I am not a digital workplace expert. I am however a long-term remote worker. Since March 2020, almost all knowledge workers now operate virtually from their homes. Having a well-structured digital workplace to interact with can make or break the work week. So, what does the future digital workplace look like? How will our present experience change it?
What We Mean by 'Digital Workplace'
Sam Marshall, in his article from earlier this year, states that the digital workplace (DW) is the “concept that there is a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace, and that this needs to be planned and managed coherently because it is fundamental to people's productivity, engagement and working health.”
The digital workplace concept has people, process and technology elements. An ideal digital workplace puts employees first, continually evolves from a technology perspective, and is designed and managed to allow for seamless coordination between the people, process and technology aspects.
Working From Home, Employee Engagement and the Digital Workplace
Humans are social creatures. They crave interaction (some more than others). Companies like Google, Salesforce and Twitter have extended their work from home policies well into 2021. Some knowledge workers will never return to a physical office building again. As a result, companies are exploring what communication, collaboration and employee engagement will look like in the future.
The conversations I've had since pandemic fatigue set in have centered on self-worth, meaningful work contributions and overall employee morale. To sustain this virtual working journey we are on, we have to improve how we keep knowledge workers engaged while they remain isolated. Whether it takes the form of virtual job rotations, sharing forums, training and development, or software that correlates and displays individual contributions as a portion of overall organizational growth — daily employee engagement is going to be much more highly valued in 2021 than it was in 2019 and before.
Technology Needs of the Future Digital Workplace
We all know the common requirements for digital workplaces: intranets, collaboration tools and knowledge sharing repositories. From my perspective, I see new analytical technology needs emerging to support the future digital workplace. The solutions we have today, like Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics, measure employee productivity, process efficiency and collaboration patterns. The solution is also marketed as helping to drive cultural transformations as well as diversity and inclusion efforts. Solutions like this are focused on organizational optimization.
On the other end of the spectrum tools like MercuryApp or TinyPulse exist to track morale and emotional responses, mainly through employee surveys. These solutions are qualitative in nature and focused on employee sentiment.
In the future, organizations will need full suite, extensible, analytics-based quantitative platforms to measure things like employee engagement, morale and inclusiveness. I see these solutions tracking and analyzing employee behavior patterns at a granular level — in order to offer suggestions for virtual work improvement to both the employee and organization. These virtual fatigue fighting suggestions could include exercise breaks, engagement activities with colleagues and workday modifications. It’s important to mention these new solutions will have to account for privacy and trust, because employee will not want to provide detailed working patterns to organizations that may use that information against them when organizational restructuring rolls around.
Related Article: Are People Analytics the Answer to Your Employee Engagement Woes?
Designing a Virtual Digital Workplace for the Future
I’m not an organizational psychologist or a digital workplace thought leader, but I've learned a few things as a long-time virtual knowledge worker that organizations should prioritize in the future:
People First, Always
Organizations will have to focus on all of the items mentioned above: job rotations, sharing forums, training and development programs, potentially employee engagement software. People first means companies take an active role in measuring employee engagement and morale and then acting on those insights. The goal is to support the individual worker, helping them develop and maintain self-esteem, self-health and engagement levels.
Create Processes That Promote Productivity, Engagement, Employee Health
Revisit these operational and organizational processes frequently and revise as business models change.
Individual employees should also create processes for themselves. For me, it includes recreating a commute to and from work so I have a chance to prepare and decompress. I also segment my day to add structure: delegating meeting and working times, time to eat lunch, time to network and socialize, and more. It also includes having a dedicated space for work that is not the same couch you relax on. Creating repeatable processes like these will allow you to prepare for and react accordingly to your workday.
Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective
As we would all agree, the best technology is the technology that just works. For the organization, provide your employees with the best technology available to help them do the job at hand. Consider extensible, analytics-based, well-integrated platforms such as the ones mentioned above. Similarly, when employees put effort into their technology setup will go far to improve the workday. Think beyond the laptop at the dining room table: create a comfortable setup in your virtual office that allows you to work off hours if needed, a place where you can concentrate and create.
We can all agree that business models will never be the same after 2020. Innovation and adaptability at both an individual and organizational level will help us not just cope with the changes, but reimagine the workplace of tomorrow to become an even more productive environment.