We’re living more and more of our lives in virtual consumer worlds. Unfortunately, many of the technologies that help us explore exciting digital realms in our personal lives haven’t fully made their way into the workplace, which leaves us feeling at times as though we’re trapped in a real-life version of the movie "Tron" (only without the cool suits).

Employees entering digital workplaces today negotiate with a proliferation of document-centric file sharing tools, cluttered email inboxes full of mass distribution messages and shiny-yet-distracting teamware apps. All of this can lead to a disconnected experience.

How Did We Get Here?

Most so-called "digital workplaces" started out as basic company intranets — well-suited for publishing company news and serving as link farms for soon-to-be-outdated team sites and documents, but not much else. 

These one-way, business-to-employee tools aged about as well as GeoCities communities. Unfortunately, many organizations still rely on this approach — and continue to upgrade to shinier versions of the same thing — as their “engagement solution." While clearly companies still need to share important information with employees, technology has come a long way since the 2000s-era static webpage.

3 Digital Workplace Pitfalls

With that in mind, here are three key pitfalls companies should avoid as they evolve towards more modern digital workplaces:

1. Throw More Email at the Problem

Everyone agrees that the new digital workplace must be collaborative. 

Unfortunately there is far less consensus on how to successfully achieve that collaboration. Perhaps that’s why many companies continue to fall back on “tried and true” solutions like email (pdf). Though the “tried” part is excruciatingly accurate, the “true” half of the equation is a little sketchier. 

As anyone with more than one 5-foot-long thread in their inbox can attest, email creates more silos than it solves. And tasks like searching through old email folders to find answers for a specific question are proven productivity killers.

2. Collaborating with a Teamware-Only Approach

While some have touted lightweight team-based communication apps as the answer to email overload, too often the hype overshadows the limited use cases. These tools often end up creating even more distractions and silos than before. 

While chat-based apps are certainly a step up from email, they may not live up to expectations — especially if a company relies on it as its primary collaboration tool. Not only can they result in frequent context shifting and disconnectedness (if they don't link directly to the document being discussed), many users — especially those in different time zones — report exhaustion from being "always on."

However, the two-way conversation provided by teamware apps is an important step in the right direction toward collaboration. Unlike traditional intranets, real-time communication tools can improve overall engagement, and — when broadened beyond specific teams — can drive a greater understanding of the company’s goals and strategy.

3. Creating a Frankenstein Solution

Document-centric solutions fall on the other side of the spectrum. While promising a one-stop shop for collaboration, their rigidity undermines people's ad hoc collaboration needs. 

You have the structured document collaboration on one side, teamware on the other and a traditional company intranet thrown in the middle. Bolting them all together might seem like a good idea, but if the disparate tools aren't integrated effectively, this Frankenstein can end up costing a company far more than it bargained for in support and upgrade costs. 

While IT spends its time getting people up to speed on which application to use in which situation, confused and frustrated employees default to familiar tools such as email or shadow IT consumer apps. This flushes any technology ROI expectations down the drain.

Learning Opportunities

Culture Shock

As times have changed, so has the relationship between employers and employees. An authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway approach won’t cut it today. 

When done right, digital workplaces can help foster transparent cultures that drive significant competitive advantages in “operational improvements, enhanced credibility, innovation, greater efficiency” and more, according to a recent PwC report. High levels of trust also makes employees more likely to remain with a company as well. 

Transparency and alignment aren't always easy to achieve. People are working in different places, with diverse colleagues, information and tools. Keeping employees connected gets harder by the day, demanding innovative ways to communicate and engage with them. Employees expect something more than a glorified bulletin board from their workplace tools. 

Fortunately, many organizations are finally catching on to what employees have known for quite some time: if you want an engaged, productive workforce, you have to design a digital workplace that looks a lot like the rest of the world. Experiences must be immersive and pervasive, as well as flexible, open, adaptive and mobile. 

An Interactive Intranet Acts as Digital Workplace Hub

Interactive intranets deliver many of these digital workplace needs, out of the box. Whereas past approaches focused more on technology bells and whistles, these new solutions address the ways people actually work. 

These solutions place people at the center of the digital workplace, immersing them in a knowledge sharing network where they ask and answer each other’s questions (even if the "other" is an executive), share documents and work to resolve day-to-day workplace issues. 

Good interactive intranets also capture collaboration in small groups. When seamlessly integrated with people’s document, email and chat tools of choice, employees no longer have to hunt through long email threads for action items, which enables collaboration at scale. 

By capturing corporate memory and improving employee’s meta-knowledge and ambient awareness, modern intranets can drive greater productivity, improve business process efficiency and encourage innovation over time.

When employees work in the ways that fit them best, they experience their digital workplace in the same way they do their personal digital lives. Or, to quote Kevin Flynn — the character Jeff Bridges played in "Tron" — "On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.”

Title image Getty Images

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