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The digital workplace defined (2022 update)

Man at desk in headset.

The digital workplace defined (2022 update)

‘Digital workplace’ (DW) is the concept that there is a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace, and that this needs to be planned and managed coherently because it is fundamental to people’s productivity, engagement, and working health.

This article is an update to my first post on this back in 2014/15. Although some elements of the technology have moved on, the concept itself remains as relevant as ever.

At its heart the digital workplace is about:

  • Putting people first — the impact on employees is what makes the digital workplace important.
  • A technology layer — advances in technology are driving changes in the digital workplace, and this is what makes it a current issue.
  • Management and design — proactively developing a digital workplace means addressing it as a whole and co-ordinating between technology, process, and people aspects.

Dimensions of a digital workplace

Over the years, my company has developed a digital workplace framework that we’ve refined and tested with over ninety client projects. It uses the metaphor of town planning because, like a town, digital workplaces cannot assume a clean sheet; instead they must work with things that are inherited and evolve as opportunities arise. Getting it right requires a combination of facilities and day-to-day running.

The digital workplace as a city, showing five services and five management activities.

The digital workplace provides an organisation with services or capabilities across five main dimensions (see blue boxes in the figure above):

  1. Communication and employee engagement
  2. Collaboration
  3. Finding and sharing of information and knowledge
  4. Business applications (process specific tools such as CRM, ERP and CAD tools, plus employee self-service)
  5. Agile working – the ability to be productive any time and place.

To work well, these need the be supported by five management activities (the green boxes of the figure):

  1. Strategic planning
  2. Governance and operational management
  3. Proactive support for adoption
  4. High quality user experience
  5. Robust, secure and flexible technology.

This is deliberately a non-prescriptive model. It doesn’t say you have to have a social intranet, Yammer, chatbots, or any other specific technologies. An organisation will need to decide how important each service is according to its needs, and what technology is used to deliver each service will vary over time.

Digital workplace and employee experience

When I wrote the first article defining the digital workplace, the main confusions were between digital workplaces, intranets, and enterprise social networks.

Now, the hype cycle has moved on and the rising term is ‘employee experience’ or DEX (digital employee experience). I see these as complementary concepts to DW.

Employee experience is strongly influenced by an HR perspective – much of what matters to employees is affected by employment contracts, line management, and workplace culture. Only a subset is influenced by the digital environment. However, that digital component is important – just as a shabby office detracts from staff morale, so a shabby digital experience sends out a message that “my employer doesn’t care”.

However, we shouldn’t conflate DEX with digital workplace. The experience is an important outcome of the DW design, but things like productivity, security, and continuity are also important elements of a DW but may be neutral in terms of the employee experience.

Digital workplaces evolve

Reflecting on how attention has shifted over the years, there’s naturally been a change in the underpinning technology.

Office 365 has become ever-more dominant, with many companies mistakenly calling their O365 rollout a ‘digital workplace programme’. Although Microsoft’s service offers many of the technical elements, a digital workplace is not something you can buy. Reducing it to a software rollout does a disservice to the concept, because it brushes aside the five management dimensions that need to go with it. Arguably, O365 is weak on the ‘Business Applications’ dimension too, so a focus on O365 tends to ignore all the work that happens in SAP, design tools, Oracle, case management tools, lab notebooks and so on.

More aligned to the spirit of DW are technologies that help to create a more integrated experience – the ‘glue’ for your digital workplace. Microservices, for example protect users from much of the back-end complexity. Chatbots too, done right can help fuse together isolated DW services. Search is finally getting more attention, and no doubt Microsoft’s democratisation of AI in initiatives like Project Cortex will have an impact.

Also notable has been the huge rise in how digitally-enabled frontline workers have become. This often goes uncelebrated, but in many organisations I work with it is common for all field workers to have iPads, for factory workers to bring their own devices (particularly outside the USA), and for retail environments to hook workers into dedicated employee apps and social networks.

Hub, hive, and hangout graphic visualisation.

And we can’t talk aboout the digital workplace without mentioning working from home and hybrid working patterns. The reliance on Zoom, Slack, and MS Teams has changed the world of work for many, but not all. Access to the intranet, via VPN or the cloud, could be considered essential now, but it’s collaborating with team mates in shared document spaces with chat and video meetings that has enabled more people to adopt the digital mindset. Many a wag on Twitter has joked that COVID-19 drove digital transformation more than the CIO!

As flexible working policies and people’s preferences evolve, considering home life and work life, keep in mind the hub, hives, and hangouts model. Not everyone makes use of the digital workplace in the same ways; it has to cater to a diverse workforce.

All of this opens up new possibilities for digitally engaging with the whole workforce rather than just the office-worker segment. This isn’t just about giving them information, but the potential to create feedback loops. For example, engineers get insights from seeing how products thrive or fail two years down the line rather than when they are shiny and new from the factory. It also makes for potentially rewarding work all-round, as knowledge and enthusiasm can be contributed from any corner of a business.

Digital workplace drivers

Changes in our consumer lives has been a significant driver in helping organisations visualise what a better DW might look like, and in turn raising employee expectations of what ‘good looks like’. But going further, a common theme in the most successful digital workplaces I’ve experienced is that there is a direct focus on the quality of the employee experience as the outcome that matters to leaders, much as companies now focus directly on customer experience as a priority.

The best companies are making improvements not to cut costs or boost productivity but because they want to be an attractive employer and a good place to work. This is what they measure over and above ROI (and in fact, savings and productivity often happen as a result of this anyhow).

The next frontier for DW success will be getting digital literacy higher up the agenda. Consider my 2022 ‘state of the intranet industry‘ conclusions. We need to stop talking about ‘change management’ and ‘adoption’ as steps in a project, and think about how we equip and educate our people as citizens of our digital workplaces.

A version of this article originally appeared on 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.

1 Comment
  • Posted at 1:29 pm, 29 March, 2020

    Sam, thanks a lot for the updated article. Yes, I guess in times like this, a digital workplace is more important than ever before. We’ll soon see a rise of remote work, distributed teams and everything in between.

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