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As companies and their employees try to return to “normal” nearly two years after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it's become clear that they're chasing a mirage. Our work mode has evolved on many fronts, and we will never go back to how things were before. Work-from-home has grown in popularity and with it, the amount of online meetings — already high before the pandemic — have also steeply increased.

Many of us have a workplace setup when working from home that is on par with what we had in the office: wireless high-speed internet, large monitors, hifi speakers and microphones, and sometimes even influencer-grade lighting. In addition to the physical setup, a plethora of available software products can help us stay connected to everything we need to get work done and accomplish our goals.

The totality of the software infrastructure enabling employees to be productive from anywhere, also known as the digital workplace, has been around for years prior to COVID-19. However, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to its prevalence. The digital workplace has kept companies and the economy alive, and its merits will remain and even further grow after the pandemic is long gone.

What Constitutes a Digital Workplace?

According to a recent Reveal survey of over 2,000 people in the IT space, more than half of respondents said their company is planning to incorporate a digital workplace platform this year.

But what constitutes the digital workplace? Aside from hardware like computers, monitors and peripherals, it’s mainly the software and the interconnectedness of various applications. Different job functions use their own specific sets of software tools, but other applications provide more generally needed capabilities, such as:

  • Communication: Synchronous and asynchronous ways to converse with others in a written form or via audio or video.
  • Collaboration: Being able to share files and work together on creating results.
  • Task and Project Management: Organizing work, tracking progress, and keeping others in the know about status and attainment.
  • Asset Management: Organizing and making discoverable files hosting the data and information that individuals, teams and organizations need for their work.
  • Data Analytics: Creating insights from data, and disseminating information through concise and attractive data visualization.

There’s a vast ecosystem of tools that afford these capabilities. They can be categorized into two buckets:

Specialized Solutions

These applications focus on one thing and do that one thing very well. This may be task management, data visualization, asset management or communication. These tools oftentimes evolve from domain specialists identifying an unmet user need or a shortcoming in existing software for which they ideate a better solution and then productize it as its own tool. Because of the specialization, any of these tools provide their users with everything they need regarding that particular feature set. However, as described above, the digital workplace affords not just one but several abilities to its users. Hence, one specialized solution in isolation would severely limit work productivity. Software vendors offering specialized solutions therefore follow two approaches to mitigate this challenge:

  • They extend the functionality of their products through integrations and APIs to other tools providing other capabilities.
  • They add more features to their tool with the goal of covering more and more functionality over time.

Platforms

These programs combine several, if not all, of the above listed capabilities of the digital workplace into one application. Clearly it takes a lot more effort to provide a fully effective and efficient platform to the marketplace than supplying a specialized solution. More domain knowledge is needed, the number of features is higher, the software architecture, information architecture and program logic are more complex. A platform may be the end goal of specialized solutions that, due to limited resources, start small and intend to grow larger.

Related Article: Great Design Drives the Digital Employee Experience

Why a Platform-Based Approach to the Digital Workplace Makes Sense

Respondents to the Reveal survey mentioned above showed a clear preference for the platform approach. According to them, their companies are cutting down on the number of digital workplace tools in use and striving to provide one platform that offers all needed features within. Here are five reasons why it makes sense to streamline the digital workplace and to reduce the number of individual tools that employees utilize in favor of a single platform:

1. Higher Usability, Productivity and Employee Satisfaction

Each tool comes with its own design language and conceptual model, which requires training and familiarization for employees to become proficient in its use. Learning and understanding things like the layout, navigation, interaction design, captions, or iconography takes time and effort. The learning curve for a single platform is significantly steeper than for multiple separate tools.

A single platform also avoids app switching. Changing tools during the completion of a workflow requires users to adopt to and re-focus on different contexts. In a study from Qatalog and Cornell University, participants spent on average 36 minutes a day switching back and forth between tools. Each time they switch, it takes them about 10 minutes to get back into a good flow.

The same study investigated another negative impact of working with multiple applications: the diffusion of information. Almost 70% of participants stated that finding information across tools is time-consuming. On average, they spend close to 60 minutes per day looking for the right information.

Integrations and APIs help limit app switching, yet when connections between tools are set up it requires another round of training and familiarization. Moreover, integrations and APIs typically slow down applications noticeably, thus decreasing user productivity and satisfaction.

Related Article: Can Deep Work and the Digital Workplace Coexist?

2. Lower Change Management Effort

The digital workplace provides value as employees adopt, get proficient, and use the infrastructure. However, employees typically don’t like to learn new tools. It’s a well-known phenomenon that any change is met with an initial resistance and denial.

Change management as a function is tasked with engaging the workforce before, during and after a change that affects an organization. The goal is to take employees in the same boat, ensuring a smooth adoption, and upholding productivity as well as morale and satisfaction. A critical part of this, is employee training for new tools. The effort of both providing and receiving training is significantly lower for one platform with one design system and one conceptual model than for several tools that each have their own distinct way of operating.

3. Lower Cybersecurity Efforts

More and more software — including digital workplaces — are provided as a service (SaaS). With that, the vendors assume more responsibility for cyber security. Companies that intend to acquire SaaS solutions have policies and processes in place to review and approve vendors for adherence to the company’s cyber security standards. According to a 2019 McKinsey survey, this is mostly done through questionnaires. Going through that process, typically checking off items one by one from a list of requirements, costs time and realistically involves a back and forth between the cyber security team and the tool vendor. In McKinsey’s survey, respondents describe the process as overly time consuming. Gauging vendors’ security levels is not a one-time exercise, either, but must be repeated at certain time intervals. The number of individual tools that the digital workplace is composed of makes a big difference in the effort for gaining and maintaining security approvals by the internal cyber security team. A platform is a clear advantage here.

4. Lower Acquisition Effort

Procurement and subscription management of one tool is faster and cheaper than managing several separate tools. Consider the typical process through which a new tool is being acquired. On a high level, this includes researching tools that fulfill a list of requirements, signing up for free trials to verify their match to the requirements, and down-selecting to a low number of tools to negotiate cost and terms. On the buyer’s side this oftentimes involves a dedicated procurement department. Even if we disregard the steps to set up the acquired solution, this acquisition process is faster and cheaper when carried out for one platform instead of several individual tools.

Once the software has been acquired and is in use, continued access needs to be ensured. Managing several subscriptions with their own individual timelines and terms requires more effort than managing a single platform license.

5. Lower Effort in User Management

As CareerBuilder reports, younger generations remain in a role for a much shorter period than older generations. By providing the infrastructure to make work more flexible, the digital workplace is contributing to this trend. Aside from this, employees are still being involuntarily released from their jobs, and a growing proportion of citizens in the Western world reaches retirement age and quits working altogether. As employees leave or others join a company, administrators need to manage their subscriptions. It’s a considerable difference in effort to do this for one tool versus several tools. This is especially true for larger companies with higher absolute numbers of turnover and with central functions (oftentimes IT) that need to register all changes in the employee pool requiring subscriptions.

Related Article: The Myth of the Digital Workplace Hub

The Digital Workplace Is Here to Stay

The digital workplace helped us throughout the pandemic and is here to stay. According to data from Accenture, almost two out of three high-growth companies have already adopted a “productivity anywhere” workforce model. These companies are now striving to streamline their digital toolboxes towards a single platform. Learning from this, the remaining third of the companies can now opt to acquire a platform from the beginning. Whether you and your company are in the two thirds or one third category, the digital workplace is not set in stone. For it to continuously help companies and their employees to thrive, it will further evolve.