This year, Leading Edge Forum (LEF) is taking a close look at modern working environments, both physical and mental. THRIVE met up with Caitlin McDonald, PhD, to talk about the research she is leading and her job as LEF’s resident digital anthropologist.


Q: What is a digital anthropologist, and why did you decide to become one?

A: At its simplest, anthropology is the study of people: how we behave, think and act, and most importantly, how we make meaning together. The core characteristics of an anthropologist are curiosity and empathy. Anthropologists want to know about people’s experiences, and we are delighted and humbled by being invited into people’s worlds. A key discovery of anthropology is that we all have our own version of “normal”: What is common practice or goes without saying in my world might be interpreted completely differently by someone else. Anthropologists learn to step outside their version of normal, suspend judgment, and consider things from many different perspectives. In a world that is increasingly mediated by digital technologies, anthropologists need to pay special attention to how our digital tools are shaping the rest of our lives at work, home and in society.


Q: In what ways can a digital anthropologist help organizations improve their business outcomes?

A: Learning to think like an anthropologist can have a radical impact on your business by empowering decision makers to continually update their information about what customers want and need. There is no substitute for spending time with customers and understanding what your product or service means to them in the context of their life or in their work. This continual immersion in the user experience and keeping up with changes in user needs over time, lets you know what small tweaks you need to make and keeps your eyes open for big changes on the horizon.

But it doesn’t stop there. Learning to think like an anthropologist can also improve workplace relationships as team members learn to explore with an open, curious and empathetic mindset, stepping into their colleagues’ shoes and seeing pain points from their perspectives.


An anthropological mindset isn’t just a question of “once and done,” but constantly revisiting the things we think we know to see how they’re changing over time.


Developing anthropological skills can help an organization:
· Identify opportunities for innovation by understanding customers’ needs
· See old problems with new eyes (“vuja de”)
· Cocreate by treating customers as the experts in their experience
· Put big data in context by enriching numerical abstraction with illustrative experiences


Q: You are leading a research project about our working environments called, “Space: The Organizational Frontier.” Why this topic?

A: As an anthropologist, I’m always looking for the unexpected in the everyday: What seems “normal” or “natural” to us that in a few years might look very different? For instance, one early finding we’re noticing is that in open plan offices, many workers are using headphones not only for their functional value to take calls or listen to music but also as a “do not disturb sign” for their colleagues.

By examining the interplay between digital and physical working environments, we can overcome some of the pitfalls businesses face in getting innovative collaboration tools to live up to their promises.


Q: How should businesses adapt their workspaces, and why?

A: With increasingly ubiquitous collaborative technologies, information workers have all the tools they need for the office right in their pockets. Where there is WiFi, there is work. This means that companies are getting more comfortable with remote working, flexible working and shifted hours for employees. That has big implications for how we design spaces. Floor space is a big expense, and companies that can reduce their occupancy costs by shifting working patterns will welcome these innovations. But increasingly asynchronous working also has challenges: People need new habits, practices and shared understandings of etiquette to effectively share information, build rapport, and ultimately collaborate across digital and physical spaces.


Q: Can you share how organizations are innovating in the organizational frontier?

A: The most challenging organizational units have a hybrid mix of people who are colocated and some remote team members. That means you have to develop strategies for how you work together in person, how you work together remotely, and those sticky patches in between. But more and more businesses are operating this way, so it’s going to become a more common pattern. The increasing shift to platform organizations, with more and more porous boundaries between producers and consumers, and the increase in short-term and flexible contract working, also mean that teams need to be paying more attention to their onboarding and offboarding strategies. This is really important for building a sense of team cohesion and continuity.