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Planning Your Post-Pandemic Digital Workplace

May 28,2020 Digital Workplace
By Sam Marshall

People are using the phrase "new normal" to describe the large-scale working from home we’ve seen in some countries under lockdown. But is it really going to become normal, given these circumstances still feel exceptional for many?

We need to start planning how our digital workplaces should adapt for the long-term, as such a shift would have a massive impact on what they need to deliver. However, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what's coming next. How can you plan?

One approach is to consider possible scenarios as a retrospective. Imagine it is the end of 2023 and you are looking back with the benefit of hindsight. What decisions would you have made in 2020, 2021 and so on if the pandemic continued cyclically, compared to if it ended abruptly or if it had an enduring economic impact?

Here I consider three possible start points for digital workplaces, and what their future roadmaps need to address.

Digital Workplaces That Were Ready for Lockdown

As you might expect, the organizations that had been working virtually for years adapted readily to isolation rules. My own company, ClearBox Consulting, has never had an office so we saw very little change to our internal approaches. We carried on using Microsoft 365, video calls and Teams chat, as normal.

However, the pandemic has meant big changes for several of our customers. Some of the approaches we’ve developed for running virtual workshops for example, were not necessarily accessible to employees of our clients due to their internal security restrictions (and the revelations about Zoom didn’t help). Our future digital workplace strategy will include looking for capable tools that also meet the most stringent security concerns.

For companies that were prepared, the post-pandemic roadmap probably involves a review of lessons-learned:

  • What elements of our digital workplace didn’t work as well as hoped (perhaps under extra load)?
  • What new opportunities or innovations have we identified that can be scaled up?
  • Where do we need to adapt to ensure we can work with customers just as effectively as we work internally?
  • What advantages can we capitalize on and further our investment in, such as deepening our self-service and automation models?

Related Article: We May Never Go Back to Work as We Know It (and That's OK)

Digital Workplaces That Hastily Adapted

Clearly some organizations had to scramble to adapt to a distributed workforce. Some pulled it off, with heroic efforts to boost VPN capacity, enroll staff in cloud services, and adapt to different ways of running meetings. Many gaps were also informally plugged with consumer-grade messaging tools and file sharing.

The challenge now will be to replace what was done in haste with something more sustainable. One great concern I have is that tools such as Microsoft Teams have been made available without due thought to governance, consistency or the skills to go with it. For now it is probably fine, but what about in a year’s time when people need to retrieve files from those thrown-together sites? What about when you need to go back to find why a decision was made and it is lost in an ad-hoc WhatsApp conversation?

On the plus side, employees may well have experimented with new tools and found benefits. This may be about applying shadow-IT to solve problems in a novel way. It may also be that the change has gone on long enough for people to overcome the initial frustrations of new tools that prevented large-scale adoption up to now.

For these companies, the digital workplace roadmap needs to address:

  • What was done informally that needs to be made enterprise-grade?
  • Is there duplication from new tools that need to be aligned, for example you may now have multiple places to hold online conversations or share files.
  • What governance needs to be layered on top of recently-added tools so that their use can grow sustainably?
  • Is tidying-up required where documents and information may have ended up in the wrong place in the early stages?
  • What training is needed so that employees have the skills to be fully productive in the new digital environment?
  • Have new rituals emerged that should be sustained, such as digital touchpoints replacing face to face ones to check on welfare and connectedness?

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

Companies That Have Failed to Adapt

Right now, some companies are just hanging on, a kind of suspended animation until restrictions are lifted.

For sure, there are many sectors where there is no business without participation in-person, such as restaurants, agriculture and transport. However, others just didn’t make the leap because they have always relied on sitting in the same offices and convening in-person to make decisions.

These are the ones where people are now exhausted from video and conference calls that go on for hours. Where inboxes bulge with email chains and files get out of hand with multiple versions flying around as attachments. If they had digital collaboration tools at all, the experience has probably consolidated the view that they “just don’t work.”

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a business can safely ignore the implications: a digital workplace will be needed as a contingency plan, particularly if the scenario that plays out is a cyclical one of localized virus breakouts and lockdowns.

Organizations in this situation need a digital workplace roadmap that considers:

  • How do we get better at listening to employee feedback and adapting our approach?
  • Are there parts of our organization that did better than others during lockdown that we can learn from?
  • Can we pilot a more managed approach to start to build belief that digital working is feasible?
  • As we make changes to our physical workplaces, can we factor in a hybrid format, such as better video call facilities in meeting rooms and ensuring everyone has headsets for VoIP?
  • How can we best use the time when people can meet face-to-face to prepare for the next time when it is impossible?
  • Can part of our budget be diverted to ensuring a high-quality digital experience, such as investing money saved from travel into digital literacy instead?

Related Article: Why Play Is Important for Digital Literacy

What’s the ROI on a Digital Workplace?

There’s good evidence from the pandemic that mindsets have shifted, and employees are questioning why they have commuted to offices for so long and if there’s a case for ever going back to that routine. Social-distancing measures also mean that even when workplaces re-open, their capacities are greatly reduced so not everyone will fit back into their old office space.

Even more fundamentally, COVID-19 has been wake-up call that pandemics are a real risk. For years, when leaders challenged me about the ROI on a digital workplace, I’ve highlighted business continuity as a benefit, but the argument was often brushed aside. Even if a successful vaccine appears soon, if would be foolhardy to think there won’t be other viral outbreaks requiring similar measures.

Acknowledgements: my thanks to Alex Robinson for sharing the idea of retrospective scenario planning.

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 18 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and AkzoNobel.

He is the lead author of the annual SharePoint Intranets in-a-box review.

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