In the run up to last year's Gartner conference focused on the digital workplace, Carol Rozwell, research vice president at the firm, predicted that most companies would fail to adjust to the emerging ways work gets done.

By 2021, she argued, only one-quarter of midsize and large organizations will successfully target new ways of working in 80% of their initiatives. Those new ways of working include distributed decision making, virtual and remote work, and redesigned physical workspaces. 

What a difference a year makes. Few could have foreseen the spread of COVID-19 and the impact it would have on the digital workplace. Now, with millions of workers at home, and the possibility that many of them will be staying there, the pressure to develop new models for work is intense.

Approach Change Holistically

The changes in work practice are profound and the effect will be felt across the enterprise. In fact, that breadth of scope is essential to success. "Digital workplace initiatives cannot be treated exclusively as an IT initiative," Rozwell said. "When initiatives are executed as a series of technology rollouts, employee engagement and addressing the associated cultural change are left behind. Digital workplace success is impossible without such."

Successful digital workplace programs and models are less about technology and more about understanding the effects on employee experience and making necessary changes to the work environment.

How do you build digital workplace strategies that can adapt quickly to change? One thing to examine is how technology facilitates business operations, said Sam Maley, head of growth at Bailey & Associates, an IT consultancy in the UK.

When looking at digital strategy, he said, there are always two factors to consider: the technology deployed and the business processes, and the two are intimately linked. It's no use implementing state-of-the-art technology without concurrent changes to business processes. However, with an ever-growing selection of disruptive technologies to streamline business processes, those who do not take advantage of these technologies will get left behind.

Developing adaptive digital workplace strategies requires that leaders be well-versed in business strategy, knowing where changes need to occur to improve efficiency or gain a competitive edge. They also need insight into the role technology can play, deciding which technologies to implement, what facets of business to focus on and where the return on investment justifies the expense. Software development offers a useful example. Agile approaches allow for rapid deployment of new software and apps and quick pivots through iteration and continuous improvement.

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Set Traditional Structures Aside

The digital workplace also requires an organizational approach different from the traditional managerial structure. In an adaptive digital environment, managerial hierarchies are less rigid, team members have diverse skills and take on more individual responsibility, and communication between teams is greatly increased.

“Whether investing in a shift to this approach is feasible and worthwhile requires an understanding of the costs and return on investment, the organizational practicalities and the technologies involved,” Maley said, adding that any technology investment has two costs: a direct financial cost and an opportunity cost.

"Investment in one area may limit or enhance the capacity to invest in others,” he said.

Good technology investments foster growth, increase revenue and free up employee time, thereby making it easier to adapt to future changes. The more resources at your disposal, the easier it is to shift gears. Bad technology investments do the reverse.

Therefore, it is important to consult CIOs and other executives with expertise in both business strategy and technical knowledge. There is ample evidence this approach leads to better digital strategy as well as overall business performance. Improving communication between those who focus on the strategic and technological elements of business allows for better, more efficient utilization of technology, which in turn fosters adaptation to change.

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Connect with Employees

Given the current circumstances, it has never been more important to reach employees in a mindful and balanced way, said Bill Kirst, senior principal of operations excellence at West Monroe, a consulting firm in Chicago. An intentional change management strategy is the strongest vehicle companies can use to connect with and support employees amidst uncertainty.

Learning Opportunities

“Clients and companies are transforming and embracing speed and nimbleness more than ever before, and this means less reliance on bureaucracy and non-essential activity and faster decision making to generate outcomes,” Kirst said.

This pattern doesn't look likely to change. In the coming months and years, enabling and managing change is going to be a key element of the digital workplace. Seeing organizations operate in a more agile manner with a newfound willingness to change generates excitement and engagement.

“There is no going back," Kirst said. "With this speed and call for innovation there is a renewed focus on cornerstones of learning, communications and leadership engagement.”

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Change Management Hurdles

There are pitfalls in moving towards a new, agile and change-oriented business model. Underinvesting in change management is the biggest and most prevalent mistake businesses make, Kirst said. Changing behavior is not as simple as giving people a new technology. They must be trained and empowered with a growth mindset to change the way they do their jobs.

Adoption is also key to seeing value from change and that is dependent upon having a people-first strategy and plan to manage the individuals’ experience through the change. Employees want a say in that experience, so now is the time to co-create with them and be as transparent as possible with listening and feedback tools.

The switch to digital interaction and engagement means remote-based learning methods have been widely adopted to enable workforces with the technology they now need. Companies are using short videos to supplement email communication for higher engagement and leaders seem more open to what employees are experiencing and feeling, Kirst said.

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Embrace an Agile Mindset

We are now in the future of work, with technology set to continue shaping the way we adapt and transform, said Iain Scholnick, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Braidio, a workplace productivity platform. Digital transformation has accelerated and will continue to play a huge role in the years to come, meaning the most adaptive, not necessarily the smartest, will survive.

Business leaders should embrace an agile, rather than fixed, mindset to create the right environment for innovation and transformation. Know-it-alls are more apt to stick to the status quo, leading to stale business plans and sub-par results.

"The more you explore the unknown, ask questions and learn, the more doors you'll unlock," Scholnick said. "Even if new ideas and ways of thinking result in dead-ends or bring you back to square one, pushing the boundaries of what is known is where the greatest breakthroughs are born."