The way we work has transformed dramatically in recent decades. The workplace is no longer a physical space, an office, a desk. But even as we continue into this new agile age of work, it’s still not entirely clear: what is a ‘digital workplace’?
For years, analysts and business leaders alike have been anticipating and discussing ‘the future of the digital workplace’ and what that means for how we work.
The term triggers futuristic thoughts of AI bots submitting our expenses or staff walking around in VR headsets, but it’s important to remember that the digital workplace is actually already here. It’s been here for a while. Every business – no matter the size, sector, or technological investments they’ve already made – already operates digitally on some level.
But here’s the problem: the landscape is different for every organization. The digital workplace means something different from one sector to another, from one organization to another, even from one individual employee to another.
New technologies entering the market make for a pace of change that’s hard to keep up with. We have the luxury of choice, we’ve torn down physical limitations 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, we’re still struggling to understand what falls under the umbrella term of, a ‘digital workplace’.
If we don’t know what it looks like, how do we know we’re getting it right? What it should include or achieve? How do we plan for the future?
Building a connected digital workplace
The digital workplace: an evolution by stealth
There’s a rising trend of digital transformation programs – particularly among enterprises looking to bring their technology stack up to par – but for most, the digital workplace has evolved slowly over many years.
New tools, applications and emerging technologies have crept into our working lives, piece by piece. It started with the introduction of email, payroll, CRMs and HR systems; it’s continued right through to 3D printing or the Internet of Things in the office. Our workplaces are now built on a complex foundation of different technologies, all designed to help us work faster, smarter, better.
It’s an invasion by stealth – and for the most part, it’s been unguided, directionless.
That lack of governance, strategy or ownership has created a messy, fragmented and frustrating experience for organizations and employees alike. We now face escalating numbers of applications, tools and platforms, failing to work intuitively together. Hopping from one platform to the next several times every hour, trying to dig out information trapped or lost in this new tech maze. As the BYOD and BYOA culture continues, that’s a sprawl that’s only going to get bigger.
We can no longer afford to be complacent about this continued evolution and its impact. Our digital experiences in work are failing to keep pace with the consumer market: and its coming at a cost. To deliver the user experience expected by our employees and realise the true potential of the digital workplace, we need to go further. It’s time to take hold of the reins, and steer.
Building a connected digital workplace
Digital workplace definitions
Taking control of our digital workplaces first requires understanding what they are. But while it may be the buzzword of the decade, we’re still lacking a single, widely accepted, definition.
The virtual, digital equivalent of the physical workplace.
A quick Google, and we’re presented with numerous options. There are common themes, ideas and concepts: but no-one is in complete agreement.
Given the pace of development when it comes to technology, that’s no surprise. The digital workplace as we know it today is very different from five years ago. It will be unrecognizable in another five, 10, 15.
In fact, Gartner points to a constant, continuing effort, rather than a final state in its definition:
An ongoing, deliberate approach to delivering a more consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working practices.
The key point here is a shift to be something deliberate. We shouldn’t be leaving our digital workplaces to chance, allowing a growing collection of tools to pile up unchecked. To build successful environments, there must be strategy and direction driving it.
We also need to consider what a ‘workplace’ means in an age of flexible and remote working, telecommuting, globalized and dispersed organizations. The physical workplace has very loose boundaries; that translates into the digital aspect too. Every employee working in each of those different environments has different needs, challenges, tools and expectations.
For that reason, I’d argue that Deloitte’s offering doesn’t go far enough:
The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people use to get work done in today’s workplace – both the ones in operation and the ones yet to be implemented. It ranges from your HR applications and core business applications to e-mail, instant messaging and enterprise social media tools and virtual meeting tools.
Now, the digital workplace is more than just a collective noun for the applications, tools, software and platforms in our organizations. It goes beyond the ‘digital’ element alone. To succeed, digital workplaces need an employee-centric approach that considers not only the tools we use, but the people who use them – and how those two elements come together to create successful organizational cultures.
Building a connected digital workplace
A digital workplace definition for our age
A digital workplace definition that meets these expectations and supports this new vision is offered by our own CEO, Simon Dance:
The digital workplace strategically unifies an organization’s employees and the technologies they use in an ecosystem that strives to facilitate agile ways of working, improve employee engagement and deliver an exceptional experience for its users.
When we unpick it, we can see it comprises of three core elements:
People: Our employees, their digital needs and the impact that has on key indicators such as engagement, productivity and innovation – but also the resulting impact on our customers/consumers, suppliers and stakeholders.
Tools: The technologies and applications that make up the ‘digital’ element of how we communicate, collaborate and work day-to-day.
Culture: When these two elements – people, and tools – come together in a strategic and considered way, they collectively shape the employee experience. Aligning this with our business mission, values and overall direction becomes the foundation of our corporate culture and drives employee engagement.
Is the ‘digital workplace’ just a new name for the intranet?
No. The two often get thrown around interchangeably, but they aren’t one and the same.
The intranet has evolved significantly since its inception and is in its own process of digital transformation. I’d argue it definitely has a crucial and central role to place in the successful management of the digital workplace, but it is part of a much wider ecosystem.
Deploying an intranet doesn’t automatically mean you have a successful digital workplace. On the other end of the scale, it’s reasonable to argue that you could build a successful digital workplace without an intranet at all.
But. The key to success, as I see it, lies in connections. Building connections between tools, between people, between the business and its employees. Our current environments are scattered apps and information, dispersed at random. Our people are spread across different locations and timezones. The intranet can connect all those parts from a central point. It becomes a gateway, the go-to digital destination and the centre of the digital workplace.
Defining YOUR digital workplace
With those three critical elements of people, tools and culture in mind, perhaps the most important question we should be asking is, ‘what does a successful digital workplace look like for my business and employees – and how do I achieve it?’
Creating a digital workplace strategy doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. By asking ourselves the right questions and taking stock, we can figure out our own digital transformation objectives. As part of the process, we need to consider:
- Who are our employees and what do they need to do their jobs well?
- What technologies already make up our digital workplace?
- Where are there gaps between employee needs and the tools available?
- Can every employee connect to the information and tools they need, regardless of their device or location?
- Do our employees understand our organization, its direction and purpose, and how they contribute to the achievement of its goals?
- Do our systems integrate or work together effectively?
- Are we leveraging an effective digital workplace platform or intranet solution to give our employees a central access point to our digital workplace?
- How is the employee experience of our current digital workplace?
- What do we envision for the future of our digital workplace?
- How does our digital workplace align with, or contribute to, our organization’s mission, objectives and overall culture?
Understanding our people and picking the right tools for our digital toolbox is just the start. Strategy considers the experience created as a result.
Conscious digital workplaces
There is a huge difference between simply having a collection of tools and technologies, labelling those as our ‘digital workplace’ – and taking a strategic, holistic approach to designing and nurturing an effective digital work experience.
The fact is, the digital workplace is an ongoing process. It has existed, in one guise or another, for decades. It will continue to grow, reshape and redefine itself indefinitely.
We can’t expect the undertake a single digital transformation program – buy some new software, ask our staff what they need – and tick it off the to-do list. We have to keep revisiting. Being flexible enough to respond to this new reality, to embrace and adapt to the new waves of change that will continue to disrupt how we work, is critical.
A digital workplace is a conscious and ongoing commitment. It needs to combine a long-term vision, governing principles, a process of measurement and continual evaluation points. We can’t stop this evolution from continuing: but we can steer and choose its direction to our advantage.