A businessman behind a moving desk. The desk has cartoon jets on it - Evolving Workplace Concept
PHOTO: Adobe

It is generally assumed that the coronavirus and COVID-19 have, and will continue to drastically change the digital workplace. However, this change was already under way, so what is COVID's real impact and how much of it will persist once we're beyond the pandemic?

The Future Of Work

To answer that, Dee Anthony, director at Stamford, Conn.-based Information Services Group (ISG), argues that the first thing that needs to be done is to define what a digital workplace is. In ISG's viewpoint, he said, the digital workplace encompasses the services and technology that the employee uses in their day-to-day life of work.

During the early stages of the pandemic, organizations had to modify many aspects of the digital workplace very quickly. Changes included automation of manual processes, implementation of new cybersecurity solutions, creation of new worker types from a location and work-time perspective, to safe client side (virtual and physical) support.

These changes dictated by how organizations have implemented new or modified existing digital workplace setups (the tools and technology) to meet immediate need. The long used term of anywhere, any platform, anytime is no longer a future goal, but rather, a must have.

However, the old school concept of just having a strong digital workplace to meet employee and business demand only addresses one third of the future of work. Other workplaces such as the physical workplace obviously have changed dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic and continue to change. These changes to the physical workplace have driven innovation and rapid assimilation of technology in lieu of physical places and personal contact. Changes in the third workplace, the human workplace, demanded automation of long standing manual processes, understanding of employee burnout and productivity, and an increased need to understand the human side of digital for all organizations whether they are the provider or the consumer of services.

“Hence, the future workplace must address all three workplaces: Digital, physical, and human, with each workplace addressing a portion of any employee based business process from Order Management, Sales, IT Service Desk, Customer Experience through Employee Engagement, and most any other value chain where human interaction or intervention is required,” Anthony said.

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Digital Transformation Goes to Warp Speed

While it's true many companies operated successfully before COVID-19, the outbreak caused even more organizations to quickly accelerate digital adoption and implement best practices that until now were “nice to haves.” Simply put, COVID-19 ended the digital deferral period, serving as the lighter fuel for digital transformation. Those that were not ready were forced to condense more than five years of digital adoption into a six month period, said Tom Puthiyamadam, New York City-based PwC’s global digital leader. “The most successful companies we’ve seen during the last year are those who adopted a BXT ( Business-Experience-Technology) way of working,” he said. While BXT combines business strategy, experiential design and technology, it makes collaboration a real thing vs. lip service. The COVID-accelerated digital workplace created a mindshift change for legacy thinkers to help cut through slow corporate machines and, most importantly, move them faster."

Dave Padmos, is Ernst & Young’s Americas industry leader for technology. He argues that while the concept of remote work was already successful prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers were not readily offering this option to their employees. However, as companies are nearing the one-year mark of working from home, their outlook around the digital workplace and new ways of working is shifting. According to a recent survey by EY and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), remote work is expected to grow, as half of the respondents said that more than 60% of their employees will be working remotely post-COVID.

Now more than ever, companies must deploy the right technologies and processes to transform their employee experiences. As working remotely continues to extend, and in some cases become the new normal, many companies are now making key decisions about talent strategy focusing on reducing cost and lowering enterprise risk.

“We will see more companies evaluate opportunities to geo-shift work that will enable talent sourcing focused on finding the right skills regardless of location, reducing total cost by sourcing and placing employees in remote locations, and improving employee satisfaction by reducing limitations on work location,” Padmos said.

There is another element to consider too, he added. Although employee productivity numbers may be going up, many employee populations are struggling with job satisfaction. Moving forward, greater prioritization of experiences, culture, and empowerment as drivers of engagement will be central to improving performance, retention and employee satisfaction

Human resources will increase its role as the center of delivery of people services around both experiences and outcomes — listening to the voice of the employee with increased focus on wellbeing, diversity and inclusion will be critical. As a result, the definition of a high-performance leader will change as well. Leaders across organizations will need to further personalize their approach and be more 'hands-on' to motivate and inspire their teams and colleagues.

Now, there is also greater focus on how companies to create a sustained, high performing and collaborative environment. The current immediate tactics and efforts, while currently effective, likely will need to evolve significantly to create a long-term high impact environment. “In just a few months, we'll have had a significant percentage of employees hiring into high growth organizations who have never met anyone physically or been into a corporate office. That cultural equity was never built for these growing numbers of employees, so it will be even more critical to gauge employee satisfaction, productivity and career progression through improved tools and analytics,” Padmos added. "Technology will continue to move away from being a set of tools that support a function, especially human resources. “

Digital transformation, combined with new tools and technologies, will enable a suite of technical and people assets that work together to improve experience, automate tasks, simplify work and fuel collaboration.

The Role of Employee Experience 

There are other aspects of employee experience that have changed too, Jeremy Bernard, CEO of North America, for New York City-based essensys, explained. The most profound change in office space from this year is the power shift from corporations dictating how office space is designed and managed to a model that recognizes that the individual needs of each worker must be at the center of the office experience.

This is the case for enterprises of all sizes- from startups to global entities. COVID accelerated underlying trends such as remote working capabilities and the move towards flexible real estate products. It has forever changed how, where, and when a global workforce collaborates and gets work done.

In 2021, even with a vaccine, many will not be returning to the office for the structured 5-day in office schedule for 8 hour shifts. The new normal in office space will include technology to de-densify workspaces to increase confidence for in-person working and provide landlords with the tools to de-risk spaces for increased yields. Additionally, landlords and employers will have to offer a myriad of options to accommodate the multigenerational workforce.

“The COVID crisis taught us that while technology has been a blessing to keep remote teams working and effective, it is not a long-term replacement for building workplace culture, professional development of staffers, or spontaneous creative collaboration,” he said. “Work is about far more than completing tasks; it is a social endeavor. A positive workplace culture is shaped by people not the hottest tech tools.”

COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Workplace

 While the idea of the digital workplace is not new, what COVID-19 taught us falls into two major categories, Raju Vegesna, chief evangelist for collaboration platform provider Zoho, concluded.
  1. How are we going to scale the digital model — make it collaborative, interactive, secure,
  2. What investments do we need to make sure this is a long-term answer to a potentially long-term operational model?

These issues have not completely been resolved for most organizations, despite now nearly a year of trying to support flexible work. The truth is that many organizations are still piecemealing their way through the mid-COVID workplace — and workers are growing weary of glitchy collaboration tools, he said. “I do not believe the digital workplace is finished evolving,” he said. 2021 will be when organizations really make the right investments to support cloud-based collaboration, boost productivity, and put into place measures to secure information and corporate content/intelligence.”

“And there is an added benefit in making those investments sooner rather than later: the ability to deliver a seamless, collaborative digital work environment will go a long way to stay competitive for attracting top talent."