stuck on chewing gum
PHOTO: mahalie stackpole

Two dominant problems plague most digital workplaces at the moment: search and notifications. If we don’t get these right, the employee experience will always suffer.

Digital workplaces include many elements, such as communication, collaboration, finding and sharing, business applications, employee services and support for agile working. Although there are challenges specific to each element, the thing that almost no organization is tackling well is the integration between them — the glue that makes it a productive digital workplace rather than a collection of individual systems.

Integration Headaches

In IT when we’ve talked about integration in the past, there’s been a cyclical temptation to conclude that the only way to really do it is by bringing everything into a single platform. It’s the kind of naively over-ambitious thing only an idiot would try (I’ve tried several times). The alternative is many APIs to interface between disparate systems, which can be both slow and costly.

For sure, some platforms offer a multitude of tools, but in reality there is no clear cut-off point for when a platform should end. This means there will always be something that isn’t integrated, causing friction. Even Office 365, for all its breadth, doesn’t cover all bases — it’s very weak on employee self-service for example. It doesn’t even integrate all that well with itself (e.g. Yammer, Teams and SharePoint).

The only practical way to integrate is a much looser coupling — and that’s where search and notifications come in as a very flexible form of glue.

Related Article: Microsoft Is Sending Collaboration Loopy

Not Searching, But Finding

Search has enormous potential in the enterprise because it can span multiple systems well — if we let it. We usually use the term "search" because it is widely recognized, when we really mean finding things within the enterprise.

Unfortunately, we often play a trick on users by putting a search box on an intranet labelled “search everything” when it isn’t really everything. Usually it is just all content stored on that CMS. Customer records in a CRM or contracts in a legal system are unlikely to be indexed, for example.

Finding goes much farther afield than a Google-type search box that returns a page of results. It may also involve browsing a page of benefits to see things the user had not considered; looking only within a policy library; collating every contract relating to a specific client; or trying to find the system to claim expenses rather than just documents about expenses.

A coherent digital workplace needs to support all of these kinds of finding across multiple systems. A system that doesn't support this makes it very hard to accomplish some of the use cases above, such as collation around a topic or even feeling confident that a better answer hasn’t been missed. Even finding things by navigating and browsing is hard if you want to be sure you’ve seen all options but feel they may be scattered across an HR system, intranet page and employee handbook document.

Related Article: When Improving Search Performance, Don't Follow the Clicks

Not Finding, But Doing

In nearly all of the cases above, the finding behavior is just an interim step to taking action. This is why digital workplace search needs to provide answers, not links.

Before Google a search of “London to Edinburgh” on Yahoo or Altavista would have yielded many pages of links to timetables, blogs and news articles. Now Google gives answers as a map with directions, actual train times and airline prices. Links are pushed well down the page.

The recently-released Microsoft Search is going in the right direction for Office 365. Administrators can add "bookmarks" for canned answers to common queries (Microsoft once again opting to name a feature in a way that maximizes confusion). Bookmarks can even be targeted, so that users in Spain and Japan see different answers to HR queries. The search engine will also use text analysis to try to determine responses from uploaded documents such as policies. However, the text is static unless you add a PowerApp.

Microsoft Search in Office 365 displaying a "bookmark"
Microsoft Search in Office 365 can now show ready-made answers on the search results page called "bookmarks."

The other element to supporting actions and not just links is to embed microservices in search results, so people don't see a link to a system, but an actual interface to it. I wrote recently about how Wells Fargo is using microservices in this way.

Related Article: Optimizing Office 365 Search Is a Guessing Game

Notifications and the Battle for Attention

The other glue element for digital workplaces needs to be how we manage attention. We are surrounded by notifications. Jason Fried of 37signals put it perfectly when he said, “The modern workplace has become an interruption factory.”

Our phones do a pretty good job of letting us manage notifications by aggregating across a range of sources, from email, SMS, voice calls, twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, airline apps and so on. This makes it easy to go into a "do not disturb" mode, or even a "do not disturb unless really important" mode, which lets certain people or sources get through. We don’t have the equivalent for our digital workplaces.

In many digital workplaces, we have to deal with a dozen or more systems: email, Slack, Workday, SAP, Concur, Salesforce, Servicenow, Basecamp … and if you use Office 365: individual alerts from Teams, Yammer, OneDrive, SharePoint, Planner, etc.

Every system generates its own alerts, often in multiple ways: a desktop pop-up, a phone alert, and then an email follow-up alerting us to the fact that we missed the other two alerts. In the absence of a common aggregator, falling back on our swollen inboxes as the only way to keep track.

We need a more unified activity stream. Not only would this let us dial up or dial down the interruptions, but it would help us get on with our work coherently.

For every alert we need to know: 

  • Has something changed that lets me move forward with an action I’ve been waiting on?
  • Do I need to stop what I’m doing and act so I don’t hold something up?
  • Is this new information that will change a decision I’m about to make?
  • Did somebody bring in cakes? (just kidding, but you know …)

However, we can only decide what to attend to if we can see a joined-up view, not a system specific one. In other words, if it’s all glued together again.

Related Article: Information Overload Comes in 3 Flavors: Here's How to Combat It