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PHOTO: Clint Patterson

Integration defines the shift to the digital workplace.

Yes, integration means technical integration between the digital tools used in the everyday course of business. But integration isn’t only a technical consideration, especially when looking at the rapid changes happening to the digital workplace.

To thrive as you further digitize your workplace — whether by choice or due to reasons beyond your control —  it’s important to understand three complementary aspects of integration: technical integration between tools, collaborative integration between teams and cultural integration between organizations.

Integration Between Tools

Business professionals use a variety of tools throughout their work day. Depending on your role, you may use a CRM, an ERP, analytics tools, reporting tools, email, productivity tools, and a virtually unending list of tools that are specialized to your type of business.

Our burgeoning work from home reality has left many hopping around between browser tabs to get work done. This inter-product experience can be smooth and seamless, despite the use of multiple tools, or it can be maddening. Where the experience lands on that spectrum will largely determine if your work from home reality is a successful one.

Inter-product experiences are built on software integration. Tools that integrate the right data in the right places and contextualize it to the user in the right ways build inter-product experiences that delight the user — and make them better at their jobs.

This integration happens at a number of different levels (and they aren’t all technical):

  • Data integration between APIs (e.g. syncing a customer record from a CRM to support to helpdesk software)
  • User interface integration (e.g. embedding your customer reviews application into the back end of your ecommerce product’s UI)
  • Workflow integration (the combination of the first two allow you to integrate workflows across two or more different tools, often while incorporating automation into those workflows)

When assembling different software products, consider how or if you are creating inter-product experiences that make your team effective.

When do you go with singular-vendor platform approaches, a la Microsoft or Salesforce? When do you target individual best of breed solutions, integrated using tools like Zapier or Workato? Are there areas of the business where one or both of these approaches is more appropriate?

These may seem like esoteric, philosophical decisions, but they will manifest as day-to-day experiences for your teams. The more smooth and frictionless those experiences are, the better your teams (and your company) ultimately are.

Related Article: The Myth of the Digital Workplace Hub

Integration Between Teams

Integrating teams is no new concept. Cross-functional collaboration has long been the standard for the most successful organizations. But  team integration as a concept is changing fast as a result of the increasingly digitized workplace and accelerated by the massive increase in work from home this year.

Many businesses no longer have the advantage of physical proximity to stoke the fires of teamwork. You can’t just sit the developers with the designers or the accounts receivable clerks with the sales people anymore. That means we must rely far more heavily on our collaboration tooling and its integration to other systems to blend the organization’s talents.

Look no further than the seemingly overnight adoption of Slack or Microsoft Teams as the jumping off point for working professionals. These tools have become the water cooler, the boardroom, the cube farm, and the all-hands meeting all wrapped up in one.

Again, the adoption of such tools is a technical thing, but it’s more than just that. These tools represent a new version of the “always on” workplace that asks all employees to start collaborating using a fundamentally different medium than they may be comfortable with. (Not all of us grew up in AOL chat rooms.)

In a pure digital workplace, you don’t have many analog levers to pull to improve collaboration. Much of the onus falls on software to provide collaborative experiences that enable …

  • Team members to see and work on the same document/presentation/artifact/whatever at the same time ...
  • While simultaneously communicating about it using voice, video and/or messaging ...
  • While also keeping record of decisions made, open questions to be answered, and action items to be assigned ...
  • While also enabling the interpersonal connections between team members that ultimately define the organization’s culture.

Companies have invested considerable amounts of money into sexy office spaces with perks like free gourmet lunches and work-sponsored yoga, huddle rooms, meeting rooms and spacious open-air work areas. The “cool office space” has become a bit of a Silicon Valley trope.

On the flip side, companies also tend to underinvest in the administrative experiences — the timesheets and HR processes and project reporting experiences. When these were just a small digital annoyance in an employee’s day, this was tolerable. But don't apply this technology philosophy to an entire digital day.

Business leaders, focused on building and sustaining culture, now need to apply the “sexy office space” philosophy to investing in the digital work experience. The digital workplace has become the new office for most employees — perhaps permanently.

Related Article: Give Collaboration Sticking Power

Integration Between Companies

Businesses are rarely verticalized silos with everything employees need right there, with the company logo stamped upon it. Companies today collaborate more than ever with professionals who work for other companies.

Outsourced HR is on the rise. Outsourced graphic design services are on the rise. Outsourced software development services are on the rise, especially with high-growth technology trends.

This means employees spend just as much time outside the organization as the sales and customer service people do. The customers you recruit, the partnerships you form, and the vendors to which you outsource are all now important factors defining your employees’ experience working at your company.

Workflows and collaboration cannot stop at organizational boundaries. The SaaS-ification of business software has made this easier, by allowing safe collaboration points between users of different accounts or even “external users” of a single account. (Think shared Slack channels or “my accountant” logins to Quickbooks.)

Technology is certainly an enabler here, but it’s also critical for company leaders to understand that their own management philosophy isn't the only thing that will define the work experience. Finding great customers, partners and vendors and then providing the infrastructure for your team to work together effectively with them is an absolute requirement.

And, this is all happening when your workforce is staying at home more, relying on digital tools more, and dealing with challenges not typically experienced by the average working professional.

Related Article: Easing the Way to External Collaboration

More Than Just Digital

The digital workplace is about more than just digital technologies. Yes, those tools are critical, but they aren’t everything.

Businesses that understand the importance of integration between those tools are going to thrive. Those that understand how to use those tools to more effectively integrate teams within your organization and externally will be even better off.

The digital workplace isn’t just “doing digital things at work.” It’s also a rethinking of just how we do those things.