A large number of organizations have invested in developing and maintaining digital workplaces, but those investments are now being tested to see if they're right for the long-haul. The reason is simple: the coronavirus pandemic is driving sweeping changes to how organizations conduct business and manage staff, many of which may become permanent.

For example, the most pressing tools for the new digital workplace are communication tools to connect leaders with dispersed teams, collaboration tools that connect team members to each other anywhere at any time, devices and apps that enable remote content sharing, digital communities to promote and drive connection, and plans for what happens if an entire region is suddenly without at-home internet access. Also on the list are tools that enable workers to assess their own work experiences and workplace needs.

What's Table Stakes for a Digital Workplace

Traditional, table-stakes elements of a digital workplace are now well established and have served fairly well for many organizations.

“Companies have moved towards a cloud-based infrastructure over the past few years allowing them to broaden their portfolio of tools for their workforce away from the baseline email, desktop productivity tools, and one-to-one instant messaging and intranet-only-based search,” said Catherine Shinners, a director at Merced Group. Shinners has worked with leading companies in high tech and the financial sector to guide and develop digital workplace strategies.

“Organizations have integrated digital platforms that support group-level content creation and publishing (i.e., SharePoint, Jive, wikis); varied tools that support more immediacy of interactions and communications such as web-conferencing and group messaging; and have broadened search across platforms.  Social collaboration elements have also been added (enterprise social networks), to create more online commons for employee communications and employee engagement,” Shinners said.

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The New Robust Digital Workplace

Beyond table stakes functionality, the new critical elements of a robust digital workplace fall into four categories, said Pete Fields, senior vice president of digital channels at Wells Fargo. These “dimensions,” as Fields describes them, include:

  • Tools unique to the employee’s role, such as job- or function-specific tools that an employee needs to fulfill their role within the organization.
  • Tools that cut across jobs, but still serve specific functions. For example, HR, finance or staff tools that employees need to be a member of the organization.
  • Tools or systems that cut across functions. For example, capabilities such as search, portals, social networks and collaboration tools that connect the employee to the organization, and to others in the organization, and that more generally support both the individual’s work and the collective’s mission.
  • Connective tissue, i.e. experiences, patterns, standards and governance that promote familiarity, consistency and efficiency.

"Today, must-have elements to be effective in the new digital workplace include devices and apps that contribute to a ‘work from anywhere’ mentality," explained James Krick, director of digital workplace services at the Campbell Soup Company. "Collaboration tools such as Teams and Slack are fostering an engaging and agile work platform while traditional email, with its linear back-and-forth drudgery, takes more of a backseat. Other key elements include effective communications campaigns/platforms (Workplace, Yammer) to engage and inform the user base, robust self-service KB's that include how-to video content (i.e. Brainstorm's QuickHelp), and a maniacal focus on the user experience."

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Help Employees Help Themselves

Equally important is a focus on tools that enable remote staff to evaluate their own work, experiences and needs.

"As most workers are now in a remote or working-from-home (WFH) environment, new must-have elements include tools and guidance to help workers evaluate and maximize the productivity of their home office (Do they need to upgrade their Wi-Fi bandwidth?  Should they cable directly to their cable modem?  What ergonomic advice is available for people now crouching over laptops all day, when at the office they may have had a docking station that plugged into a large desktop monitor?)," said Shinners.  

She warned about the overuse, misuse and underutilization of communication and collaboration tools. “Overuse of video or web conferencing is counterproductive and deeply fatiguing,” Shinners continued. "Develop guidance and promote ways of using those tools to help people stay aware of others work, or share a status update or solve a problem without constantly being in real-time communications in a web-conferencing or video conferencing meeting.”

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The Key Elements of a Forward-Facing Digital Workplace

For organizations that want to assess if they are providing the elements a forward-facing digital workplace needs, Fields advises they start by assessing what business problems they are looking to solve.

Second, ask employees what problems they know of that need solving.

Learning Opportunities

Third, the organization should decide if it wants a tightly integrated stack of tools or if it prefers the benefits (albeit, with drawbacks) of more emergent best of breed offerings.

Fourth, “be realistic. There is no single panacea. And whatever is ‘best in class’ today will be old tomorrow,” Fields said.

Finally, “Don't do it in a silo and don't recreate the wheel,” advised Krick. “Competitive comparisons are not hard to find, and industry analyst firms such as Gartner or Forrester are happy to help for hire or offer up Magic Quadrants and Forrester Waves with best-in-class solution providers. Companies are happy to offer demos and trial periods of products. Lastly, ask peers and other companies for recommendations.”

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Soliciting Employee Feedback and Input

Asking employees for their input and advice can be time-consuming, but the payoff in actionable insights makes it worthwhile.

Surveys and focus groups can provide direct insight into what employees' day-to-day challenges are while working from home, said Shinners. Responses may range from tool and connectivity issues to challenges involved in interacting and coordinating with teammates. 

“Survey how workers have really been using the tools they have been provided. Chances are they are still relying on emails with distribution lists, and not using more dynamic, group messaging or group collaboration/content co-creation tools. Find the gaps and build guidance and adoption programs that will help the workforce stay connected and work together without being in real-time meetings,” she advised.

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Steps to Designing the New Digital Workplace

As an organization begins the process of designing a future-proof digital workplace there are several steps they should take. Fields cited the following as must-do actions:

  • Determine specific business objectives and success criteria and organize/invest in ways intended to specifically drive those objectives.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of familiarity, of patterns that employees recognize and are able to easily traverse, because they are repeated and familiar. Ideally, these would cut across experiences that originate from LOBs, staff functions such as HR, and enterprise experiences, such as portals, communities or collaboration systems.
  • Design a digital workplace that delivers to your employees an experience of your brand, an experience of what it is like to be an employee of that organization and a vehicle for that brand, an experience like your employees would absorb if they walked into a physical workplace that said 'XYZ company.'
  • Invest in experiences that are independent of vendors. The vendors and platforms will ALWAYS become outdated and change. Own the experience layer so that, as those vendors and systems age out, you maintain control.
  • Try to avoid embedding your digital workplace team in a group that sees all questions through another prism. If possible, centralize responsibility and authority for your digital workplace in the organization.

Finally Shinners advised that “even after the pandemic, the shift back to a physical workspace may not return. Investing now in really empowering a remote workforce through productive well-rounded engagement with digital workplace tools and modalities will pay off. This is an opportunity to rethink how and where employees can and should work.”