There are as many definitions of the digital workplace as there are organizations. But in light of this month's focus on the digital workplace, it could be useful to look at what a digital workplace is, and clarify some of the things that it is not.

A Definition of ‘Digital Workplace’

The digital workplace is meant to be a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace, which requires strong planning and management due to its fundamental role in people’s productivity, engagement and working health.

This is an imprecise definition, just as the notion of “workplace” itself has ill-defined boundaries, so the shape of a digital workplace will vary between organizations. However, at its heart it is about:

  • Putting people first -- the impact on employees is what makes the digital workplace important.
  • A technology layer -- advances in technology are driving changes in the digital workplace, and this is what makes it a current issue.
  • Management and design – proactively developing a digital workplace means addressing it as a whole and co-ordinating between technology, process and people.


The digital workplace provides organizations five services or capabilities (the outer ring of the figure above):

  • Communication and employee engagement
  • Collaboration
  • Finding and sharing of information and knowledge
  • Business applications (process specific tools and employee self-service)
  • Agile working -- the ability to be productive any time and place

To work well, these need the be supported by five management activities (the inner pie of the figure above):

  • Strategic planning
  • Governance and operational management
  • Proactive support for adoption
  • High quality user experience
  • Robust, secure and flexible technology

This is a deliberately non-prescriptive model. You don't have to have a social intranet, Yammer, tablet applications or any other specific technologies. What is used to deliver each service will vary over time and by organizational need.

There are other good definitions available too, including those from Jane McConnell, Chris Tubb and Oscar Berg. Gartner also has a definition, which usefully emphasizes a consumer-driven viewpoint:

The digital workplace is an ongoing, deliberate approach to delivering a more consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working practices”.

Comparing the digital workplace with the consumer experience is illuminating because the gap is so large. This helps to bring home what is currently missing from the work environment. Hopefully this gap will close and won’t be an enduring characteristic.

Digital Workplace Technology

The visible parts of the digital workplace are technologies and ways of working that allow people to connect, collaborate, communicate and co-operate without necessarily being together face to face.

A 2012 paper by Deloitte put it well:

The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people use to get work done in today’s workplace ... It ranges from your HR applications and core business applications to e-mail, instant messaging and enterprise social media tools and virtual meeting tools.”

Email, intranets and web conferencing are typical components, but what makes the digital workplace more than a collective noun for these parts is the emphasis on thinking about how they come together from an employee’s point of view.

Some elements fit the broad definition above but tend not to be discussed in this context. For example, PCs and traditional business systems like SAP, PeopleSoft, databases and CRM are all part of the non-physical workplace. They perhaps get overlooked because they are an accepted part of the fabric of most businesses, however, they are part of what should be considered within a digital workplace strategy, at least from an alignment point of view.

What the Digital Workplace is Not

It’s not a fancy re-naming of intranets

Your digital workplace may not have an intranet at all. Although intranets commonly feature, we need to get away from the idea of collaboration, communication, etc. all happening in one platform.

It’s not about social networks, social or mobile intranets

All of these current trends can form some elements of a digital workplace, but if developed in isolation from the rest of an employee’s working world -- particularly legacy systems on which people still rely -- then the point has been missed.

It’s not about social business or social enterprise

Social Enterprise and its variants such as The Responsive Organization are a prescriptive vision for how companies should be run. A highly social digital workplace would be part of this, but there’s nothing intrinsic to the digital workplace concept that dictates this (or guarantees that it will happen).

Why It Matters

An effective digital workplace decouples work from a physical location for much of the time. This freeing up of work has several important implications not just about where people work, but how teams are formed and how people come together to solve ad-hoc problems. Klaus Holse (Microsoft Western Europe VP) put it well:

Businesses that will be successful in the future will be those who break down the barriers between people, workplaces and technologies and empower their employees to be productive and creative wherever they are... IT is a catalyst for new ways of working, but competitive advantage increasingly comes from letting employees use technology in the way they want to. This requires a business culture that puts people first." -- HR Magazine 29 Feb 2012.

Title image by Anne-Lise Heinrichs (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license