popped water balloon
PHOTO: Holger Link

The digital workplace has evolved more rapidly in the past four months than it has in the past few years.

As IT functions and digital workplace teams scrambled to scale up remote working to levels previously only dreamt of, they faced some steep learning curves along the way. But now that the dust has started to settle, we can also say that things went more smoothly than might have been expected.

The general consensus is that businesses have been "really supportive,” providing help where needed, and employees have been "patient" and "adaptable." Collaboration tools have allowed teams to come together and employees to stay in touch. None of this is to underplay the challenges or the ongoing consequences of the dire economic climate.

The pandemic has challenged expectations about people's ability to work remotely and confounded expectations about people's ability to change. This raises interesting questions about existing digital literacy initiatives, digital workplace adoption efforts and digital workplace tool launches. The rapid roll-out and scale-up succeeded, in spite of potentially having less support in place, which raises questions such as:

  • Is a more rapid roll-out actually less effort than a phased launch in the long run?
  • Do people actually need so much hand holding when starting to use digital workplace tools?
  • Is it better to give people choice in the tools they use or just make them use one standard tool?
  • Should we do more to "force" the use of tools on people?
  • What happens now for my digital literacy initiative?

I'm not sure there are any easy answers, but it will be interesting to see whether practices change in the coming months. Whatever happens, it seems unlikely we will return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

6 Pandemic-Inspired Digital Workplace Observations 

1. This is more about hearts and ears than it is about minds

Digital literacy is based on an assumption that people do not have the basic skills and training needed to use collaboration tools properly. While a common observation, it's always struck me as paradoxical: so people can't get their heads around online collaboration but can do immensely complicated things on Excel?

If you can do pivot tables, I reckon you can use Microsoft Teams. This is because often "digital literacy" is more about getting the attention of employees, driving buy-in and demonstrating value rather than delivering the "how to" aspect. I think this is absolutely shown by the successful adoption of new collaboration tools in recent months. Training efforts need to assume people are capable of using the tools, and instead focus on raising awareness and demonstrating value.

Related Article: How to Start Improving Digital Literacy in Your Workplace

2. We should challenge the laggards and doubters

For years the evolution of the digital workplace has been held back by lazy and misinformed views about remote working, about management through "presence" and about the ability for people to change. When these views prevail across a layer of management it is very difficult to drive the effective use of digital workplace tools, even with solid support from your CEO.

The pandemic has proved people are far more adaptable than previously credited. As digital workplace professionals, I believe we have the power to successfully challenge those laggards and doubters. The rules have changed.

3. This is all about getting people to try the tools

The move to remote working has forced people to use tools with no opportunity to opt out, no excuse to fall back on old working habits, fewer chances to use alternatives, fewer distractions to stop them from trying out a tool. This reinforces the impression that adoption efforts work very well when you can get people to actually personally experience the use of the tools. It overcomes that barrier of "getting started" and this should be a focus for future digital literacy initiatives, if not already.

4. Choice is a double-edged sword

Choice of tools can be important for some organizations, but it has its pitfalls. It might feel like it makes sense to keep Slack running even though you're rolling out Microsoft Teams, because you want to be responsive to user needs and wants, but it can dilute your adoption efforts. When you have more than one collaboration and communication tool in place, it impacts findability and search, makes it confusing for employees to easily know the best tool to use for communications and more.

The response to the pandemic provided clarity and focus on the tools that were being scaled up across the enterprise. It simplified the preferred toolset, the message being we will use Zoom for conferencing or Microsoft Teams for team collaboration, for example. Removing choice helps reduce ambiguity, which surely helped drive good adoption and use. However, this doesn’t remove some of the complexity around moving to a new tool, migrating content or dealing with the fall-out from users and stakeholders who are reluctant to switch.

Related Article: Providing Employees Flexibility in Workplace Tools Doesn't Mean It's a Free-for-All

5. Adoption efforts will shift in focus

Driving better adoption has always been the aim of many digital workplace teams, but all too often the focus for adoption has always been to try and drive up the numbers of users. Now that perhaps use of the digital workplace has scaled up it's possible there will be more emphasis on how to use tools so they deliver value for everybody.

6. We don’t need years

The caution and inertia around digital workplace programs can cause things to move at a glacial pace. Governance, planning, support and change management are important but these can be all in place with a more rapid roll-out. Perhaps the response to the pandemic shows we can take a bit more of an ambitious and agile approach and, with the right ‘can do’ spirit, achieve great things. Perhaps we needed weeks and months all along, not years.

Related Article: You Rolled Out Your Remote Workplace in Record Time. Now Let's Talk Governance

A New Era for Driving Digital Workplace Adoption?

Many maturing practices work very well in driving adoption, such as the use of champions. I expect these will continue to be used, but I think we may see a shift in adoption efforts informed by the pandemic roll-outs, especially across Microsoft 365 and IT teams.

If we are more ambitious there may be a risk in thinking that we can roll back on previous efforts to use change management. The important thing is to take what we have learnt and apply it to build a better digital workplace and an upskilled workforce.