people climbing the mountain
PHOTO: Jackman Chiu

As 2019 kicks off, I see three core challenges that are common to many digital workplaces. These are:

  1. Centralized notifications.
  2. True enterprise findability.
  3. Engaging frontline workers.

In essence, all three reflect a growing awareness that employee experience is both intrinsically important and a key to productivity. However, addressing them involves more than one system and typically more than one function in an organization. That’s why they currently tend to be fragmented and hard to rectify.

3 Core Digital Workplace Challenges

1. Centralized Notifications

Our smartphones do a good job of aggregating alerts from multiple systems and letting us know what is going on. My lock screen is able to pull together notices from my bank, the BBC, LinkedIn, Teams, Strava, SMS, Facebook and more. But in the workplace notifications are often spread across individual systems, such as Office 365, SAP, Workday, Concur and Salesforce.

As a result we rely heavily on email as the "notification central." Digital workplace managers often lament that people still see their inbox as the starting point for their day, but this is in part because most digital workplaces reinforce it as the place where important things happen.

For example, at a recent Office 365 Conference, I saw Microsoft demonstrate some of the great things you can do with Flow to automate processes. It was impressive but invariably one of the steps included “… and then it generates an email for someone to approve.” Really? Must we still use emails as a clunky way to complete transactions? 

Consider Google Authenticator, for example. When a site needs to validate my credentials, I don’t get a link in Gmail, I get a notification with an "Approve" button, and the whole job is done.

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

2. True Enterprise Findability

We all have expectations driven by Google that one search interface should lead us straight to an answer. In the enterprise this is rarely the case.

Information sources are often split over multiple systems and not indexed in a single place. Even if the search box says “search everything,” that’s false advertising: it usually only searches ‘everything’ on an intranet. Results for things like customers conversations are often omitted because they are on a separate CRM, or huge investments in training materials get overlooked because they sit on a Learning and Development system procured in isolation by HR.

Search matters, but it is only one step in finding things – browsing, trust in results and the way content is written all matter too (see my diagnostic tool). Even the search element itself is more than a technology problem, as Martin White recently articulated so well.

As with Google, search should provide answers not links.  Search is usually an interim step towards an end goal, so when we search for ‘apply for time off’ the result shouldn’t lead to a page about booking time off, it should be an interface to the absence application.  

Related Article: Search Won't Improve Until We Understand Why People Search, Not Just How

3. Engaging Frontline Workers

Over the last three to four years a quiet revolution has taken place that's received relatively little attention: frontline workers have been digitally equipped. For example, most companies I speak to have given sales people iPads or put tablets in the backroom of every store. They have opened up apps to factory floor workers through BYOD policies and given engineers smartphones.

Engaging with frontline workers is the ultimate silo to bridge. Not just through task-specific  apps, but though continuity of processes such as knowledge sharing and ideation (Virgin Trains is a great example). Many frontline workers that I speak to say they hear a great deal about their local environment but are often isolated from the ‘bigger picture’ that should be available to everyone.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

The Draining Effects on People and the Workplace

The impact is we are imposing a cognitive load on our employees. Not only is this de-motivating, but we also potentially exhaust their finite decision-making capacity. In effect we drain people’s ability to do important tasks by making routine tasks too hard.

With centralized notifications, if it takes energy to track what is going on, we increase the chances we miss something. This degrades efficiency because processes get stuck (I’m sure we’ve all had that heart-sink job of sending yet another email to ‘chase’ a pending approval). Secondly, we can’t dial-down distractions. Every interruption costs us about 15 minutes of productivity but we can’t go 100 percent dark in most jobs. We need the ability to remain contactable but only for things above a certain threshold of urgency.

Poor findability also increases risk. For example, a decision may be made on outdated data, or a costly mistake repeated due to a lack of awareness of a precedent.

Finally, frontline workers are the people who often spend the most time understanding our customers. They may also be the ones who see how products perform in the real world, not fresh from the factory but after two years of usage. These insights are invaluable, but only if we engage with them and channel them into product development, service design and business strategy.

Hope for 2019

Although these are big challenges to solve, I'm encouraged that in the last year I've heard many more organizations treat employee experience as a strategic priority. Not a means to some other end, like cutting costs or customer retention, but something that should be an objective in itself. They understand that being attractive as an employer is a competitive advantage, and that an enjoyable digital workplace matters every bit as much — sometimes more so — than a pleasant office environment.

Let’s hope then, that 2019 is the year when many organizations tackle these challenges head-on.