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12+1 Strategies to realise the value of your digital workplace

It does not matter if they are pushing for the return to the office, compromising on hybrid models or (re)forming for a fully distributed workforce: the digital workplace is at the heart of today’s organisations.

However, despite all the investment, most organisations are not satisfied with their current digital workplace.

At Social Now 2024 (Lisbon, 16 & 17 May) we will go through how to optimise digital platforms and the digital experience to finally realise the value of the digital workplace, improving internal communication, collaboration and organisational learning.

Until then, let’s look at what a digital workplace is; why digital workplaces are failing to fulfil their promise; and the big opportunities ahead.

Digital workplace: what it is and what it should be

Our work habits and practices have gradually been shifting, pushed by contextual demands and enabled by the appearance of versatile and powerful digital tools. Today, any conversation about the workplace has to consider the digital component as it is key in today’s organisations.

What is a digital workplace?

Our new friend (or foe) ChatGPT defines digital workplace as the “virtual equivalent of the physical workplace, leveraging digital technology to create a more flexible, engaging, and productive work environment (…) regardless of location”.

This very much aligns with my view of a digital workplace as the ecosystem of digital technologies which come together for people to securely work from anywhere:

  • being productive;
  • remaining engaged and informed;
  • communicating and collaborating;
  • accessing and sharing knowledge;
  • learning;
  • innovating;
  • performing administrative tasks; and,
  • accessing personal management and benefits.

What technologies comprise the digital workplace?

Productivity tools, intranets, whiteboarding applications, direct messaging apps… Pinpointing the most accurate terminology for digital technologies in the digital workplace is increasingly challenging. The difficulty arises both from the market’s constant introduction of new buzzwords to carve new markets (remember the terms “enterprise 2.0” or “enterprise social networks”?) and from the evolutionary nature of these tools, which often expand their functionalities to address a broader range of use cases. In fact, this underscores the importance of comprehend where each tool excels and has been at the heart of Social Now since it started in 2012.

The best approach is than to look at it from the perspective of the use cases the digital workplace should respond to.

What are the most common use cases for the digital workplace?

Team Collaboration & Communication

  • Team / project alignment
  • Communicating and collaborating synchronously – moments when “being together” is key:
    • for important messages which need to be conveyed simultaneously to many;
    • for making important decisions with too many arguments to consider, where consequences are high, or when heavy debate is expected;
    • for strengthening the bond between people or injecting a dose of high-energy
  • Real-time co-editing of documents (with version control)
  • Working asynchronously – allowing time to reflect and contribute with purpose and relevance; favouring quality over immediacy; Working In the Narrative (WINning) using micro-narratives
  • Brainstorming, in real time or not

Knowledge Management & Learning

  • Sharing and searching documents – having single copies, properly classified with clever metadata, and robust permission settings
  • Community building and networking – enabling people to find each other based on shared interests or practices, giving them space to interact, discuss and learn together
  • Sharing knowledge – allowing people to ask for help, ask questions, respond to colleagues, volunteer knowledge, information or resources believed to be of interest to others (now or in the future)
  • Learning, formally – through access to resources for self-paced learning, registering to training – or informally – by having access to colleagues and resources (as per the some of the use cases above)

Operational Efficiency & Corporate Engagement

  • Communicating to the whole organisation – making sure all staff stays informed about corporate life, obligations and rights, and engaged and aligned with the organisation, its strategy and values
  • Crowdsourcing and crowdsensing – offering ways to canvas employees for ideas to address known challenges, for perspectives which highlight opportunities and risks, and to be the eyes and the ears of the organisation – inside and outside
  • Leading and inspiring – creating space for leaders to strengthen their leadership and for others to emerge as leaders; for leaders to inspire and become closer to their teams
  • Finding and contacting colleagues, based on role, team, geography, etc.
  • Executing business functions, e.g. CRM, ERP, HR
  • Accessing corporate information and resources – offering a single point of entry to all policies, templates, guidelines, corporate information, contacts
  • Communicating or informing employees around formal / contractual matters (one of the few use cases where email can still play a role).

In addition to all these use cases, the organisation needs to ensure that the digital workplace:

  • is secure, controlling access to internal resources, protecting data integrity and safeguarding personal data – inside and outside;
  • offers a good user experience from desktop and mobile devices, inside and outside the organisation’s walls;
  • is equipped with analytics to help monitor and improve the efficiency of workflows and productivity.

To summarise

  • Digital workplace is the ecosystem of combined digital technologies which allow people to securely work from anywhere
  • It should support team collaboration & communication, knowledge management & learning, and operational efficiency & corporate engagement
  • It should be secure, offer a good user experience, and have data analytics.

The promise vs. reality of the digital workplace

A great digital workplace ensures:

  • productivity and efficiency;
  • effective communication and engagement – with and among all employees;
  • smooth collaboration – intra and cross-teams;
  • continuous organisational learning; and,
  • safeguard of contractual obligations and rights.
Adriana Jacinto
Adriana Jacinto will show how to understand people, to then design targeted interventions which nudge them towards the use of digital platforms

Despite these promises, a gap exists.

For a few years, organisations have been investing in the creation of digital workplaces – frequently without a clear strategy, even more frequently experiencing many drawbacks.

Too many tools, separate and unintegrated, represent:

  • no focus point, making it hard to communicate, lead and engage effectively, above the deafening and distracting cacophony;
  • poor user experience, with people unsure of which tools to use for what and how to properly use them;
  • inefficiencies due to interrupted workflows time spent looking for answers;
  • avoidable mistakes due to spread, duplicated, erroneous, unstructured and “privately-shared” information, and inability to leverage the whole;
  • additional pressure on internal teams, having to validate, support and oversee the functioning and security of the varied array of tools;
  • exaggerated storage and licensing costs.

In addition to these issues arising from the plethora of tools, many organisations are not yet fulfilling the digital workplace promise because of a combination of these:

  • unsuitable combination of tools;
  • lack of knowledge and guidance on how to use their existing tools to maximum effect;
  • poor governance;
  • lack of leadership; and,
  • inadequate work practices.

Coming from different angles and driven by varying motives, organisational areas are now challenging the digital workplace, keen to improve it and see it fulfil its promise.

Boards and IT want more value for their bucks, i.e. reduce costs and/or have more people taking advantage of the available technologies.

Internal communications needs to cut through the noise of too many channels, to find better ways of communicating to the whole organisation, keeping all staff informed and engaged.

There is an aspiration to improve digital dexterity and leverage digital technologies to create and satiate the appetite for continuous development.

Most covet the promised land of generative artificial intelligence (genAI) but the “house” is not ready for it and there is a real danger of “garbage in, garbage out”.

Leaders want to remain relevant, stay close, and keep oversight of progress, risks and opportunities – even when leading distributed teams.

To summarise

  • The digital workplace comes with high promises but organisations are not realising its full value
  • Too many tools create confusion and dilute the value
  • There is a lack of strategy and of a coordinated action plan to drive adoption of the digital workplace
  • Different organisational areas are now demanding to see the digital workplace deliver on its promise

Bridging the Gap

Throwing technology at things, on its own, is never the answer. Here are some strategies to overcome the drawbacks identified above, and create a digital workplace which is used widely and effectively.

1. Understand the main use cases

Many factors contribute to the priority and importance of use cases for the digital workplace. Type of work, workers’ profiles, work arrangements, size of the organisation, number of physical locations, etc.

Identify the use cases which are important to the organisation and order them by priority. Please consider as many user personas as you can; specially do not forget about the very specific requirements of frontline workers.

Suzie Robinson
At Social Now 2024, Suzie Robinson will show how to make sense of your digital workplace landscape

2. Review the existing digital toolkit

Use the identified use cases to review the current set of digital tools. Which use cases are not covered? Are there multiple tools for the same use case? What tools are in the market to meet existing gaps while integrating with our existing tools as much as possible?

Do not underestimate the time required to force technology to do what it was not designed to do. Equally, do not underestimate the effort required to get people to embrace tools with bad usability and user experience.

3. Rethink work processes and practices

To take full advantage of the digital workplace, organisations cannot make the mistake we frequently see in so-called digital transformation programmes, i.e. they cannot simply use digital technologies to replicate the current analog processes and practices.

Do you really need to email the board a PDF of your project initiation document to get their approval as a positive reply to your email? Could this not be a shared wiki page that also aggregates all comments, the whole thinking process and decisions made towards the final, approved version?

Do you really need to run weekly meetings for project updates? Could these updates not be easily tracked in a status page within your digital collaboration space?

In your onboarding programme, why do you have to limit buddies to those in the same location as your new hires? Could they be in other geographies, thus contributing to breaking silos and giving employees a sense of opportunity?

Take time to understand the tools, and think openly of how to leverage the tools to respond to the prioritised use cases. Question and be critical of the current ways of working: they were defined when the organisation had a very different set of tools and worked in a very different global context of work.

4. Design for and embrace asynchronous work

Sumeet Gaythry Moghe advocates for a way of work which privileges asynchronous practices: an async-first approach. It may not be an option for all, but it is certainly a possibility for many.

There is a huge opportunity to reflect on how asynchronous practices can be adopted to allow for true flexibility of work-time, to accommodate personal preferences, to give time to properly ponder and gather information before voicing opinions or reaching decisions.

I guess we can say “async-first, so that you can think first”.

Sumeet's Mural template
A Mural template to help teams define a more asynchronous way of working. This template is part of Sumeet’s async-first starter kit

5. Review required set of competences, skills and experiences

With the rise of generative AI, there has been a lot of debate around the skills of the future. Organisations are missing the same level of reflection and debate when it comes to the skills required for more flexible work arrangements and for workplaces predominantly digital.

Being able to communicate clearly, having good understanding skills, being comfortable with time lapses between action and reaction, being self-driven, having digital dexterity. These are some of the key skills and competences for workers in this new reality, and what organisations need to recruit and secure.

Revise your organisation’s personal development plans, and adjust your focus when recruiting.

6. Humanise the (digital) workplace

In theory, the digital workplace and more flexible work arrangements enable people to work according to their preferences and personal circumstances. At the end of the day, everyone gains when people are allowed to “show up as their full & fabulous selves”.

However, if not careful, the digital workplace can also create gaps and dehumanise the workplace, discriminating and missing out on the benefits of diversity.

7. Define policies and governance models

As with many things, it is important to have policies and governance in place. Everyone needs to know what is expected of them in this context of work.

Is an intranet news item to be taken more serious than a post on the internal social platform? Does a direct message on the digital platform demand a more urgent response than an email? Who can create team spaces in the digital collaboration platform? When can digital work spaces be private? How is content maintained to ensure validity and relevance?

Carefully define policies and governance models which align and reinforce organisational values while contributing to an effective and safe digital workplace.

After defining these policies and governance models, make them known and accessible to all.

8. Encourage definition of team agreements

Organisations should create and support digital technologies, define global policies and governance models, and recommend good work practices supported by the digital workplace. However, each team will have its specificities and needs.

It is important for teams to agree on how to work, fulfilling their role, meeting their objectives, staying engaged, and respecting each other’s preferences and circumstances.

Andrew Pope, for instance, recommends teams to create their own team charter as a tool for all members to focus on the core, agreed ways of work, including rituals, common tools and consistent practices.

Andrew Pope's team charter
Andrew Pope recommends teams to co-create a team charter

9. Change the narrative

Too many meetings are not a synonym of one’s importance; the quantity of emails is not a reflex of how much and well one works; a 2-hour wait before a response does not mean the colleague was lazying; someone who shares resources widely with colleagues isn’t necessarily a showoff.

There are many narratives born in old times which inconsistent with the digital workplace. These need to be replaced with new narratives.

One way to do it is by highlighting the behaviors and practices of key leaders; another is giving voice to employees who can either share their own examples or help surface the elements of the desired narrative.

Andrew Pope
Andrew Pope keynote at Social Now 2024 will be about redefining the role of digital leaders

10. (Up)Skill leaders

Many of today’s leaders are actually just managers: guided by traditional management and work practices. They are:

  • fighting to keep the status quo for fear of losing the leverage they acquired through traditional practices;
  • excited for the opportunity to get their teams to new heights;
  • unsure of how to behave and lead their people in the current context;
  • lacking the skills and experience to adopt and exploit the digital toolkit and practices; or,
  • a combination of some, or all, of the above.

Look at your organisation’s managers and leaders; select a few – because of the critical nature of their teams or because of their enthusiasm and openness to change; and take them by the hand. Show them the ropes, show them how they can use the tools to ascertain their knowledge and tap into the wisdom of the crowd to achieve their KPIs.

11. Implement an adoption plan

Many of the tools in the digital workplace kit have been around for a while; and most people will say they know how to use them. The truth is:

Jaap Linssen
At Social Now 2024, Jaap Linssen will do a practical session on how to effectively communicate change

Make sure to create and implement an adoption plan which considers communication, training and engagement activities.

  • Communication may include:
    • campaigns to offer guidance for a new practice the organisation is keen to adopt;
    • activities which push employees to either experience or adopt new behaviours (e.g. a campaign about sustainability may run on the enterprise social platform, tapping the wisdom of the crowd for ideas on how to reduce waste in the company’s factories).
  • Training may have to be classroom-based for some audiences but, by and large, it may also include:
    • webinars;
    • step-by-step, bite sized tutorials (video or infographics, for instance); or,
    • train the trainer.
  • Engagement can be driven by the above but also:
    • by supporting ambassadors to spread the word and bring back the feedback with which to continue improving the programme;
    • by creating communities focused on the tools or work practices;
    • through gamification; etc.
Using Copilot in Microsoft Forms, by OrangeTrail
Bite-sized tutorials can be pushed through corporate platforms to help employees explore available to the maximum. This example is an animated image created by OrangeTrail

12. Review the appraisal system

In many organisations, good performance is still perceived as having a direct link with the number of hours worked, with being seen or being the first one to respond. That way of assessing people’s performance is not compatible with flexible work arrangements. Besides, many of the benefits of the digital workplace will not be reaped in that scenario.

Good performance should be linked to the quality of the work produced, meeting of deadlines, helping colleagues, contributing to the collective pool of organisational knowledge and living the corporate values (when they don’t contradict the former items on this list).

Look at your organisation’s appraisal system and challenge it. Does it accommodate the scenario of distributed and asynchronous work? Does it reward the quality of the deliverable over the time sent producing it?

+1. Measure and improve

Finally, as with all change processes, identify relevant indicators (both of activity and impact), measure them regularly and analyse them. Use the positive results to communicate the benefits of the digital workplace; use all results for validation and continuous improvement.

These 12+1 activities are varied and touch different organisational areas – internal communications, human resources, knowledge management, etc. Engage them all as early as possible, making it clear that the digital workplace will serve them but will also require their support and active participation.

To summarise

  • Organisations need to be strategic and purposeful in their efforts to increase and improve adoption of the digital workplace
  • These efforts will tap into different aspects – technology, leadership, appraisal, skills, communication, knowledge management, learning  
  • Different organisational areas should be engaged in these efforts as the success of the digital workplace will also benefit them