sinking stop sign with rising waters
PHOTO: Kelly Sikkema

A recent Gartner Report predicts that by 2021, only one-quarter of all midsize and large organizations will successfully target new ways of working in the majority of their initiatives. Which means most will fall behind when it comes to enabling distributed and multi-generational workforce via cloud-based tools, adopting IoT to transform the physical workplace, and leveraging new technologies to drive higher employee and customer engagement.

Yes, the new technologies might be installed. Some employees may even be trained to log in and use them. But a truly successful digital workplace goes further: it helps employees understand how to use these new tools to solve problems and create opportunities that provide unanticipated value to the organization. Over the next several years, this — the ability to creatively exploit emerging technologies, rather than simply knowing how to use them — will be the greatest source of competitive advantage for 30% of organizations.

To make this a reality, business leaders must focus on the people who use the technology, not just the technology itself. But what does this actually mean in practice? How do you know which skills, competencies and operating norms need to be in place to make the digital workplace a reality? How do you measure and enable continued success? 

The fact of the matter is that despite the talk, there remains a paucity of proven approaches to change management.

My firm has created a methodology based on best practices gathered from over 100 successful large-scale initiatives to help businesses move from mere adoption of digital tools and technologies in the workplace to full-fledged sustainable digital transformation. The following five principles will help your organization start on this journey: 

1. Define your vision for a digital workplace — and the value it will bring

Most organizations have a general idea of what they want out of new technologies: “To collaborate better,” they may say, or “To communicate better.” And while this is all well and good (and even true), its vagueness does little to help employees embrace coming changes. One might ask, for instance, “What does digital workplace mean to our organization? How does this tie into our corporate strategy? What would success look like? How do we define collaboration? What specific technology will we use, and to what end?”

Speak with stakeholders from across the organization to articulate not what they’d like to see in general, but what they want the technology to accomplish. Thinking of vision in terms of outcomes allows your organization to establish specific key performance indicators to measure the value of these initiatives. These may include, for instance, the number of active users in teams and channels, the volume of messages users posted in a team chat, or improved self service (as measured by the reduction of tickets and service requests). It may also include softer measurements, particularly around employee experience.

Once you’ve defined your vision and value, you can begin talking through a roadmap about how to get there — one that takes into account existing cultural and organizational attributes that support (or don’t support) a digital workplace.

Related Article: Key Skills Every Digital Workplace Practitioner Needs

2. Engage leadership at the outset

As a recent Gartner article suggests, organizations often assign digital workplace implementation to internal teams — marketing, HR, corporate communications, IT. And yet most feel these efforts are lacking something, that they’re a bottom-up exercise of persuasion rather than a top-down effort of transformation.

In short, change must be embraced by leadership to be sustainable in the long run. Which means they must not only buy-in to these tools, but actually use them themselves. By modeling accountability and intended use, leaders can go further than simply changing tools — they can change the behaviors of their employees. Think about it: if you’re trying to get everyone to use Microsoft Teams moving forward to schedule meetings, and your boss is still using Outlook, why would other employees use Teams?

A few tactics to try: hold town halls or carve out time as part of departmental meetings for leaders to articulate the benefit of the digital workplace (and associated tools) to their teams and the organization at large. This sends a clear signal that leadership is supporting the changes from the outset, and also sets clear expectations for their teams regarding intended usage of the new digital workplace tools.

3. Communicate early, communicate often

Digital workplace initiatives can’t be rushed or simply thrust onto employees. Effective change comes instead when organizations ease into these initiatives, with intent and understanding of the impact changes will have on their people.

As such, change management must utilize specific communication efforts at specific moments of the process. The goal is to move stakeholders along the change curve in a patient, measured manner, starting at the outset and continuing past adoption.    

Related Article: How to Adapt Traditional Change Management for Digital Transformation Initiatives

4. For training, take a blended approach — and leverage an internal change network to provide support

With most new technologies, solid third parties exist to help train and support users. But change management requires a blended approach, one that takes into account a given organization’s processes and business contexts. Methods may include customized job aides, a classroom approach, hands-on training/demos, or e-learning, among others.

Ultimately, the best help will come from a change network within the organization itself, one that can provide continued support post-implementation. One successful approach is to create a network composed of key representatives across the organization. A group like this can not only open a dialogue around the largest changes and cultural shifts that would impact their respective teams, but become knowledge-bearers who can go back to their departments and help foster sustainable transformations — by answering questions, providing support, and advocating for the appropriate usage of digital workplace tools.

Related Article: 4 Key Elements of an Impactful Workplace Digital Literacy Program

5. Continually assess change readiness and employee experience within your organization

Change management is more than just communicating, training and supporting — it’s about listening to your employees so you can understand where they’re at in their digital journey and how you can best support them. So make sure you institute formal checkpoints as you roll out these initiatives, as well as surveys and other feedback mechanisms (preferably built-in to the tools). And be sure that this feedback gathering is tactical in nature, and tied to real outcomes — that it channels into tangible “go or no-go” conversations, or ongoing dialogues about digital workplace tool enhancements or prioritization of initiatives on the roadmap.

There’s a tragic irony involved in the myriad digital workplace initiatives that fail these days. An executive will pursue a digital workplace because they’ve acknowledged a gap in how they communicate across the organization, and they see technology as a way to bridge that gap. The problem is, the technology can’t fix the communication problem because of the existing communication problem.

That’s why every digital decision must be seen through a change management lens, using the principles stated above. Because a new tool isn’t real change. Real change is in how you use your digital workplace transformation to drive better business outcomes on an ongoing basis.