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The nature of work is slowly but steadily changing. Traditional corporate tools, such as intranets, HR and finance systems, are being joined by new collaboration and social tools. These are bringing new capabilities and opportunities into organisations, allowing staff to connect and coordinate more effectively.
Consumer technology is also evolving rapidly, transforming almost every aspect of daily life. It is now common for people’s personal tools, such as mobile phones and tablets, to be more advanced and better connected that their work equivalents.
This is putting pressure on organisations to catch up with consumer technologies, and to enable more flexible ways of working.
Alongside these technology changes, demographic changes are slowly having an effect. Teleworking and flexible hours are becoming increasingly common, as is a blurring between work and home time.
All of this is captured by the concept of the ‘digital workplace’, which encompasses the broader electronic working environment for staff, outlining how the pieces all fit together.
For many, this is an exciting time, ushering in a new generation of corporate tools and behaviours, for the benefit of both organisations and staff.
These changes are not simple, however, are careful thinking is required to ensure they are more than just another fad or phase.
As a foundation for strategic planning, this article outlines six keys to the new digital workplace.
The digital workplace is the future of work
What is the digital workplace?
Staff in all organisations need easy access to the tools and information they require for their jobs. They must keep up to date with the changes that impact their job.
Most of all, they need to work with other staff, whether as part of a closely knit team, or via loose connections across the organisations.
Historically, most of these needs were met by the corporate intranet, and this remains as the single point of entry for corporate systems and content.
Major changes are unfolding in organisations, however, that are reshaping how staff work. These include:
- Staff who are increasingly away from their desks, but still need to be connected and productive.
- Shifts away from command-and-control business models, to more flexible and collaborative ways of working.
- Increasing competitive pressures that demand streamlined and simplified business processes.
- Greater requirements for knowledge and information sharing across organisational silos.
As a result of these changes, the intranet becomes just one digital tool used by staff. In this expanded ‘digital workplace’, staff use multiple access points, including via mobiles, tablets and desktop applications.
Social and collaborative tools also form part of the mix, as do seamlessly integrated business tools and systems.
The result is a productive business environment that takes full advantages of new technologies and working practices.
What does the digital workplace look like?
The definition of the digital workplace in the previous section was deliberately loose, and it encompasses many possible approaches.
This is reflected in the diversity of ideas outlined by some of the thought leaders in the digital workplace, including Jane McConnell, Paul Miller and Stephan Schillerwein.
To provide a concrete vision of one possible future, we have published a free report, A week in the digital workplace.
This takes a storytelling approach to the digital workplace, outlining a concrete vision of how it can all work, using scenarios and mock screenshots.
Six keys to the digital workplace
As part of this report, six foundational elements (keys) are outlined for the digital workplace:
These provide a framework for ensuring that the vision for the digital workplace is achieved, and that the potential benefits are actually delivered.
The following sections provide more detail on each of the elements.
There must be only one staff profile in the digital workplace
As the richness of tools and interactions grows in the digital workplace, the focus shifts from tools and content to people.
The foundation for this is a single, cohesive identity for each staff member. As outlined in the article There must be only one staff profile in the digital workplace, the requirement is to establish a single staff profile that brings everything together in the one spot.
This includes details such as:
- basic contact details (name, email, phone number)
- HR information (job title, business area)
- skills and experience
- connections with other staff
- membership of groups and communities
- activities (comments, blog posts, status updates)
At a minimum, this single staff identity ensures that people know who is commenting, uploading documents, or participating in groups.
The identity must also cross between tools and systems, to allow staff to be productive across all platforms.
More fundamentally, having a single coherent identity is a prerequisite for building personal reputation and trust, which underpins all activities in the digital workplace.
Staff must be able to see what is happening
One of the goals of the digital workplace is to bridge or break down silos within organisations.
To achieve this, a variety of social and collaborative tools are often deployed, including:
- team-based collaboration
- communities of practices
- forums and blogs
- instant messaging
- presence awareness
To be effective, staff must have visibility of what is happening in these social and collaborative spaces. At a basic level, this means being able to track conversations they are involved in, updates to topics they are interested in, and new messages from people they follow.
If silos are to be broken down, awareness needs to be broader than this. It must give a sense of what is happening across the organisation, as well as providing the opportunity to discover the unexpected.
A variety of approaches have already been taken to build this awareness, including ‘activity streams’, push notification and email updates.
As the volume of interaction grows, however, the challenge is to avoid overwhelming staff with ‘noise’, in the form of irrelevant or unwanted messages.
A balance will need to be found between broad awareness, and the ability to filter or narrow down conversations.
Trust is a prerequisite for collaboration
The digital workplace supports, and is the result of, an open and collaborative culture.
Mutual trust underpins this type of culture, across three specific aspects.
Firstly, staff must trust in the systems being deployed. Changing communication and work behaviour takes time, and will only occur when staff have confidence that the new tools will work better than their current practices. They must also see a long-term future for the new tools, before they will give up their existing systems.
There must be mutual trust between staff. Staff must feel a sense of shared community, and have confidence that it is safe to share their thoughts and opinions. Senior managers play an important role in demonstrating the behaviours that build this trust, although it must ultimately become part of the underlying business culture.
Finally, senior management must trust staff, to act in a way that is appropriate and effective. There must be confidence that codes of conduct will be followed, and that uses of new social and collaborative tools won’t breach business or legal rules.
Staff must be able to access corporate tools and information wherever they are, whenever they need it.
Staff in operational and frontline environments have always worked away from the office environment, and increasingly, office staff also need to access business systems when they are away from their desks.
The digital workplace must provide universal access, across multiple devices. Most obviously, this means providing access to enterprise tools on mobile devices, such as phones and tablets.
With a growing number of organisations supporting a policy of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD), this means providing access from personal devices, not just business-provided devices.
The digital workplace should also be seamlessly incorporated into desktop tools, such as email, CRM and operational systems.
This allows staff in areas such as call centres to access business-critical social and collaborative tools, even when working in dedicated operational systems.
The digital workplace should be simple and elegant
Simplicity, efficiency and elegance are the hallmarks of a great digital workplace.
As the power and capabilities of the digital workplace grows, so does the potential for complexity. By default, more tools and features means more interfaces and options, making it harder for staff to work out what to use and when.
Time and time again, organisations have seen new systems fail, not due to their lack of functionality, but because of their poor design. This makes ease of use an important prerequisite for adoption.
The design of the digital workplace needs to be considered at many levels:
- Overall design thinking, providing an encompassing vision for how the new tools will work together in a way that makes sense for staff.
- Strong user research, to uncover what staff need, and how best to design for them.
- Usability and information architecture techniques, to deliver easy to use interfaces and well-structured information.
- Involvement of staff throughout the design and deployment of new tools, including conducting task-based testing.
The long-term goal is to reduce complexity for staff, by providing a single seamless environment where they can access all the tools and information needed.
Much has been made of the goals of improving knowledge sharing, connecting people to people, and breaking down silos.
While these are all laudable objectives, they aren’t directly tied to business outcomes. If the digital workplace is to see long-term and sustained success, it must deliver concrete business benefits.
Thankfully there are many opportunities to deliver improvements within modern organisations, many of them relating to frontline and operational needs.
Potential benefits include:
- improving customer service
- increasing customer satisfaction
- increasing cross-selling of products
- reducing time to market for new products
- supporting innovation
- reducing costs
- streamlining business processes
- reducing mistakes
- increasing business agility
- improving staff productivity
In many cases, delivering these types of benefits is a question of focusing tools and projects on concrete business problems. By targeting efforts and ensuring adoption, the digital workplace can deliver benefits across the organisation, at both large and small scales.
Early pilots should concentrate on showing early gains, providing a foundation for further rollout and adoption.
Putting in place the six keys
The digital workplace is still very young as a concept, and it is evolving rapidly. Many organisations are establishing pilots, encouraging organic growth and ongoing experimentation.
While these flexible approaches to delivering the digital workplace are to be encouraged, they must be supported by a strong underlying framework.
This framework, as described by the six keys in this article, ensures that new tools work well for staff and the organisation as a whole. They also support further growth, with the confidence that strong foundations are in place.