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New technologies are entering the market at a pace that is hard to keep up with. There are a number of choices when it comes to software now that the physical limitations of applications has just about disappeared thanks to cloud-based technologies, and a growing workforce of digital natives is bringing a whole different set of expectations and needs to the table. It’s no surprise then, that despite extensive debate, many enterprises are struggling to understand what falls under the umbrella of a digital workplace.

Defining the Digital Workplace

For Jeremy Rose of Certa Hosting, a service that explores the possibilities of web hosting, technology and management, the term digital workplace refers to the ever-growing market that has sprung up across the web that allow people to work and meet through their computers. Digital workplaces in a sense aren't workplaces at all.

That said, is the so-called digital workplace a place in a physical sense at all? “I don't think so, at least not always. Just like we can work from our bed or lunch table, so can people work from benches in the park or cafes. When seeing things from that perspective the "place" in digital workplace slowly loses its meaning,” he said.

The question remains then, how do you organize an effective workforce that is working in a non-place or that are always in a shifting or moving state? For the most part, some centralization is required, as well as some physical presence so that the virtual links in the workforce can strengthen themselves against the strongest test — genuine human interaction.

Organizations should invest and push their employees not to shun the traditional and physical workplace as fast as they seem to be doing. Rather it's best they complement each other, making everyone better off and more productive.

The digital workplace, including advancements in video and audio technologies, are bringing us closer to enabling a remote work environment that truly simulates actually being face-to-face in the office. This is a game changer for how companies think about where to find talent, how their employees work together and how quickly they can solve problems or innovate. Emerging technologies like spatial hi-def audio, 4K video and integrated whiteboard collaboration give everyone the same experience no matter where they are located.

And although the workplace is shifting to a mostly digital landscape, there are still non-digital elements, such as the traditional physical whiteboard, that we can bridge into the digital space and don't have to leave behind.

Related Article: 8 Augmented Reality Companies Changing the Digital Workplace 

Digital Workplace Confusion

It is this widening net of digital workplaces that is causing confusion, said Brian Byer, vice president and general manager of Blue Fountain Media. The definition of the physical workplace continues to expand, he said, and therein lies the real challenge of defining a future digital workspace. “Some employees will be working remotely from home; others, who are on the go, will work from myriad mobile platforms; a few will be bringing their own devices on temporary assignments, while still others will maintain a traditional managed desktop from a corner office,” he added.

What’s more important than what defines the perimeters of this new digital work space is the investments a business makes in ensuring the employee experience, the user experience (UX) essentially, is a consistent and unified one across all touchpoints. That unifying element is where the investment needs to be made. Everything from business logistics to maintaining company culture depends on that.

One area where there is great promise for seamlessly enabling this unification is in the growing use of employee virtual assistants, he said. These assistants can bear much of the administrative work and shoulder the learning curves involved in onboarding employees to a new unifying system, allowing employees to focus on their areas of expertise and spend less time learning the nuts-and-bolts of the digital workspace integration of their particular work situation and platform.

Digital Workplace Upheaval

Research from DXC Technology points to a major upheaval in the workplace and how it is viewed by both employers and employees. Entitled Redefine Your Digital Workplace as an Innovation Center, it too argues that workplaces can no longer be defined exclusively by physical location, but will serve both individual and collaborative purposes, as the ability to share context and perspective and manage personalized experiences will create a unique ability to drive productivity and innovation at every level. There are a number of trends that are driving this:

  • Mobile Technologies - Technologies which have catalyzed the development of the gig economy, are redefining what constitutes a job, who is an employee, and how work gets done. Employees can be productive anytime, anywhere, and, to an increasing degree, when they choose. In the gig model, one person is no longer constrained to one role — an employee can be involved in activities that span many roles; much of the work that gets done is accomplished by teams who switch roles and tasks seamlessly.
  • Intuitive Collaboration - Intuitive collaboration happens more intuitively and digitally across corporate, physical and geographical boundaries. As workers exercise more independence and pick jobs they're truly interested in, businesses can focus resources and investments and gain the flexibility to contract with specialists as needed.
  • Unfettered Collaboration - Innovation is no longer confined to a department, center of excellence, or lab. Rather, innovation is widespread, with everyone in the workplace empowered to participate, given the right technologies and policies.

To make the most of these trends, IT organizations should align technology with a rich user experience, which, when done right, will convert a huge base to true believers. The key is to harness employee enthusiasm for emerging digital technologies and to use it as a competitive advantage. Some key areas the report advises enterprises should invest in is:

  • The Workforce - Capitalizing on automation, intelligence and integration to optimize business flows and processes will become fundamental to IT operations. Automation in particular — software agents, bots and intelligent machines — will make tasks easier and will augment human employees.
  • Project Management - Digital tools will enable project managers and stakeholders to leverage information to better manage the individual and the team, optimizing for performance and cost.
  • Employee-Driven Innovation - Organizations must become better at matching the pace of change, using techniques such as employee-driven innovation to quickly identify new workplace trends and opportunities.
  • Connection and Collaboration - Organizations must continue to develop policies that give workers flexibility in the devices they choose to use as how people connect and collaborate is changing. Companies need to foster collaboration on, and set policies for, social media in the enterprise.

Related Article: How Artificial Intelligence Will Impact the Future of Work

The Problem With Digital Savvy

Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America, notes that increasingly, one of the biggest challenges in the digital workplace is that employees are, generally, increasingly digitally savvy people, meaning the way they work, approach communications, the immediacy of task completion and the way they operate is completely different than in years past.

One of the sub-challenges to this is that employees are often left feeling a sense of burnout. Digital workplace managers must work to create more of a culture leading to decompression. Beginning this journey starts with helping employees do things like try to disconnect from phone and email while attending in-person meetings and helping them take more time to look at the big picture, instead of immediately jumping into short-term actions.

Technology may help employees move quickly on their responsibilities, but there is inherent value in ensuring employees understand how their actions fit into the larger whole. Additionally, while the digital age encroaches on both work and personal life, it's a good idea for leaders to consider incorporating more workplace flexibility for their employees. This allows people to work when it best suits their schedules or work from wherever they want to make life easier.