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In a hybrid work world, a fully functioning digital workplace with seamless technology and processes can be the ultimate tool to keep employees engaged and connected. However, finding the right balance between end-user freedom and guidelines is critical, according to Alfredo Ramirez, CEO of Vyopta, an analytics firm in Austin, Texas.

Enter governance. Yes, the very sexy topic of rules and regulations.

Explaining the rules and identifying digital workplace boundaries aren’t likely the most inspiring subjects for most employees, but governance is critical to a successful digital workplace and by extension to the realities of hybrid work, where some employees are in the office and others working remotely.

“As many organizations enter the hybrid workplace and also continue working remotely with a heavier reliance on collaboration platforms, it’s more important than ever to ensure that settings for access, file sharing and channel creation are appropriately tailored for each industry, each company and each user,” said John Peluso, chief product officer at SaaS software vendor AvePoint.

What Is Digital Workplace Governance?

So what is governance as it relates to the digital workplace? Governance is a framework to enable delivery that is aligned with business value, regulations, standards, culture and best practices, according to Susan Cummings, senior vice president and manager of digital workplace product management at Northern Trust.

“The framework supports appropriate consistency in user experience and cadence of implementation,” Cummings said. “It should be designed to empower teams and not constrain or impede teams.”

A framework of governance for the new digital workplace is composed of rules, systems and processes that include security, communication, technology and compliance, according to Ramirez. This, he added, includes:

  • Securing employees' electronic and physical space
  • Communication, content and knowledge sharing
  • Customer and partner engagement
  • Technology, automation and intelligence
  • Information security compliance and government regulations

“Digital workplace governance is the system of controls and decision making that relates to the array of digital workplace tools that form the employee's digital experience,” said Steve Bynghall and Chris Tubb, partners at Spark Trajectory, who caught up for a joint interview. “Governance should apply throughout a product's lifecycle from selection, through launch and adoption all the way to decommissioning.”

For example, a Microsoft Teams space is a digital workplace. That workplace has owners, typically the user that created the digital workplace, and they are given a lot of power in the platform, Peluso said.

“The purpose of a governance program would be to ensure those workplaces memberships, sharing permissions, file sensitivity, lifecycle and other components are managed according to company policy,” he said.

Related Article: Is a Single Source of Data the Way Forward for Data Governance?

Why Is Governance Important in the Digital Workplace?

As important as "what" is in digital workplace governance, the "why" is just as important. To Mike Safar, product marketing manager for information governance at OpenText, it's to help users effectively store, manage and retrieve information and data at scale.

For example, Safar cited the decision to keep or delete email, to back up a hard drive or choose a format for a final document — whether that’s Microsoft Word or a PDF. Those are governance decisions that impact the dynamics of the digital workplace, even if they seem like small decisions in the moment.

“When governance decisions are left to individual users, mistakes and inconsistency will result,” he said. “Without a defensible governance program, the organization can experience adverse effects like productivity loss, lost IP, and can even damage a company’s reputation and bottom line."

Exponential increases in information mean manual enforcement is not practical, Safar said. Active management of all aspects of governance, including classification, security and final disposition, enables organizations to reap the benefits of an effective digital workplace.

Governance enables teams with diverse sets of deliverables to more efficiently address critical factors impacting outcomes, delivery cadence and user experience, according to Cummings.

“When governance is lacking, inconsistencies and negative surprises can interrupt or reverse progress toward digital workplace goals,” she said.

Governance Is Equivalent to Management

Without governance, specific outcomes are left to fate, according to Tubb and Bynghall. This leads, they said, to a variety of inevitable and entirely predictable pathologies:

  • Overlapping tools
  • Wasteful procurement
  • Fragmented user experience
  • Poor information management
  • Lack of findability

They said the lack of strong, clear governance directives boils down to three key problems for employees:

  • Confusion: People don’t know what to use when.
  • Atomization: Team and individual choices unintentionally cause breaks within the organization. One group spends all their time in Jira, another in Teams, another in Confluence.
  • Defaults: They fall back on the lowest common denominator and use email, an attachment, spreadsheets, or a phone call.

So how can you convince employees governance will heal those workplace wounds? Ramirez said it's crucial to guide and empower enterprise employees and demonstrate how governance allows them to perform work flexibly and safely, collaboratively drive agility and innovation, and operate efficiently and securely with less cost.

It also helps the company adhere to laws and compliance regulations and increase business opportunities, he added.

Related Article: How Digital Workplace Governance Supports Agility

Who Should Own Digital Workplace Governance?

Technology groups are typically accountable from a product and engineering perspective for the digital workplace. Therefore, it makes sense for technology to manage the governance initiative, Cummings said. But that doesn't mean others aren't involved.

“There is a roundtable of key decision makers — product, engineering, design, security, risk, compliance, data protection, communications — each of which must be aligned to a deliverable for the initiative to succeed,” she said.

Digital workplace governance currently tends to fall on IT functions, according to Tubb and Bynghall. This is not in itself a bad thing, they said, but without sufficient attention on user needs and organizational value, this can tend to be reduced to only the things that IT cares about.

“Strong lines of communication with other stakeholders groups such as communications, real estate, HR and business operations is a critical success factor,” Tubb and Bynghall said.

For IT to be successful managing a digital workplace governance program, it needs to create a uniform digital user experience for the business to operate, according to Ramirez. The role of IT is to make sure these actions are controlled and adhere to laws, compliance and security.

“Ideally, governance programs should involve stakeholders from many disciplines within the organization and be led by governance professionals with experience in records administration, law, regulatory compliance, internal processes and information technology,” Safar said. “It is also important to have an engaged executive sponsor on board to help ensure success.”

Digital Workplace Governance Key Principles 

There are a few important components that make up a good governance program, whether it is focused on a digital workplace or any other type of IT asset, according to Peluso:

Data Ownership and Affiliation

For example, the ability to map different collaboration spaces to the people that are responsible for them and the audience they serve is key. Understanding who is collaborating and why goes a long way to understand how that collaboration should be governed, according to Peluso.

“Having accurate and updated information for who owns specific collaboration work streams also means you know who to approach with questions, issues or concerns,” he said.

Classification and Reporting Across Collaboration Spaces

Building on the data ownership component, gathering and updating details like the purpose, business context and sensitivity of that collaboration gives you an even clearer lens into how it needs to be managed. Who is best to supply and update this information? Ask your data owners, Peluso said.

Automated Processes, Policy Enforcement

You will be left flat-footed if you take a reactive, “check the reports” approach to governance and compliance in a system such as Microsoft 365 or Slack, Peluso said. Providing easy, self-service options to your users with automated policy enforcement on the back end is the key to staying on top of it all.

What Do You Want Out of Your Digital Workplace?

Organizations need some way of describing what outcomes they want from a tool or a range of digital workplace experiences. Tubb and Bynghall break this down into three parts:

  • Understand what users need to do. Using user research to create artifacts that describe user needs and group characteristics such as user stories, user journeys, personas and other audience definitions.
  • Document how they can do it with the tools offered. Describing the toolset using product descriptions and use cases, product support matrices and development roadmaps.
  • Advise how to do what they need to do safely and wisely. Provide unambiguous "enabling constraints" for tool usage such as usage policy, guidance, support, training and demand policy, rooted in strategy, managed with clear ownership and supported by measurement and improvement plans. Each part of governance is what Tubb and Bynghall call a "control" — a process, a register, a standard or a stakeholder body.

“It is essential that practitioners don't regard the digital workplace as being ‘done’ now that they've got Microsoft 365,” Tubb and Bynghall said. “We are part of a living and evolving marketplace of technology that will bring useful innovations to us at an increasing rate. We need to craft governance programs that are able to listen to business managers and employees and match up new products to new opportunities.”

Consider a Governance Checklist

According to Peluso, a simple digital workplace governance checklist would look like this:

  • Can users easily access the asset they need?
  • Is the concept of ownership established and maintained?
  • Is there an automated enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance to policies during the lifetime of that asset?
  • Do we have regular recertification points with owners to ensure that assets are still needed?
  • When that asset needs to be retired, is there a mechanism to do so appropriately?

“The best governance programs provide self-service to users for them to access resources quickly when they need them but guide them with ‘guardrails’ during the requesting process to ensure compliance,” Peluso said.

“Enforcement should be automated, otherwise it will be a burden on the IT team, and you will see ‘configuration drift’ over time.”