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Digital workplace challenges for 2019

Three peaks and a person in golden light.

Digital workplace challenges for 2019

Heading into 2019, I see three core challenges that are common to many digital workplaces. These are:

  1. Centralised notifications
  2. True enterprise findability
  3. Engaging frontline workers.

In essence they all reflect a growing awareness that employee experience is both intrinsically important and a key to productivity. However, addressing them involves more than one system and typically more than one function in an organisation too. That’s why they tend to be fragmented and hard to rectify.

1. Centralised notifications

Our smartphones do a good job of aggregating alerts from multiple systems and letting us know what’s going on. My lock screen is able to pull together notices from my bank, the BBC, LinkedIn, Teams, Strava, SMS, Facebook and more. But in the workplace, notifications are often spread across individual systems, such as Office 365, SAP, Workday, Concur, and Salesforce.

The result is that we rely heavily on email as the ‘notification centre’. Digital workplace managers often lament that people still see their inbox as the start point for their day, but partly this is because most digital workplaces reinforce that as the place where important things happen.

For example, at a recent Office 365 conference, I saw Microsoft demonstrate some of the great things you can do with Flow to automate processes. It is impressive but invariably there was a step that went “…and then it generates an email for someone to approve”. Really? Must we still use emails as a clunky way to complete transactions? Consider Google Authenticator, for example; when a site needs to validate my credentials, I don’t get a link in Gmail, I get a notification with an ‘Approve’ button, and the whole job is done.

2. True enterprise findability

We all have expectations driven by Google that one search interface should lead us straight to an answer. In the enterprise this is rarely the case.

Information sources are often split over multiple systems and not indexed in a single place. Even if the search box says “Search everything”, that’s false advertising: it usually only searches ‘everything’ on an intranet. Results for things like customer conversations are often omitted because they are on a separate CRM. Huge investments in training materials get overlooked because they sit on a Learning and Development system procured in isolation by HR.

Search matters, but it is only one step in finding things – browsing, trust in results, and the way content is written all matter too (see my diagnostic tool). Even the search element itself is more than a technology problem, as Martin White recently articulated so well.

Also like Google, search should provide answers not links.  Search is usually an interim step towards an end goal, so when we search for ‘book leave’ the result shouldn’t be to a page about booking leave it should be an interface to the absence application.  

3. Engaging frontline workers

Over the last 3 to 4 years there’s been a quiet revolution that has had relatively little attention: frontline workers have been digitally equipped. For example, most companies I speak to have given sales people iPads or put tablets in the backroom of every store. They have opened up apps to factory floor workers though BYOD policies and given engineers smartphones.

Engaging with frontline workers is the ultimate silo to bridge. Not just through task-specific  apps, but though continuity of processes such as knowledge sharing and ideation (Virgin Trains is a great example). Many frontline workers that I speak to say they hear a great deal about their local environment but are often isolated from the ‘bigger picture’ that should be available to everyone.

The impact

The impact of all of this is that we impose unnecessary cognitive load on employees. Not only is this de-motivating, but decision-making capacity is finite. In effect we drain people’s ability to do important tasks by making routine tasks too hard.

On point 1 – centralised notifications, if it takes energy to track what’s going on, we increase the chance that we miss something. This degrades efficiency because processes get stuck (I’m sure we’ve all had that heart-sink job of sending yet another email to ‘chase’ a pending approval). Secondly, we can’t dial-down distractions. Every interruption costs us about 15 minutes of productivity but we can’t go 100% dark in most jobs. What we need is the ability to remain contactable for only things above a certain threshold of urgency.

Poor findability also increases risk. For example, a decision may be made on outdated data, or a costly mistake repeated due to a lack of awareness that there was a precedent.

Finally, frontline workers are the people who often spend most time understanding our customers. They may also be the ones who see how products perform in the real world, not fresh from the factory but after two years of usage. These insights are invaluable, but only if we engage with them and channel them into product development, service design, and business strategy.

Hope for 2019

Although these are big challenges to solve, I’m encouraged that in the last year I’ve heard about many more organisations treat employee experience as a strategic priority. Not a means to some other end, like cutting costs or customer retention, but something that should be an objective in itself. They understand that being attractive as an employer is a competitive advantage, and that an enjoyable digital workplace matters every bit as much – sometimes more so – as a pleasant office environment.

Let’s hope then, that 2019 is the year when many organisations tackle these challenges head-on.

This article first appeared at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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