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PHOTO: Dan Burton

The COVID-19 crisis has been a catalyst for the digital workplace, advancing remote working and collaboration tool adoption faster in the past three months than in the past three years. I'm not alone in saying this. I think “catalyst” is the right word here because some of the digital workplace trends we now see were already happening (and arguably picking up momentum) before the pandemic struck, but at a significantly slower pace.

What Was Droving the Evolution of the Digital Workplace Before?

What were the drivers for the evolution of the digital workplace and the digital employee experience before the pandemic? Multiple factors played a part, including demographics, the consumerization of IT and more. But the evolution of Office / Microsoft 365 and related products like Microsoft Teams also were factors. Whether you are a fan of Microsoft or not, the march of 365 and Teams has undoubtedly caused more organizations to follow a digital workplace strategy.

I believe Microsoft 365 has done more than just pushed enterprises to implementation. It’s also influenced thinking and even changed the mindset of IT professionals and digital workplace teams to focus more on the stability and sustainability of the digital workplace.

Microsoft 365 is a long-term investment and platform that evolves and continually improves; it’s not something that will be replaced in two years. With IT and digital workplace teams now having more certainty over the long-term base of their digital workplace and with product management approaches shaped by cloud providers, a longer-term view of the digital workplace can emerge. Taking this medium to long term view starts to persist across other aspect of the digital workplace, such as governance and even some non-Microsoft tools. Organizations want to invest in a digital workplace and digital employee experience to last, not one that will fall apart.

Related Article: Microsoft 365 vs. Best of Breed Tools? Try Microsoft 365 Plus Best of Breed Tools

Intranet Evolution

This change in thinking is well illustrated by attitudes to intranets — still a very important channel in the digital workplace — and gives us some clues to the successful tactics and strategies that we be apply to make our digital workplaces more sustainable.

At Content Formula we help clients deliver great intranets usually based on SharePoint Online and Microsoft 365 using a well-known intranet “in-a-box” product where we are a reseller, but also through custom work, and sometimes a combination of both. There is still a significant level of on-premises work in particular sectors.

Everybody wants a great intranet but nobody wants to go back to the world of exhausting custom SharePoint intranet projects that drag on for 18 months, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are then already out of date by the time they are launched. Yes, probably a few of those are still being built, but these days the mindset is different. We’re not going back to the “boom and bust” of a huge intranet project, followed by another huge intranet project five years later.

Related Article: What Employees Always Want From Their Intranet

Gravitation to In-a-Box Intranets

In our work we have found many IC and IT functions and intranet teams gravitate towards “in-a-box” products because they are easier, cheaper and quicker to implement, and then also manage. Extensive customization is frowned upon here because of the extra costs and effort it causes, and the barrier it places in any upgrade path.

Opting for lighter customization around design or around a specific app or web part provides a sensible path to navigate the requirements of corporate comms and user groups with very specific needs, but overall the movement is towards product not custom build.  Extensive customization is the enemy of a sustainable digital workplace, as well as costs, speed to market and many other elements besides.

The other attractive thing about a SharePoint online-based intranet in-a-box is the way it seamlessly blends with the rest of the 365 ecosystem. The choice to blend the collaboration, communication, automation, search and analytics capability of 365’s constituent tools into the intranet becomes clear as a result. We also see this thinking emerging in the e-learning space where we see considerable interest in a 365-driven LMS platform that also integrates seamlessly.

The takeaway here is digital workplaces would do well to focus on cloud-based products that integrate with other technologies and avoid major customization. It’s not rocket science!

Related Article: Designing a Digital Workplace for the Long-Haul

Intranet as Experience Layer

Another interesting development is the move for intranets from being the digital workplace “front door” for people to access the apps they need, to being the “experience layer” that either stops people from having to go into all of the apps in the first place or provides consistent access across different systems.

For example, the intranet in-a-box product we work with comes with a powerful toolbar that can link to almost anything, but also allows you to view information and complete simple transactions without having to go to the back-end systems or apps. The toolbar can also be configured to be accessed from Teams or any system employees work in, for example Salesforce, creating a sense that the intranet is everywhere, always available.

Individual clients get quite excited about this because it provides a true digital workplace environment and a consistent experience, regardless of the underlying systems. New apps can be added and swapped, and again the intranet here is playing a role in creating a sustainable and consistent experience of the wider digital workplace that evolves rather than dramatically changes because of changes in the toolset.

Related Article: Intranets, the Window to Your Digital Workplace

What Does This Tell Us About a Sustainable Digital Workplace?

These three practices around intranets — as experience layer, as a cloud-based product, as a part of an integrated ecosystem — are all approaches that help make digital workplaces more sustainable, at least from a technology perspective. Other elements are also at play here, for example the “in a box” product also helps drive collaboration governance by ensuring the provisioning of the right collaboration tool for the right use and reducing the number of unused spaces, but the critical role of governance is probably for another article.

Overall, I think we’re moving in the right direction to make digital workplaces that last. This is good news and I think we can thank Microsoft 365 and intranet in a box products for helping nudge organizations in the right direction.