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10 Takeaways from the Winter 2021 Digital Workplace Experience Conference

February 12, 2021 Digital Workplace
By Dom Nicastro

Those charged with providing employee experiences and crafting digital workplace technologies and strategies proved one important thing in 2020:

We can change. After all, we had to, right?

Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief at Reworked, shared that sentiment in the opening keynote from the winter edition of the Digital Workplace Experience virtual conference. It’s the first of four virtual events scheduled for 2021 and run by Simpler Media Group, which publishes Reworked.co and CMSWire.com.

“We are capable of change and are able to adapt in the midst of some really difficult situations,” Prokopeak said in the opening keynote of the Digital Workplace Experience. “But the changes aren’t over.”

The digital workplace’s cycle of innovation and change will continue well into 2021 and beyond, Prokopeak added, and practitioners will “have an opportunity to take a lot of the changes that have happened, learn from them and use that knowledge and experience to create even more positive and transformative change.”

The opening show of the #DWX21 virtual conference series took on the themes of continuous change, adaptations and innovation in the digital workplace and how to effectively listen to employees. Here are some highlights from some of the sessions.

Editor’s note: All Digital Workplace Experience 2021 sessions are available for free on-demand. 

The Case for Moving Work Upstream

Dan Heath, the author of multiple New York Times best-selling business books, shared how workplaces are often caught in a cycle of reaction rather than preventing problems in his opening keynote, “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen."

He cited the example of Expedia, the travel-booking website that discovered for every 100 customer booking transactions, 58 of them led to customer-support calls. Why? Because those who booked travel could not locate the travel itineraries Expedia sent.

Large organizations often have fundamental flaws that lead to massive problems like this, Heath said. For Expedia, it was a $100 million problem. Why? There are too many department silos and a lack of motivation to go upstream and fix issues before they become problems. Whose job is it to ensure customers don’t need to call? No one. No one stands to benefit, Heath said.

And while improving response to those problems is a good thing, what does that process ultimately solve?

“You’re getting better and better at what?” Heath asked. “At a class of problems that never needed to exist in the first place. And this is why I think we have to watch our own organizational structures. They can act as a brake to doing the upstream work we need to do. In many cases we have designed ourselves for downstream response, and that very design blinds us to the ability to have prevented those problems entirely.”

Is it always better to move upstream when it comes to workplace processes and general customer practices? No, Heath said. Car manufacturers would not lobby to change the national speed limit to 10 miles per hour in order to prevent dings to their vehicles.

“So, no, more upstream is not always better,” Heath said. “We can manage that (car dings) problem and prevent it, but this is one of those cases where the cure is worse than the disease.”

Related Article: Six Takeaways from Digital Workplace Experience 2020

We Nailed Digital Workplace Transformation in 2020

Sarah Kimmel, vice president of research at Simpler Media Group, in a panel discussion revealed findings from her company’s State of Digital Workplace Report 2020 Q3 version. The bottom line: there was a broad shift forward in the maturity of the digital workplace.

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Kimmel said, researchers saw an increase in the maturity of the digital workplace equal to the increase from the entire year before. That's not a surprise, she added.

“What was a surprise,” Kimmel said, “was that the transformation was drastically easier than most organizations were expecting, and digital workplace leaders were feeling very proud of their organizations for how well it went. In our research last October, 59% said they were extremely satisfied with their organization's shift to remote work, and another 35% said they were moderately satisfied.”

Employee Onboarding Kicked Into High Gear

Dominique Gagne, director of operations for digital media at Radio-Canada, said COVID-19 led to the imperative of getting closer to employees. They implemented employee engagement surveys and quickly learned the onboarding process was not strong. That was a problem they needed to address — and fast — because they had seen a growth period with media moving to digital.

“We had to hire a lot of people,” Gagne said during #DWX21. “Since the beginning of the pandemic we hired 75 people completely virtually, and we were able to do that and have people stay in their homes to do their work. We completely reviewed the onboarding process.”

Gagne’s team mapped out the onboarding process, found pain points and changed everything. They charted out key milestones for new employees, like what should happen on the first day, the first week, first month and so on.

“My main takeaway is really listen to what the employees want because you can have all the processes, all the technology that you can use, but if the employees don't feel they need it to do their work, then it’s not going to work,” Gagne said.

“When you think you're communicating too much, actually you're doing just enough, so you really need to do more,” she added.

Face Down the Fear of Change

Melissa Taylor, partner for strategy, insights and learning at Porter Novelli, said last year in the digital workplace was about necessity and accelerating decision making. But it was also about change: acceptance of change and recognition that change can bring some unexpected benefits.

“There were plans and progress moving forward,” Taylor said. “But a lot of times people are resistant to change. Managers are used to managing in a face-to-face way. And while they probably wouldn’t want to admit that they don't necessarily fully trust the employees that they can't see working across the desk from them, I think that's a lot of the fear that was happening.”

But, lo and behold, people rose to the occasion when forced to work remotely. “That was our experience,” Taylor said. “And it also in a weird way solved another problem that we were having.” Which problem? Those who felt uncomfortable in an “open office” setting struck gold with the move to remote work.

“It’s been personally liberating to discover what I can get done in my home office,” Taylor said. “That was so difficult to do when I'm distracted. And as somebody who leads out learning and development, I can't tell you the number of webinars I was trying to lead, where I'm frantically trying to shush everyone around me when I'm trying to stay focused and deliver the content.”

Taylor called these the “surprising upsides” of the sudden shift to remote work and something she hopes those digital workplace leaders “don’t lose moving forward.”

“A lot of the fears that prevent us from changing,” she added, “are really unfounded. It is OK to take that leap, take that next step and trust in our employees and their ability to be innovative, creative, and their commitment to getting the job done.”

Screenshot from a virtual panelist session at the Digital Workplace Experience 2021 conference.
Simpler Media Group's Sarah Kimmel (far left) moderates a panel at the Digital Workplace Experience 2021 conference with panelists clockwise from top left, Bob Ruggiero of Aternity, Melissa Taylor of Porter Novelli, Dominique Gagne of Radio-Canada and Gregg Apirian of Korbyt.

More Diversity, More Voice of the Employee

Now that the lessons of 2020 are in implementation mode for digital workplace practitioners in these early days of 2021, it’s now about the future and what happens beyond this year.

Siobhan Fagan, managing editor at Reworked.co and CMSWire.com, asked panelists what they think the 2022 workplace will look like.

Jessica Schaeffer, vice president at LaSalle Network, comes from a company that was fully in office prior to the pandemic. “I believe that in a year from now, we will be looking at a more diverse company, both in terms of our employee population and makeup,” Schaeffer said.

“In 2020 we had so many great and terrible things happen all at the same time, and it really made us focus on our diversity initiatives and what we were doing to prioritize having diverse people at the table, diverse perspectives and diverse thought processes.”

Those employee voices are going to be loud, coupled with a very strong and very present leadership team that has learned a lot from the past 10 months. They know “the value in communicating and being transparent with those employees.”

And will LaSalle be hybrid or fully in-office or remote in 2022?

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” Schaeffer said. “I believe we will be in the office. Our CEO is pretty adamant about wanting butts back in those seats, and there's a lot of value and synergies and communication and collaboration in our business being able to sit next to somebody, overhear a call and coach somebody in real time. So I believe we will be, by and large, back in the office.”

Related Article: Getting to the Heart of the Chief Diversity Officer's Agenda

More Digital Dexterity

Toni Vanwinkle, senior director of digital workplace technology and services at Adobe, said her 22,000-employee company will be facing a hybrid reality in 2022. The change for Adobe in a digital workplace sense last year was not dramatic, she added, because they were ready for the change.

“It's because we were already starting to see the change emerge,” Vanwinkle said. “We saw in some of the demographics that this digital nomad was coming into our environment as one of the personas. And what people wanted was the flexibility to work where they could best manage the tasks that they were trying to do as well as their own life. ... In 2022, I think we're going to be more equipped with digital dexterity skills that allow us to innovate, collaborate and be productive from anywhere that we're working.”

Vanwinkle called 2020 “an opportunity” and one of the workplace’s “biggest experiments in empathy.” The pandemic, social justice issues and political discourse forced company leaders to come into the discussion “with their hearts open.” And, ironically the move to digital forced them to “become more human,” Vanwinkle added.

How do we bring the best of what human beings have to offer in terms of creativity and collaboration in a digital world?

“It’s that very human place of where leaders need to be with more empathy and flexibility,” Vanwinkle said, "as well as where the technology needs to enable that.”

Simpler Media Group's Siobhan Fagan (top left) moderates a panel at Digital Workplace Experience 2021 with Jessica Schaeffer of LaSalle Network (top right), Toni Vanwinkle of Adobe (bottom right) and Anthony McGinnis of Powell Software (bottom left).
Simpler Media Group's Siobhan Fagan (top left) moderates a panel at Digital Workplace Experience 2021 with Jessica Schaeffer of LaSalle Network (top right), Toni Vanwinkle of Adobe (bottom right) and Anthony McGinnis of Powell Software (bottom left).

On the Path to Employee Listening

In her closing keynote, Shawnté Cox Holland, head of culture and engagement at Vanguard, discussed the lessons she's learned in terms of gauging the voice of the employee from the past 12 months.

She broke them down into three areas:

Experiment to Validate

No one approach works for all organizations. The reality of an enterprise-wide effort is when you go to put those things in practice, you may not always be able to implement it the way that it is suggested.

“You can't just carbon copy the research and the best practice implemented in your contacts and be off to the races,” Cox Holland said. “And so, as a result, COVID-19 really forced us to experiment,” she added. “... Where did we have some gaps that we needed to close and fill in order to be ready to listen more frequently and in a more targeted way?”

Customized Listening Creates a Direct Path to Action

Start with the end in mind and be prepared to respond quickly to what you learn from your employees.

“It also is a huge factor in actually shaping what you listen for and how you listen,” Cox Holland said. “Should it be a survey, should it be one-on-one conversations, should it be focus groups, should it be with a particular population versus the broader population? All of that is guided by having a clear understanding of the decisions that you need to make, when you need to make them and what should inform them.”

For example, Vanguard gathered the pulse of the employee for planning a return-to-office strategy, and this was before the emergence of any COVID-19 vaccines.

“There is the really important connection between customizing what you're listening for to be directly aligned with the areas where you know you want to take action,” she said. “And I strongly advocate for not just asking for the opinion or where the problems or challenges might lie, but also asking employees for what they would like to see as part of the solution. That's another piece of really helping you to be able to respond, all the more quickly.”

Simpler Media Group's Mike Prokopeak conducts a Q&A with Shawnté Cox Holland of Vanguard at the Digital Workplace Experience 2021 virtual conference.
Simpler Media Group's Mike Prokopeak conducts a Q&A with Shawnté Cox Holland of Vanguard at the Digital Workplace Experience 2021 virtual conference.

The Right Tools Matter

Having the right tools and partners really does help you move faster, and in a more targeted way, according to Cox Holland. “It allowed us to put results in the hands of those who needed to see them and make decisions, almost instantly,” she said. “And it allowed us to see where there might be trends and patterns in our learnings based on key populations or groups of our employees.”

At the end of the day, the purpose of us listening is so that we can understand and take the right actions for employees to thrive.

“It's our employees,” Cox Holland said, “that really make it possible for us to deliver on all of our strategic objectives as organizations, and so creating the environment that they need to do their very best every day is one of the most important things that we can do as an organization.”

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