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The Digital Workplace in 2021: What Can We Expect?

February 23, 2021 Digital Workplace
Jed Cawthorne
By Jed Cawthorne

As we look forward to recovering from both a global pandemic and (hopefully) from the economic woes it caused, what do we see coming in the year ahead for the digital workplace?

Personally, I do not see any great revolutions coming in the near term. Rather I anticipate the continual, solid and likely unexciting evolution of the platforms and tools that currently make up our digital workplaces, with potential for some small and more exciting elements for some organizations. This evolution will in part be based on the experiences of the past year, with companies capitalizing on the pandemic-driven change as they transition to what's next.

However, I do expect to see two main areas of focus — the impact of AI on our back-end data and information processing capabilities and the impact of no-code development for the user experience — moving to the fore.

What Is a Digital Workplace?

Before I dive into those two areas of focus, it's always helpful to revisit exactly what we mean by the digital workplace.

In the simplest terms, the digital workplace is a virtual construct analogous to your physical workplace. It consists of all the digital tools you need to do your job, including access to data and information, the ability to collaborate with colleagues, the ability to create either digital or physical outcomes (create a PowerPoint, or get a robot to weld a piece to a car). The digital workplace has interfaces and interconnections to our physical workplaces and is accessible with full fidelity, regardless of the actual location of our physical workplace. While this was previously important to people in certain roles, it suddenly became a lot more important for a lot more people due to the global pandemic.

To simplify our discussion of the digital workplace, I have reduced it to three easily recognizable and understandable layers:

digital workplace layer

The data storage layer encompasses many old and newer technologies used for storing the raw data that fuels or is created by our business processes.

The processing layer is where a large part of the magic occurs, where our business logic turns raw data into useful or actionable information. This processing and transformation can rely on a cloud platform to drive many business processes, or it might use a single legacy, on premises application with its own specialized data store to drive a single business processes workflow.

The user experience (UX) layer is the highly visible element of the digital workplace, the tip of the proverbial iceberg, where individual employees interact with one or many systems to undertake their daily tasks. It may include tools accessed through a browser (SharePoint, Salesforce, SAP, custom in-house developed systems), or specific applications accessed through your desktop computer or on a mobile device (phone or tablet).

The UX layer seems to cause the most confusion. This is where people start equating the digital workplace with the intranet or think it is just about collaboration tools like Slack or Teams. Inspired by my pandemic Netflix-binging discovery of the legal drama "Suits" (watched purely because I worked in the building it was filmed in, of course) let us use the legal industry as an example. The digital workplace for an attorney or paralegal might consist of:

  • Legal document management system (e.g., NetDocuments).
  • Legal operations platform (e.g., Mitratech or Onit).
  • Time and billing system ( e.g., Thomson Reuters or Clio).
  • eDiscovery platform (e.g., Relativity or Exterrro).
  • Legal industry research tools.
  • Court filing tools.
  • The firm’s intranet and secure client extranet.
  • Collaboration platforms (e.g. Teams or Slack).

As you can see, this is quite a short list for a specific example. Many of you who may feel as if you're drowning in tool options may likely read that list and wish yours was that short!

So the digital workplace can be a broad, expansive and complex environment, well beyond the idea of an intranet site with some linked applications.

Related Article: The Digital Workplace Defined

No-Code Tools and the Digital Workplace

One place where we may see some continuous evolution this year, helping to move the needle on improving productivity is the continued acceptance of no-code or low-code development platforms and the idea of the business user as “citizen developer.” My column last October covered, "The Risks and Rewards of the Citizen Developer Approach." If we follow the approaches described in that article to mitigate risks, no-code platforms can bring great potential to the workplace, allowing business subject matter experts to develop business logic to improve specific processes, improving workflows and efficiency. The more improved our business processes, the greater the impact on productivity.

The digital workplace provides the potential for the common front end to newly automated processes. Whether your preferred tool is Slack, Microsoft Teams or Salesforce, APIs and multiple integration points will allow you to embed your newly automated flows and business logic. You can use common front ends to reduce the change management impact for your colleagues. By embedding the UI for this new process flow or automation tool into your existing digital workplace tool, you may be able to minimize the negative elements of change, such as the cognitive deficits caused by constant context switching.

Related Article: Is Low-Code Technology Right for You?

Back-End Processing and AI Tools

Just as no-code tools can provide continual evolutionary improvements at the front end of our business processes, their effect can be multiplied when they connect to tools that employ what we loosely refer to as artificial intelligence. Many back end data and information processing tasks can benefit from the application of natural language processing (NLP)-based text analytics, or image recognition, or the application of machine learning (ML) algorithms. Such capabilities may be added to the existing business specific back office applications by the original vendor, or applied across your processes and data by a new, third-party platform.

Robotic process automation is another area of steady, incremental development, that maybe ripe for implementing across some of your business processes this year. The triggers for RPA can be embedded in your process logic or manual via your digital workplace front ends, and the results of a particular run can be displayed for a human to review before integrating the data, if that step is required.

Related Article: Practical Dreamers: Connecting the 'Why' and the 'How' in Technology-Driven Innovation

Steady Progress in 2021

Expect to see steady process in the continued evolution of the digital workplace in the year ahead. I have touched on two particular areas for continued incremental improvement at only the highest and simplest level. We can finish up however with an actual example of a recently announced development: Microsoft Viva

Billed as an Employee Experience Platform (EXP), a term which builds on the earlier Customer Experience Platform (CXP), it could be argued that the EXP is just another term for the digital workplace. Viva builds on Teams as the front end, and uses various AI capabilities to provide Viva Insights, a way to derive actionable information from usage analytics for individuals, managers and leaders and for Viva Topics. Topics is the second release of Project Cortex, the company's “knowledge discovery” provided by back-end AI processing of unstructured content.

So, who knows, just as the characters in "Suits" seem to provide endless surprises for their colleagues rather than just plodding through their legal careers, maybe 2021 will provide more digital workplace surprises than are currently visible in my crystal ball? I mean who foresaw one of the actors becoming a Duchess?

About the Author

Jed Cawthorne is Director, Security & Governance Solutions at NetDocuments. He is involved in product management and working with customers to make NetDocuments phenomenally successful products even more so.

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