We are living through an age in which the digital environment of work is becoming much more important than the physical workplace. The digital workplace has the potential to transform how companies operate on the front line, how employees communicate and collaborate internally, and even what it means to be an employee.

Yet most organizations have digital workplaces that are equivalent to boxes of junk. Employees have to stumble through heaps of applications, each with a different interface and security protocol.

Essential Ingredients

We are, however, beginning to see examples of the digital workplace’s true potential, both from organizations and in the consumer world. Below I've outlined eight tenets of what a truly integrated digital workplace should look like, along with examples as tangible reference points.

1. One interface: applications recede into the background

I recently saw some examples of stunning human resources (HR) system integration from the winners of the 2014 Intranet Innovation Awards (IIAs). In each example, the winning organizations had integrated the data from dozens of HR apps into one carefully designed interface on the intranet.

The winning intranet teams started with interfaces designed to deliver personalized content that employees actually need, in the formats that are most usable. They then pulled into those interfaces data from applications that provide tools for time tracking, benefits management, retirement investments, learning and training, and much more.

It may seem strange to say this in the heyday of the app marketplace, but digital workplace teams need to focus on interfaces that integrate, rather than the plethora of applications themselves. At least for desktop/laptop computing, the intranet provides the designable platform that can do this.

2. Massive, hidden data integration

Related to the previous point, digital workplaces need to deliver highly integrated data, but without users having to think about it.

In a live demo of WestJet’s first mobile app for employees on Digital Workplace Live, WestJet’s Manager of People Applications, Calvin Symes, explained that for a simple app that helps employees and their family members book travel, the intranet team had to pull in data from at least 10 applications. In this case, the WestJet team basically bypassed many of the applications themselves and linked straight to the databases behind them.

This is what digital workplaces need in order to excel at: delivering to users the information they need in a format that works for them, regardless of which application or database the data lives in.

3. Saved in the cloud, real time anywhere access

In the middle of working on a Google doc on my laptop the other day, I had to break off to travel and catch a train to a meeting. Once settled on the train, I was able to pull up the Google Docs application on my smartphone, open the file I’d been working on and continue editing from where I’d left off. I was able to seamlessly switch from one device to another, knowing that if a colleague opened the same file she would also see the most up-to-date version.

Yet most companies’ digital workplaces don’t offer anything close to this level of real-time, cross-device access. I still hear stories about employees emailing documents from work to their personal email addresses so that they can edit the files from their home computers. This is like the digital version of pulling files from a box in the office and taking them home in a briefcase.

With today’s cloud-based computing and pervasive Internet connectivity we need to expect our digital workplaces to offer this type of seamless, cross-device productivity.

4. Personalization multiplied by contextualization

I’ve recently seen a resurgence in the focus on personalization on corporate intranets. This topic and the related functionality have been around for a while, but organizations are once again taking it seriously.
I have bad news though. The “contextualization” opportunities provided by smartphones could make personalization exponentially more complicated -- and valuable.

By contextualization I mean this: you show up at a client’s office and your customer relationship management (CRM) platform recognizes your GPS location and sends you a list of the latest projects the client has engaged your company in, along with all recent contact points.

Or imagine you step up to a machine on a manufacturing floor and scan the machine’s near-field communication (NFC) chip to see a manual, a maintenance schedule for that machine, and a listing for the last person who used the machine.

Smartphones offer tons of new data and tools that can be used to provide personalized, contextualized information to employees. The opportunities are endless, but the effort to implement effectively is much greater than just providing personalized news on the intranet homepage.

5. Persistent social filter for information and search

Today, many large organizations are only just dipping their toes in the water of internal social media -- or “enterprise social networking” (ESN). Often they do this by launching a social platform that runs in parallel to a main, more standard, intranet, or by adding a few community sites or social features to the intranet.
But modern, human-centered computing needs a persistent social layer. This means that intranet search filters should let employees find content based on who has authored or edited the material. It means that when you view a page of intranet news, you should see what other news people in your work network also viewed (akin to Amazon’s “People who viewed this also viewed” featured).

Digital workplace teams need to view social not as a separate application but as a way of computing and accessing information. Modern digital workplaces need to leverage social networks within (and outside) organizations to deliver more relevant information at every touch point. Here are 10 examples of social integrated into the intranet homepage, to provide some initial inspiration here.

6. Integrated with physical workplaces

Next, we have to remember that digital working still happens in physical environments. A little while ago at Microsoft’s workplace innovation center in Redmond, Wash., I was able to see how the digital workplace has been integrated into conference rooms. Each conference room has a video screen on the wall outside, showing when the room is next reserved and by whom. Whenever a meeting organizer arrives he or she can check in and then check out at the end of the meeting.

This not only provides a point of integration between the physical conference rooms and digital reservation systems, it also provides the workplace team with data about conference room usage rates.
There are myriad ways to integrate digital tools into the physical workplace in order to improve productivity and effectiveness. The trick is just to start looking for them.

7. Scalable cross-device unified communications (like Skype, when it works)

Our laptops can operate as telephones and our smartphones can do video conferencing. The ability to connect and communicate with colleagues in just the right medium for a specific moment and place is a new standard that digital workplaces need to deliver.

Every employee needs a searchable people directory available on every mobile device. They need to be able to shift a call from laptop to smartphone and back again seamlessly. They need to be able to scale a one-on-one instant messaging conversation into a group chat and then video call from any device they have to hand. They need to be able to instigate a call with the author of a page on the intranet by hovering over her name.

We’ve been talking about unified communications for many years with few inspiring examples of success. Now we are finally getting a taste of what unified communication really looks like when it works.

8. Beauty, delight and lightweight gamification

Competition to hire top talent among knowledge workers is increasing. The value of access to information by front-line employees is becoming more obvious. Our expectations of digital technology are becoming more sophisticated.

Organizations can reap huge benefits from offering employees well-designed digital workplaces. From Adobe’s beautiful intranet to Barclay’s innovative mobile app for branch staff to PwC’s integrated HR portal, digital workplaces can make the experience of everyday work more positive and compelling. The My Beautiful Intranet entries from 2014 show many examples of how to do this.

Digital workplace teams need to strive for pleasing interfaces that delight. Cleanliness, welcoming aesthetics and gamification should become the norm. But by gamification I don’t mean competition and points so much as interface responsiveness that provides feedback on completion. That little endorphin rush you get when your huge block in Candy Crush explodes? Employees can get similar bits of feedback -- perhaps as they complete fields in their user profiles. Or not.

The main point is that the digital worlds of work we inhabit should be as warm and well designed as the best modern physical offices, if not more so. Digital workplace leaders need both the ambition and permission to strive for this.