all senior technologists love to work from home. I like the growing site , WFH experts community.

  • BoroJonesy

    Really good article, highlights all the benefits that I have enjoyed working remotely for the past seven years. Personal gripes for me about offices are the dress codes (if I feel uncomfortable, I’m not at my best), the noise, the pointless commute that puts me in a vile mood and also invariably offices are far too hot because women complain they are cold all the time. You can’t put people in an environment that they hate, and then expect them to excel.

    The major barrier in my experience is trust, usually deflected with rubbish like it’s against IT policy to allow VPNs. But it’s actually almost always down to trust. Middle management bean counters and empire builders want to see their teams and count their bottoms on seats. “I’m running a team of x”, “I need more resource on my project”, “We all have to pull together” (=free overtime)

    The trust issue is moot in my opinion. If somebody is going to mess about and be unproductive, then they’ll do it regardless of where they are. We’ve all seen these types in offices, as soon as the boss has passed, work is minimised and it’s back to surfing the net. Until there is a paradigm shift to count productivity as useful output rather than units of time sat at a desk, then this middle management cancer remains the major obstacle to remote working.

    One thing that amuses me is when an office that bans remote working suddenly makes it available after heavy snowfall when people cannot get to their desks. In those cases, I point blank refuse to work.

  • dave.xd

    As a UX Architect, I have worked with dev teams on both an integrated level and now currently, with a dev team based around 600 miles away. The collaborative aspect for what i do is key to delivery, and this is much easier when geography isnt an issue. There are workarounds to this, but i also agree with your key points about productivity – not everyone is at the same level all day. We use Skype chat, and Invision, aswell as which work well but theres no substitute for grabbing a whiteboard and a developer and solving a problem in 10 minutes. This debate will rage for years to come.

  • hugomesser

    I think that remote work will grow substantially over the next decade. Technology has only recently enabled us to collaborate globally. People need to get used to a new way of working and this takes time. But eventually, it’s more ‘human’ to be free to work where and when you want. And economically it also makes sense to hire the right people or teams for each job.

    I have written several books on this topic, maybe interesting to read:

    We’ve also recently launched a marketplace for software teams where companies can hire remote teams (as opposed to hiring remote freelancers on sites like Odesk): I believe that for companies it’s best to have a full ‘up and running’ remote team in 1 office, since you can indeed build a culture. If you have management around that team, it helps you to manage them more easily, there is local (HR/project) support which gives you ‘eyes’ to what the team and the inidividuals are up to.

  • Outsourcing has always been appreciated by business entrepreneurs. In these days remote development has become one of the best options for the startups and also for other blue-chip companies. Better quality services, no infrastructure cost, reasonable price to hire, easy communication and collaboration with the use of tools etc have made it much more acceptable. Moreover the best remote development companies are reshaping their business models, working methodologies and process in such a way beneficial for their clients.


  • Talentedge Arrina

    I got so many points here, that’s why i love reading your post. Thank you so much!
    ethical hacking

  • Stuart McGill

    Remote working and flexibility helps businesses in savings on travel costs, increasing efficiencies in business processes, increasing productivity etc. Tools like R-HUB web conferencing servers, WebEx, GoMeetNow, gotomeeting etc. are used by many companies for conducting online meetings, sharing desktops etc.

  • Kate H

    Great tips – especially regarding the need to incorporate tools. We use Slack and Zoom for communication.

    If you’re looking for remote work tips from a company that is 100% distributed, we just published a blog you may be interested in: “Remote work tips from Chargify‚Äôs distributed team”

    If you have a chance to read it, would love to hear your thoughts!

  • Luiser

    Hey all!
    Great post!
    For remote sprint planning I’ve used a hangout plugin for sprint planning Check it out: PlanningWith.Cards
    You can estimate via hangouts using planning with poker without the need for physical cards. Then you can import your estimations to the tool of your choice. Very simple, fun and efficient. Give it a try and share your thoughts.

  • Arava Glam

    first: great article and very professional POV.
    second: personally im using koocam website to work from home due to my business. and u made few major point clearance for me. thank u