Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Ottawa
PHOTO: Marc-Olivier Jodoin

How should we define the digital workplace? This question comes up often since the term came into common usage almost a decade ago.

There have been many different definitions offered up and a Digital Workplace Group (DWG) blog we published back in 2015, titled "Which of These 8 Definitions of 'Digital Workplace” Works Best for You?," remains popular. Meanwhile, software company ThoughtFarmer recently published a highly informative history.

I tend to opt for two different definitions (one which has stood the test of time since originally used in my 2012 book, "The Digital Workplace: How Technology Is Liberating Work"). This is based on the counterfactual premise that the digital workplace comprises all the “non-physical” spaces in which we work. While we have grown to know and understand over the centuries the physical structures dubbed workplaces (offices, warehouses, factories, etc.), we now work in virtual worlds as well — together these make up the modern digital workplace.

My alternate definition — the operational one — is that the digital workplace comprises the range of services, applications and devices we use for work: intranets, collaboration, unified communications, HR services, mixed reality, email, mobility, etc.

This ever-present question was on my mind and that of my co-author Elizabeth Marsh, DWG director of research, when we set about writing our ambitious new research report Digital Workplace 2030: Preparing Now for the Digital Worlds of Work to Come, which delves into the future to see what the digital workplace of 2030 will look like. Designed as a tool to help those leading the development of future digital workplaces in major organizations, this report provides insights into the trends that will shape the 2030 world, patterns of technological progress, and the nature of the future workplace.

Drawing on ancient design principles, we examine the digital worlds of work to come through the lens of four dimensions:

Dimension 1: Space

Digital Workplace 2030 is characterized by its inclusiveness as it breaks down boundaries of organizations, teams and industries to enable digital and physical spaces for frictionless collaboration, creativity and innovation. This first dimension explores the ways in which digital and physical “spaces” are becoming better connected — and we see some of the pioneers of this connection, such as Adobe and Cisco, moving it forward as the real estate and digital services of organizations work ever closer together to provide the integrated experiences we crave.

By “space” we also mean the question of where the company ends and “the rest of the world” begins. Inside and outside will become ever more networked across partners, supply chains, customers and wider markets. Shared technologies will enable us to move far more safely and swiftly between employees and external partners. So, the space the digital workplace occupies will increase as the digital and physical increasingly align and the external and internal worlds connect.

Related Article: Designing a Smarter Workplace: Blending Online and Offline Work

Dimension 2: Capability

Digital Workplace 2030 is both immersive and pervasive, providing augmented workers and managers with on-demand capabilities tailored to their needs and preferences. This dimension taps into the realization that the digital workplace will absorb more and more of what we need to do each day. The digital workplace as a service will become ever more capable and useful. Connecting with a team around the world, in perfect visual resolution and with great audio, will be just a click away — perhaps even holographic — as the virtual world acquires the texture of the physical world.

The other aspect of this capability is about ensuring that what we already have in 2018 actually works, because much of the time today it just doesn’t. We need to enable and deliver the standard services we still struggle with. Can we always hear and see each other on calls? Can we find the knowledge and experts we know exist? Can we stay powered up through the day and get connected easily wherever we are? We can’t yet achieve these things consistently — but we must. This dimension requires above all simplicity rather than more widgets and bells that may sound impressive but are not really needed.

Dimension 3: Intelligence

Digital Workplace 2030 is the intelligence engine that powers a data-driven, fluid organization, shaping itself around the goals and needs of the market, the organization and its workforce. Today, AI is far more hype than reality for the enterprise and there is no grand challenge (as there is in, say, medicine or health) that we are desperate to solve. Intelligence will permeate systems and this will gradually help, but we need to move beyond where we are now, which is a solution looking for a problem.

That said, most organizations we work with do see big gains from reducing the amount of IT help-desk questions but, as the next decade rolls along, the digital workplace will become relentlessly smarter in small and persistent ways, and this is to be lauded. The hype today might just seem like the next bandwagon after big data, mobile and, before that, web 2.0, but it is also an essential new capacity of the emerging digital workplace.

Related Article: For the Intelligent Workplace to Succeed, We Must Shore Up Our Foundations

Dimension 4: Beauty

Digital Workplace 2030 is beautiful in its experience, ethical foundation and purpose of enabling human development, wellbeing and fulfilment at work. This is perhaps the most surprising dimension but it really is the icing on the cake. By beauty what we mean is not only will this future digital workplace look beautiful, but its beauty will also be far more than skin deep. Beauty here refers to the emotions we will feel, the relationship we will have as human beings with the services we use, empathy, feelings and atmosphere. It also means the ethics of the digital workplace and the way it protects those it serves: its sustainability. The next wave of the digital workplace will be tightly connected with the culture and governance of the organization.

While we don’t aim to predict exactly what will happen in 12 years’ time, we do encourage organizations to look at the findings from our broad scan of the trends and potential developments, and to start to ask questions about where they are now on the journey towards Digital Workplace 2030. What are you doing that does not address at least one of these dimensions? What should you emphasize that is getting missed? If we think and plan well now, we can achieve the digital workplaces we deserve in the coming decade.

Read more about the Digital Workplace 2030 (registration required).