Navigating visibility and autonomy: The complex landscape of digital platforms in hybrid work environments
In an age marked by digital transformation, the realm of work has been significantly altered by the rise of digital platforms. These platforms, with their all-encompassing features and capabilities, have revolutionised the way teams collaborate, communicate, and manage projects. However, this shift towards heightened visibility and connectivity comes with its own set of challenges and dilemmas (Leonardi and Treem, 2020). The case study of CuffeZo*, a fast-growing Internet company, vividly illustrates the complexities of visibility in a digital work environment. Its intra-organisational platform, InConnect*, serves as both a catalyst for enhanced collaboration and a source of potential surveillance (Zuboff, 2015).
As an enterprise focusing on cross-border e-commerce, CuffeZo’s founding philosophy is to use its excellent selection, warehousing, logistics and service capabilities to build a first-class cross-border retail chain and create a convenient, high-quality and comfortable life for consumers around the world. Given its globally distributed teams, the operation of the company relies largely on InConnect, which integrates the communication, coordination, and collaboration tools into a single, unified platform.
InConnect embeds documents, meetings, calendars, task management and other functions in the chat box, establishing a simple and intuitive interface. Users can send different types of messages to other users, including text, audio, video, document links, conference invitations, tasks, approval requests and so on. The platform is available for both desktop and mobile devices, with access through a web browser or an app on mobile phones. It automatically syncs data between different devices so that everything is always accessible. As such, InConnect promotes working efficiency and smooths organisational coordination.
Another standout feature of InConnect is its ability to facilitate knowledge transfer and management. The platform’s role as an organizational memory and learning repository enables individuals to engage in self-guided learning and exploration. The visibility of interactions and documents empowers employees to access valuable insights from colleagues across the organisation, fostering a culture of continuous learning.
However, the benefits of visibility and connectivity come at a cost, which demands a delicate balance between seamless interaction and the preservation of personal boundaries. For example, functionalities like the default setting of read receipt in instant messages and the real-time disclosure of editing details (e.g., who is writing at this moment, exact time of start and end, the speed of editing, etc.) in shared documents make people have to work at being seen. What’s more, such a challenge of “always-on” availability emerges from the juxtaposition of visibility and autonomy – the more connected individuals become, the more they grapple with the blurred lines between work and life.
To navigate these challenges, CuffeZo’s employees have adopted various strategies to balance connectivity and autonomy, ranging from selectively responding to messages, practising non-real-time synchronization to maintain control over personal schedules, blocking e-calendars to avoid interruptions of messages, calls or meetings, etc. These tactics underscore the role of individual agencies in creating novel routines around the management of (in)visibility.
This case sheds light on the intricate interplay between platform affordances and user agency in the context of adopting creative technologies to foster digital transformation for enterprises. As organisations continue to embrace these tools to enhance collaboration and communication, the lessons and insights from this study are invaluable in ensuring that the benefits of visibility are harnessed while mitigating the potential downsides. The dynamic landscape of work in the digital age requires thoughtful consideration of platform design, organisational culture, and individual agency to strike a balance between being seen and maintaining personal autonomy.
Leonardi, P.M. and Treem, J.W. (2020) “Behavioral Visibility: A New Paradigm for Organization Studies in the Age of Digitization, Digitalization, and Datafication,” Organization Studies, 41(12), pp. 1601–1625.
Zuboff, S. (2015) “Big other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” Journal of Information Technology, 30(1), pp. 75–89.