two elevators going up
While the digital workplace's purpose isn't solely to support remote work, it has opened the door for more flexible working policies PHOTO: Aditya Chinchure on unsplash

Remote work is on the rise. Earlier this year, Gallup released its latest State of the American Workplace report, which found 43 percent of workers now work outside of the office at least part of the time. 

As interest in and ability to work remotely increases, businesses struggle with how to offer the flexibility employees expect while maintaining productivity and quality levels. The rise of the digital workplace has in part been in response to this trend. 

While the technology side of the digital workplace gets the lion's share of attention, digital workplaces are more about strategy than technology, a strategy that aligns with the more "traditional," physical workplace. 

Digital Workplace Facilitates Company Culture

“From my point of view, a digital workplace is a virtual environment that facilitates not only work, but company culture. This sits on top of the actual physical environment, which for businesses like ours, are in homes, hotels and coffee shops around the world,” said Jase Rodley, principal at Otium Boutique, an internet marketing agency for boutique hotels based in the principality of Andorra in Europe. “Having both worked with and managed remote teams over the past five years, getting the work done rarely seems to be the problem. Instead, problems are often getting work done on time, to the desired quality, in a way that allows team members to have a healthy work/life balance that enables them to be happy rather than burning out and quitting nine months in."

To develop the right company culture, Rodley said regular communication is key. The digital workplace should provide visibility into the work everyone is doing, so the team can see other people's contributions. A clear understanding of the purpose of any work assigned also helps to keep remote employees on track, and part of the broader organization. 

Rodley also stressed the need for a "water cooler" culture for remote workers, which helps team building, communication and social interaction between employees who can live thousands of miles apart.

Vision Before Technology

Peter Hirst is associate dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education, one of the business schools that make up the wider Cambridge, Mass.-based MIT.

He believes the digitization of the workplace is challenging businesses across the country to adapt quickly to meet the needs of their talent and customers. While a simple approach to digital transformation may involve updating current business technology to the latest and greatest, Hirst warned business leaders will quickly find this an unsustainable practice in the long run.

“Digital transformation is posing a direct threat to traditional business models and companies that take risks and adapt their businesses to the capabilities of these technologies, such as social media, mobile applications, analytics, the cloud and IoT, are the ones succeeding in attracting and keeping talent and customers,” he said.

MIT is currently conducting experiments on how to integrate avatars and AI into classrooms. But Hirst suggested businesses who rush to adopt new technology without a clear strategy in place will have difficulties maintaining momentum. Scaling becomes an issue as employers integrate avatars, robots and other AI advances. 

“Many leaders must adapt their skills to integrate the technologies instead of keeping up with the latest technology. It's not about the product, it's about the vision,” Hirst said.

Bob Clary is director of Marketing at DevelopIntelligence, a software development learning and training company based in Boulder, Colo. He too emphasized how digital workplaces support remote work.

He describes a digital workplace as a place where there truly is no difference between office and remote work. Employees can work where they want, how they want, without being tethered to a desk. The primary obstacle to building them is you must have buy-in across the organization to make them work, which isn’t as easy as it may seem.

Digital Workplace Hearkens Back to Intranet Heyday

Nigel Davies is founder of Brighton, England-based intranet software vendor Claromentis. He compared the problems the digital workplace now faces with the problems around the intranet in the 1990s.

“The digital workplace is to businesses now what the intranet was back in the '90s,” he told CMSWire. “At a basic level, it ensures technology doesn’t become fragmented by creating a single access point for apps used across the business, and it makes internal communications — between teams and hierarchies — very easy. “

He pointed out that while the core offering is still intranet-like in that it is permissioned and web based, technology has significantly evolved to support new needs as business demands have changed.

The demand right now, he said, is for tools that automate business critical processes that are hard to maintain at scale: communication, collaboration, innovation, key procedures, compliance, training, engagement, values and culture.

With teams more dispersed, whether separated by remote working practices, or oceans, businesses expect digital workplaces to have project management at their heart. Workflows, permissions, critical procedures, version control and information management are all considered a central part of the offering.

“Fortunately, we’re at a point where there’s almost no limit on what can be built, other than imagination. This can create a problem — unless the system is governed properly,” Davies said.

Clear the Way for Communication and Collaboration

Sean Winter, vice president of solutions strategy at Jive Software, an Aurea company, noted digital workplaces should empower employees to communicate and collaborate even as companies, industries and employees change. Organizations must develop a strategy that evolves with these changes so that people can connect, and easily find and share information and expertise.

Digital transformation initiatives often deliver more technologies than ever for communicating and collaborating. But while those tools are making some tasks easier, they can make your digital workplace as a whole more complicated. Clearing the road for employees to collaborate and communicate — whether collocated or remote — therefore becomes the task of those supervising the digital workplace software.