person typing a laptop with digital icons floating over the keyboard
PHOTO: Shutterstock.

The changes that were rapidly implemented due to COVID-19 have revolutionized work. Businesses are accelerating their approach to the digital workplace, implementing innovative technologies, changing hierarchical structures, and finding new ways to improve the customer and employee experience.

“Expectations for experience have been increasing every year, particularly in digital, and in 2020 the need for a compelling and engaging digital experience is now the highest priority for businesses after safety,” said Mike Orr, CEO of Toronto-based Grapevine6, an enterprise social and digital sales engagement platform provider.

The goal of the digital workplace is to craft a positive employee journey based on effective communication, collaboration, engagement, productivity, loyalty, a sense of belonging built upon diversity and inclusion, and personal fulfillment. When leaders encourage and embrace a culture of transparency, open communication, ongoing learning, diversity and inclusion and flexibility, it comes closer to reality.

The Digital Workplace Paradigm Is Continually Evolving

The trends driving the digital workplace began in the early 2000s and have been evolving ever since. Key events include the introduction of the iPhone and Android, always-on internet service and high bandwidth connectivity, the emergence of cloud services, software as a service (Saas), artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Add to that the digital transformation of the workplace and the rise of remote and distributed workers, and there's a framework upon which today’s digital workplace was founded.

Sam Maley, head of growth at Bailey & Associates, an IT consultancy in the UK, said these trends are having a positive effect on the nature of doing business. “There is definitely a new paradigm emerging that sees a culmination of several trends in business and technology. It is much more dynamic and evolutionary in its approach to digital workplace strategy,” Maley said.

The trend can be traced back to at least 2004, he said, pointing to the shift in management style resulting from new information technologies that author and MIT management professor Thomas Malone described as a move from from "command and control" to "coordinate and cultivate."

“He argued that in a knowledge- and innovation-driven economy, the winners would be those who could enable a high degree of freedom and flexibility," Maley said. "This represented a shift to a managerial style that was far more fluid, encompassing a spectrum of centralized and decentralized activity. In other words, rather than having a strict managerial hierarchy and siloed teams, you would centre the activities that needed to happen and then build working relationships, teams and projects around them.”

The evolution of the digital workplace predicted by Malone continues to evolve. Originally, it was technologies like email and related Internet-based communication technology that drove the change. “Today, it encompasses everything from project management apps like Slack and Asana to robotics, the Internet of Things and machine learning,” Maley said. “The speed of communication, availability of information and processing power make new ways of organizing and doing business possible."

"They allow for a digital workplace that is faster evolving, where roles and responsibilities can shift as needs do, and where project rollouts can happen in a fraction of the time that used to be possible. In short, they empower agility: the ability to quickly adapt and evolve.”

Related Article: Reimagining the Digital Workplace of Tomorrow

Verticals Are Out, Agile Horizontal Hierarchies Are In

The traditional top-down pyramid or “waterfall” business hierarchy with executives at the top, managers in the middle, and lower level managers and employees at the bottom, is giving way to a more horizontal or sideways hierarchy that facilitates creativity and innovation with more room for employees to be able to collaborate and make decisions without having to involve managers and leaders.

Many enterprise businesses are using agile methodology as a central part of their digital workplace strategy. “In a business world that is shaped by constant disruption, companies need to be able to evolve," Maley said. "Businesses who have rigid organizational models — highly centralized, siloed departments, static managerial hierarchies — inevitably fall behind. They can't adapt quickly enough."

Agile is a governance framework that puts processes and activities at the center of management activity rather than static projects or departments. “You focus on the end-to-end process, identify all the activities that need to make it happen, and all the team members who need to play a part," Maley said. "Then you facilitate information sharing across all those touch points, ensuring that everyone is working to the same objectives and metrics."

It is a stable model but also dynamic, he said. Specific objectives, metrics and team members might change on a case-by-case basis, but the way they change is defined and clearly understood.

James Kies, TEDx speaker and agile consultant, calls them “sideways organizations” and they operate distinctly different from traditional vertical or waterfall hierarchies. "Water doesn’t have anywhere to fall in a sideways organization," he said. "You don't go up or down in a sideways organization so there is no need to build a career on top of others, and no need to make decisions out of being fearful of falling."

Kies said this new way of thinking about hierarchy benefits everyone in the business. “If we would simply play by the same rules on similar fields, sharing similar words, having common goals, honoring the infinite-game rules over the finite-game rules, all playing chess, not checkers, this whole employment thing might just be more fun to watch, score and play,” he said.

“Many companies prefer to celebrate the illusion of progress over progress. Don't manage people. Manage the relationship the business wishes to have with people so that your business would be an amazing place to work, top talent would never leave, and everyone would want to work there.”

Virtual Conferences, Virtual Meetings, Virtual Everything

Virtual meetings, conferences, learning initiatives and consultancies all existed before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the business landscape. But what used to be a nicety or auxiliary method of communication and management is now necessary and normal.

The urgent need to keep businesses open and productive forced leaders to immediately begin to focus on methodologies that would allow work to continue, albeit not in the same way. Minimally used technologies began to take on a new level of importance. We are now living in a world of virtual conferences, webinars, live-streamed concerts, seminars, telemedicine and virtual events. Opportunities that were once limited to business leaders with large budgets opened up to the masses.

“The flexibility introduced with digital communication has been a windfall for employees and customers and that benefit will make these changes stick, even when in-person meetings are an option,” said Orr.

Related Article: What Intranet Practices Tell Us About Building Sustainable Digital Workplaces

Microlearning and Gamification for Continual Learning

Education is a key piece of the digital workplace and emerging approaches to workplace learning are shifting in response.

"Educated customers and employees are more engaged and more likely to become advocates," Orr said. "These new approaches to learning are enabled by the shift to digital and can now be delivered at scale. This a clear game-changer, creating one of the most exciting opportunities for creativity in the workplace today.”

Microlearning is a form of online education that uses small learning units to facilitate employee development. In the compartmentalized, always-on world, microlearning enables individuals to work their way through smaller chunks of knowledge that are more quickly and easily learned and retained. Microlearning courses are suitable for mobile devices and can be completed whenever the user has a few spare minutes.

Gamification uses elements of game design and principles in conjunction with learning technologies. TalentLMS conducted a gamification survey in 2019 that indicated that 88% of employees believe that gamification increases their happiness while working and 83% feel motivated when using gamified training.

Microlearning can be combined with gamification to create learning programs that feature engaging, compelling, bite-sized bits of knowledge that can be delivered via mobile devices. Larger learning programs can be broken down into smaller chunks, converted into gamified learning programs and provided in a format that employees can consume when they have a few spare moments to enhance their ability or learn a new skill.

Data Is the New Currency

With the focus on customer and employee experience came a sudden urgency to be able to collect and unify the data that drives both initiatives. This occurred at the same time that data privacy was taking on a greater level of concern for businesses and consumers.

Omnichannel data collection and analysis meant that businesses must gather data from often-siloed sources. Data collected from email, in-store and online purchases, social media, phone and text messages, apps, surveys, reviews, and interviews carried more value than ever before. The use of Customer Data Platforms (CDP) to unify, analyze and personalize data is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Customers will happily provide their personal and transactional data to a business but only if they feel they get something of value in return. A report from Formation.ai entitled "Brand Loyalty 2020: The Need for Hyper-Individualization" indicated that 81% of 2,000 consumers surveyed said they were willing to provide personal information in exchange for a more personalized experience, provided they agreed to provide the data and the business is transparent about what they are doing with it.

The digital workplace produces an incredible amount of data that can be used for good, Orr said. Examples include creating customer insights, coaching salespeople and enforcing regulatory compliance. But it also raises privacy questions that need to be addressed.

“I prefer to think of data as an asset on the digital balance sheet," Orr said. "It requires investment and upkeep just like the physical plane and depreciates over time. When combined with experience, data becomes the source of long term competitive advantage. Amazon, Netflix, Google are all data companies and recognize that data is also the fuel for smarter AI-driven decision making.”

Related Article: Designing a Digital Workplace for the Long-Haul

Diversity and Inclusion in the Digital Workplace

Although diversity and inclusion efforts have been part of corporate social responsibility for years, there is an enhanced focus in 2020.

The #MeToo movement along with widespread protests by Black Lives Matter brought diversity and inclusion to the attention of the masses. Many business leaders have come to the realization that discrimination isn't just wrong, it's also bad business. Some of the benefits companies get from a culture of diversity and inclusion include increased innovation, resilience, problem-solving, retention, productivity, a higher level of belonging and connectivity, and ultimately, increased ROI.

Neta Meidav, CEO and co-founder of Vault Platform, a London-based mobile app that gives employee a way to report workplace misconduct, said the new digital workplace paradigm includes the use of innovative technology in the fight against discrimination and intolerance.

“There is currently a huge disconnect between what companies say and what is being done with regards to tackling discrimination," Meidav said. "For all the platitudes about driving out discrimination and creating equality, employees still choose not to speak up about misconduct because they fear the repercussions.”  

That ability to speak up should be a fundamental part of organizational values and culture, starting with the onboarding process and continuing with regular reminders that employee concerns will be heard and addressed, she said. Company leaders set the example.

“In the world of diversity and inclusion, it is easy for employees to distinguish between change-makers and window dressers," Meidav said. "With the recent examples of social uprising, companies can no longer just hide behind words. Real action needs to be taken and it needs to be taken today."

Digital Experience Platforms Are Evolving

To help get the message out, many vendors, including SAP, Adobe, Salesforce, Sitecore, Liferay and Progress Sitefinity, are offering all-in-one digital experience software, referred to as digital experience platforms, or DXPs.

A recent Gartner report indicated that a DXP must have the following elements in order to be considered a full-fledged DXP and not just a suite of digital experience tools:

  • Native content management capabilities: textual content, graphics, web content, mobile app content, chatbot content and voice content
  • Native support for rich, extensible, interoperable production/consumption APIs
  • Native support for multichannel presentation and experience delivery
  • Native account service functionality: registration, login and password management/authentication and access control
  • Customer data management capabilities via a customer data platform
  • Customer journey mapping
  • Personalization, analytics and optimization capabilities
  • Practical, applied artificial intelligence

AI is being used to make on-the-fly decisions based on real-time data collected from multiple sources, allowing organizations to better understand when and how to apply their resources to problems and experiences. "In five years, there will be a dramatically widening gap between companies that made AI a core competency and those who are still waiting for the right business case to justify an investment," Orr said.

Another approach to DXPs is the use of hybrid headless Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) platforms such as Sitecore’s Content Hub. These platforms enable content to be deployed on web pages, digital assistants, mobile apps, smartwatches and IoT devices. Although not a part of DXPs yet, this type of digital asset management, used in conjunction with a DXP, allows for greater control of the digital experience.

The new digital workplace is far reaching and includes traditional technologies, agile horizontal hierarchies, virtual communication and collaboration and DXPs, along with an increased focus on diversity and inclusion, microlearning and gamified education, and an emphasis on improving the customer and employee journey.

“It's important to remember with the shift to digital experiences, companies are made up of people and exist to serve people. The best digital technology and even AI helps build connections between those people to build trust and humanize the experience,” Orr said.