distracted office worker at his desk with a life size mobile device/smartphone yelling at him through a bullhorn
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The need to improve the employee experience and retain top talent has never been more critical. Yet technology, in some ways, has made it more difficult because companies have too many tools to communicate with employees. Instead of focusing on the important job of informing and aligning employees, communicators are overwhelmed with simply trying to keep the channels filled or fitting content into many different places — intranets, company newsletters, digital signage and others. Additionally, with 77 percent of Americans owning smartphones, most digital workplaces are run using apps that employees can access from their mobile devices — anytime, anywhere. But is this a good thing? Are there too many digital workplace apps?

Apps Can Hold Teams Back

Michael Graham, CEO of Ambler, Pa.-based Epilogue Systems, points out that while enabling collaboration is a key priority for company managers, too much technology is holding teams back at a macro level. He said how employees are rewarded is the most significant motivator of behavior — the compensation plan needs to be specifically aligned with the vision of the company to ensure cross-department collaboration. The KPIs, scorecards or other performance alignment methods must also encourage collaboration in the pursuit of a shared vision. However, it is the micro level that is causing problems.

“What we are seeing is that technology is holding teams back. In fortune 500 companies there are too many systems. They don’t talk to each other and there are critical blocks to the flow of proprietary knowledge from team leaders to teams,” Graham said. “In some cases, the systems are so complicated that users don’t even know where to begin. Organizations need to gain insight and remove blocks to knowledge transfer by allowing enterprise subject matter experts (SMEs) and IT professionals to easily transfer critical knowledge.”

Related Article: 9 Technology Trends Shaping the Digital Workplace in 2018

Creating New Problem Silos

The problem this creates is not just a problem with overloaded workers, but also with overloaded systems hampered by the emergence of new silos, according to Riley Gibson, vice president of product, marketing and design at Boulder, Colo.-based Kapost. A major obstacle to collaboration is the lack of defined processes, roles and responsibilities. Managers see this often where new tools are brought into marketing organizations to promote real-time collaboration, but the investment in people and process to provide clarity and guardrails is an afterthought. As a result, teams retreat into their silos.

Collaboration does not mean everyone is involved and cc'd on each email and has a say in everything. “Clear processes with single threaded ownership and defined roles are critical to prevent situations where everyone is a cook, leveraging three or four different collaborative tools to cook with,” he said.

Another common, associated obstacle, especially in marketing organizations, is that various groups don't have a common language that enables them to collaborate across those silos. Every team defines 'campaign' differently or might use different stages to characterize progress of projects. This means that for every new app that creates a new silo the problem of communication language gets worse. “Working across teams to define a common set of language, or taxonomy, for their work is critical to overcoming collaboration barriers across teams,” he said. Rafael Solis, COO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Braidio, adds that this has a direct impact on productivity.

"There are limited tools available to drive collaboration across platforms, most of the information and knowledge that employees use often resides in a multitude of services and platforms, this siloing short circuits the productivity potential. Jumping from one platform where collaboration is taking place, to another where knowledge assets are hosted does not make for an optimal experience that enhances productivity,” he said.

Related Article: 7 Ways Technology is Impacting Recruitment, Retention and the Workplace

What About Automation?

Many businesses today are implementing automation tools to try and improve collaboration and streamline business processes, but there's still a disconnect between the back-office technology systems and the employees trying to access and use them, said Allan Andersen, director of enterprise solutions at New York City-based IPsoft. For example, a simple request to set up an IP phone for a remote employee can be incredibly challenging to coordinate without using IP telephony terminology.

The future of digital collaboration is communicating with a digital artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled-colleague who can talk to and get information out of any system in the company you work for — automatically, in seconds. By acting as an employee's personal concierge, AI improves the overall employee experience and enables employee and business productivity and collaboration to reach an all-time high.

A fully digital work space should first and foremost enable mobile working from any device, anywhere. Any digital workplace should stimulate productive working and collaboration with easy sharing, conferencing, chat functions and others. The solution should secure and facilitate compliance with centralized data and application access, rather than running and storing applications and files locally, and be platform agnostic while avoiding vendor lock-ins.

There are several technologies out there that enable "digital work spaces." Some solutions start from applications and files, others start from collaboration (Microsoft Teams, Facebook Workspace) or they start from the internet. All these platforms evolve to a central solution covering all work space needs. A fully functioning digital workplace should empower employees to communicate and collaborate even as companies, industries and employees change. Organizations must develop a strategy that evolves with these changes so that people can connect, and easily find and share information and expertise.

Digital transformation initiatives often deliver more technologies than ever for communicating and collaborating. But while those tools are making some tasks easier, they can make your digital workplace more complicated.San Antonio-based Rick Lozano is a digital workplace consultant helping enterprises with their digital transformation strategies. He said that to solve this problem business leaders need to think outside the box.

Understanding Digital Transformation Differences

Every company does digital transformation a bit differently, he said. So, before business leaders can build a collaborative culture, people must have a clear understanding of what that entails at the company they work in. Leaders need to ask several questions: Is it knowledge sharing, running ideas past a larger team, or is it only when we are working on group projects and we need a brainstorming session? What are the norms and guidelines for when we do and don't collaborate? When we all agree on what is expected, we are more likely to collaborate effectively.

“Start with the behavior, then the tool. All too often, people come up with a magic bullet for collaboration and it often involves a technology such as Slack, SharePoint, Google Hangouts or others. And while those tools are great and can take collaboration to the next level, how often has your organization rolled out a new tool only to have one or two people [actually using it to] share information?” he asked. Before jumping to tools, lets focus on behavior. Get analog collaboration happening first so that you have a much better chance of succeeding in the digital space.