women on a laptop
PHOTO: Christina Morillo

What constitutes a good digital employee experience? I was thinking about this question recently after reading an excellent piece by Dion Hinchliffe, which covered the key challenges and issues that are preventing businesses from reaching higher levels of digital employee experiences. Hinchcliffe defines these experiences as “the end-to-end digital touchpoints that a worker uses to get their job done.” Another label often used in tandem with these experiences is the digital workplace, which Hinchcliffe says includes all the devices, apps and data a worker employs throughout their workday.

If we view digital employee experience through the lens of these three major contributing areas, with the addition of security, we can identify what works and what doesn’t.

Devices: The Key to the Digital Workplace

As I’ve written about before, it all starts with the device. Our devices are the keys to the digital workplace. Beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder; however, a variety of aspects influence the experience we have when using our physical devices.

First off and most prominent is the device's overall physical condition. There is a big difference in the experience when an employee gets a device that is truly new or even just new to them. The overall condition matters. No one gets joy or pleasure from using a device that is unclean, has scuffs and scratches, cracks and other blemishes. Maybe there is a point where pride kicks in for an old and battered but otherwise functional device, but those experiences are not the norm.

Yet beauty is only skin deep, so what really matters in hardware is what’s happening beneath the hood. Any device with insufficient computing resources for the tasks it is put to, is going to result in a poor user experience. Response times on boot, app startup and switching, internet browsing, page loading, and everything else we do factors into the overall experience. I’ve had computers in the not so distant past where if I needed to reboot, I would go get coffee three floors up in the cafeteria and hope the restart had completed by the time I got back. That just won’t cut it.

The above isn’t just about desktop or laptop class devices of course. The same applies to tablets, phones, conference room equipment, and a growing list of IoT enabled devices that are making their way into the workplace.

If you want to provide a good to great experience in the hardware and device realm, you need to ensure that employees have access to quality devices (not the bottom shelf cheap stuff), in good working condition (with access to cleaning and repair), that are fit for purpose (appropriate RAM, CPU, GPU, storage, screen resolution, etc.). The more often you provide them with top or near top of the line devices the happier they will be as they use them.

Related Article: What Does Employee Experience Really Mean?

Apps: The Core of the Digital Workplace

Our applications, bots, web tools, apps (the mobile ones), and plethora of services make up the core of our digital workplace. Much like with our devices, no one wants to use old and clunky applications.

The first aspect of the application experience is the user interface. As fashions change, so do the graphical elements of our digital experiences. If you have applications in use today that users can easily compare to interfaces and graphics that were the norm five years, 10 years or even longer ago — no one is getting joy from using them, trust me. Modern applications need to adhere to a modern aesthetic.

The next and potentially most important aspect of software that drives the experience is the flow and interactions that occur within the application, bot, app or service. Applications without forethought on the user experience will come off as cumbersome and jarring. They feel as though they were cobbled together by different teams and designers — which in some cases is accurate. I’ve used software where different sections of the app had different font styles and sizes for no reason other than apparently no one consulted a style guide and the development teams didn’t talk to one another.

Lastly, the applications and services need to work together. This has traditionally been the hardest piece to achieve, but one that can provide significant dividends in the digital experience. Years ago, our expectations were that applications within the same suite needed to have significant integrations and fluidity. Our expectations have grown to the degree where we now expect this from all applications. Extensibility and easy to access APIs are key elements of a software program that is going to fit well within a broader digital workplace ecosystem.

If you want to provide a good to great experience in the application and services realm, you need to ensure you have era-appropriate graphics, intuitive and simple interfaces and process flows, and applications that can play well with others. Design matters. Well-designed apps and services will be just that: designed. The user needs and journey will have been prominently thought out at the forefront of the development process and referenced continuously throughout the lifecycle. Every user won’t be a design afficionado, however, they will know when the digital solutions and services they use cause them endless frustration and stress — even if they can’t pinpoint why.

Related Article: Sound Familiar? 4 Phrases That Show Your Employee Experience Needs Work

Data: The Lifeblood of the Digital Workplace

If devices are the key and applications and services are the core, well I’m going to go full on mixed metaphor and proclaim that data is the life blood of the digital workplace. Everything we do depends on the data we have at our disposal. Our actions, recommendations and decisions rely on our ability to gather, analyze, and interpret relevant data and information. Without data, frustration and poor experiences arise.

We are producing and harnessing data today in ways that far exceed our abilities of even a few years ago — and this will only continue to grow throughout the decade to come. All that data, however, means nothing to the individual who needs it if they don’t have access to it. Access to data, then, should be considered a foundational element of the digital workplace and the resultant experiences.

With access to data being fundamental to the digital employee experience, availability and findability of data will have the greatest impact on making that experience positive. I’m using access in this context to describe how data is secured — or to flip the coin — how users are authorized. Availability in this context is used as an indication of the proliferation of data. Higher levels of data availability mean users can access what they need on a variety of devices, from a variety of networks, in a variety of applications and services that they use throughout their work day. Highly available data therefore should synchronize across those devices, networks and programs. Findability is a way to think about how we locate the right data for the task at hand. Search, navigation, content management, structure and more are all key components of findability.

If your data repositories are not synchronized and available in a manner that supports your employees' information searching needs and if your employees can never find what they need, they will be persistently perplexed and perturbed.

To provide a good to great experience in the data and information realm, you need to ensure you are providing appropriate access to data while making it available and findable across a wide spectrum of use cases. That’s no easy task. It requires significant and nuanced governance and guidance, increasingly higher levels of artificial intelligence to parse and make sense of the enormous amounts of data available, and an ever-vigilant eye to securing and safeguarding the data that matters most to your customers and business.

Related Article: Unpacking the Complexities of Enterprise Search Behavior

Security: The Ultimate Balancing Act

Security isn’t a feature or capability that the average user thinks about or wants to think about. However, in both our personal and enterprise spaces, it is of the utmost importance. The balance that must be achieved is between controls that safeguard information and the burden those controls put on the end user.

Security is about safeguards and controls. Every entity, whether an individual or corporation, must take appropriate action to ensure that the things they hold of value are protected from theft, untimely disclosure or misuse. However, if we lock everything up and throw away the key, those things of value essentially lose their purpose and worth. If the amount of safeguards and controls burden the end user to the degree that they can’t accomplish their task, or can only with herculean effort, then the digital employee experience will be perceived in an extremely negative light.

Many of the poor experiences revolve around authentication and authorization. These core tenets of identity and access management represent how we validate who a person is and what they can access. When done well, this is a seamless and often largely invisible process. When executed poorly, it is a constant struggle and source of friction.

Privacy is a key concern for end users in both their personal and corporate dealings. In the corporate context, a logical extension of privacy is confidentiality. While inherently related to the topics covered above, privacy and confidentiality come from a slightly different angle — one that is centered on the end user instead of the corporation. These concepts factor into the digital employee experience from the perspective of how end users — employees — establish and maintain trust with the organizations that employ them. A lack of trust triggers all manner of negative behaviors that will have a lasting impact on digital experience. As a user guards against the controls and protocols put in place by the organization, they'll use many shortcuts and backdoors while leaving many resources unused.

A prime example of this can be seen in the use of personal devices and mobile device management. Many employees across all company types would choose to carry multiple devices rather than having “big brother” install software to manage their device. Even when a second device is not offered, many employees will choose to be disconnected from work communications and interactions over yielding access and control to their personal device. This behavior doesn’t jive with the “anywhere, anytime, any device” mantra so many digital workplace programs espouse.

Related Article: The Best Technology Is the Technology You Don't Notice

Why Aren't Organizations Delivering?

I’ll be the first to say that none of the above represents groundbreaking new information on what people like and don’t like. Yet why isn’t it delivered across a wider spectrum of organizations? The Hinchcliffe article I referenced at the onset lists a number of reasons why. However, I think we can distill it even further — perhaps too far to be of actionable use, but all the same, it is good to get to root cause.

My top three (and a half) root causes can be summed up as:

  • Underfunding: This often results in significant technical debt that is complex and difficult to dig out from and consequently has been a huge factor in the rise of shadow IT.
  • Nonexistent or Poorly Implemented Governance: This results in undefined visions, goals, use cases, change management, training program inadequacies, and a general misalignment or lack of strategy.  
  • Lack of User Experience Design (including the security experience): This results in all manner of difficulties, but the end result is poor user experience caused by frustration, confusion and complexity. A related byproduct when user experience is not prioritized is poor or overly restrictive security controls. These result in overly cumbersome or restrictive policy and safeguards that are likely more ineffective in practice than they appear on paper or are touted in the boardroom.

The programs yielding awe-worthy digital employee experiences aren't derived from a single decision, recent development or new app purchase. They are typically years in the making, because they require a solid foundation on the right tenets to drive their success. This is likely a big factor in why companies that are doing digital workplace well are outperforming those that aren’t — they’ve been doing a lot of other things right for a while too.