close-up of jigsaw puzzle  pieces
PHOTO: Ben Stern

Ask a number of experts to define the elements of a robust digital workplace and you'll receive a variety of answers. The reason is simple: there is no single master plan for what an ideal digital workplace looks like. Instead, every organization's digital workplace aims to apply technology in a way so that individual tools integrate and improve the overall productivity and communication strategies of their specific workforce.

“The must-have element of an effective digital workplace is integration: Integration of business data and applications, communications, content and search tools into a frictionless user experience that makes it easy to collaborate, find and share information, and work whenever and wherever,” explained Caterina Betancourt, senior vice president and head of internal digital content and engagement strategy at Citizens Bank in Dedham, Mass.

“There are debates around the difference between the digital workplace and digital employee experience, and while they are different, they cannot be decoupled. The employee experience drives the degree of success a digital workplace can achieve. If done well, the technology essentially becomes invisible,” Betancourt said.

Organizations Pay Lip Service to Strategy

Organizations pay lip service to fostering a digital workplace, in part because they are unclear on what it really means.

“I believe most organizations fall into the ‘Advanced Intranet’ category,” said Mike Moore, a platform manager at Mercer. Moore’s responsibilities as manager of Mercer’s intranet include running the product management program for the current platform, managing product backlog and roadmap, developing solutions with stakeholders, research and analytics, and interfacing with Mercer’s technology partners. 

Related Article: The Digital Workplace Defined

Best Practices for Implementing a Digital Workplace

Despite the lack of a single, common “blueprint” for the digital workplace, best practices have emerged for implementing one. They basically boil down to helping an organization understand how to identify areas of opportunity where business processes can be improved.

“I would classify the digital workplace into three major categories,” said Andrew Hewitt, digital workspace analyst at Forrester Research:

  • The software tools that employees need to get important work done.
  • The hardware that delivers that software (e.g. PCs, mobile devices, etc.).
  • The immediate environment that impacts employee's ability to succeed (think: conference rooms, dedicated work room while working at home, etc.).

“So, to me, digital workplace is a combination of how you deliver on those three things: software, hardware and environment. Without those three elements, employees will struggle to make progress in their daily work, which is the number one driver of employee engagement,” Hewitt said.

Software comprises many different elements, of course, but Hewitt said the following are "must-haves": 

  • Collaboration tools.
  • Productivity apps (Word, PPT, etc.).
  • Purpose-specific apps (finance apps, for example).
  • Access apps (authentication).
Related Article: Defining the Digital Workplace: Core Elements and Capabilities

Key Technologies for a Successful Digital Workplace Experience

A variety of other specific technologies focus on the optimization or the improvement of the overall technology experience.

“That includes things like EX management platforms, which can help employers listen to what employees might need. It also includes end user experience management (EUEM) tools, which can proactively predict degradations in tech experience,” Hewitt explained. 

Tools to consider include:

  • Messaging: Email, instant messaging, micro blogging and mobile messaging.
  • Collaboration: Team rooms, communities and web conferencing.
  • Communication: Intranet and portals, blogs.
  • Connectivity: Employee directories, organization charts and rich profiles.
  • Crowd sourcing: Polling, surveys and forums.
  • Business applications: HR systems, ERP and CRM systems.
  • Productivity: Spreadsheet software and presentation software.
  • Mobility: Mobile or smart phones, remote scanners and laptops.

Hewitt noted the increased importance of replicating in person collaboration in the digital world as more people work from home. “Digital whiteboarding tools, though not strictly necessary, are a nice to have, as are virtual worlds, such as vendors like Sococco and VirBela,” Hewitt said. 

Related Article: What Do Employees Need in a Digital Workplace?

Have Change Management and Adoption Strategies in Place

So how does an organization provide its employees with the best possible digital workplace?

“Launching or ramping up a digital workplace environment is a significant change management initiative that requires commitment and support from across the organization, not only the IT department,” said Betancourt. “The technology is an enabler, not a solution in and of itself, so it’s critical to be able to demonstrate the value of these tools with quick wins.”

Adoption strategies that involve internal champions and influencers falls just behind in importance, Betancourt continued. These influencers can translate the benefits of the new tools through relevant use cases and plain language to their peers. 

Finally, “having the right level of executive sponsorship is the quickest way to achieve success.  So much of the digital workplace is collaborative and social — but unless sharing information and participating in online discussions is seen as a legitimate business activity, companies will struggle to establish a competitive advantage from their investment. This is particularly the case for organizations whose culture tends to be more risk averse or conservative,” Betancourt said.

Involve Employees in Determining Needed Elements

Organizations conducting assessments of their digital workplace environment need to start with the employees themselves.

“Understanding what employees need from their workplace tools starts with seeing what they are doing today,” explained Ted Shadler, vice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research. “The cloud hosting of many services makes that easier than ever. This is simply a starting point, however, to know what the need, what the gaps are, and what the opportunities for improvement are.”

The best approach is to ask employees how it's going and what they need, Shadler said.

“Apply the same principles and tools of customer experience to understand employee experience: surveys, focus groups, qualitative interviews, and so on,” Shadler suggested. “CIOs often struggle to have permission to ask employees, so we recommend that they work with their HR colleagues to build a program of investigation to understand employee experience and the role of the tools within that. Surveys are the gold standard for detailed information; interviews are the gold standard for picking up emotional realities and considerations.”