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The Path to a Career as a Digital Workplace Leader

November 15, 2022 Digital Workplace
Michelle Hawley Freelance Editor and Writer
By Michelle Hawley LinkedIn

Do you know anyone with the title "digital workplace leader"? Probably not. It’s a relatively new title, and one that not many people hold. But that may change soon.

As the business environment continues to evolve, with an emphasis on virtual and hybrid work models, the role of the digital workplace leader is expected to become critical.

Reworked’s State of the Digital Workplace report shows 64% of organizations believe their future workplaces will be predominantly hybrid, while 10% have committed to a fully digital outlook. So, if you’re considering a leap into this sphere, there's a good chance there will be opportunities to grab.

But if it's never been done before, what does the path to becoming a digital workplace leader look like?

What Is a Digital Workplace Leader?

What does a digital workplace leader do? The role has yet to be defined — officially at least. Some organizations have, however, already created the position, in anticipation of what comes next for the future of work.

Spencer Mains is among those who hold the title. As head of the digital workplace experience at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, he leads a team of more than 125 technologists. His role is a new one for the company, having only been in place since January 2022.

He says his fundamental mission as digital workplace experience leader is to “increase productivity, knowledge and collaboration effectiveness.” Due to the scale of operations at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, he said a fair amount of data analytics is used to drive decision-making and the measurement of coworker satisfaction.

“My purpose is to lead the team, evangelize the value of how technology, content and collaboration management increases joy at work and attracts and retains employees," he said.

Sounds intriguing? Let's explore what it takes to get there.

Related Article: 3 Things You Need to Know About the Fast-Growing Skills Tech Market

The Career Path of a Digital Workplace Leader

It's clear that you won’t find droves of people with the title of digital workplace leader or manager, so if it's hard to define the role, it's equally difficult to say what's required to fill it. And as these positions begin to open up, the pathway to getting there is likely to look a little different for everyone.

That being said, there are some similarities in background and expertise. Here are four common paths to the role.

1. A Start in Communications or Information Technology

Early in his career, Mains occupied the role of program director at Stanford University. It was in this role — back in 1992, when the internet was still in its early stages — that Mains and his team, needing to send thousands of printed brochures to a growing list of prospective workshop attendees, had the idea to put promotional material online and put a FileMaker database behind it, allowing people to sign up on the web.

This was a “ta-da moment,” he said. “Life made easier for both the customer and our workforce. This led to my absolute obsession around leveraging the web to share, capture and disseminate information.”

Chris Tubb, a digital workplace consultant with more than 12 years of experience — and a former digital workplace manager — said many digital workplace leaders tend to come from a communications or IT background.

And while some organizations have a chief digital officer, that role typically looks into the customer experience, not the employee experience, said Tubb. “So you’ve got this gap between the two that needs to be filled from somewhere.” And that’s typically where digital communicators or IT professionals come in.

2. The Lesser-Traveled Path: Collaboration Management & UX Design

Another springboard to the role of digital workplace leader — though not as common — is experience in social and collaboration management or user experience (UX) design.

Tubb says the skills matrix that his firm, Spark Trajectory, developed provides a good overview of the makeup of skills that go into building a successful digital workplace.

On the social and collaboration management side, the roles or responsibilities someone might hold before moving into digital workplace leadership include:

  • Employee advocacy
  • Community development
  • Tacit knowledge management
  • Ideation and innovation management

On the UX design side, those roles and responsibilities include:

  • Brand management
  • User testing
  • Accessibility
  • Information architecture 

Related Article: 6 Leadership Skills for the Digital-First Era

3. Digital Workplace Enablement

While at Stanford, Mains said he connected with a “visionary” who came up with the basic premise of secure, internal websites — much like what was available externally on the public internet. “That launched my real career in digital workplace enablement,” Mains said.

Later, Mains landed a role at the branding and design firm Landor Associates, building out an intranet and leading technology efforts that included infrastructure, hardware and software procurement, security and knowledge management.

“The differentiator, and the thing I have learned to leverage the most,” said Mains, “is a strong, strong, strong emphasis on the importance of usability, design and experience with all web-based tools. It’s a simple thing now, but it was not the driver years ago.”

Mains’ career path from there stayed within the technology management field, holding various positions that included head of technology and knowledge management at SYPartners, director of knowledge systems and technology at Giant Creative Strategy, and director of technology, enterprise customer success at Gap — among others.

Tubb says he's mapped a similar career path for a colleague who now holds a digital workplace management position. She began her career as a communicator, before evolving into an intranet management position and then into a digital workplace manager-type role, Tubb said.

4. Landing in Digital Workplace Leadership

Mains’ climb up the corporate ladder eventually led him to the position of head of digital workplace experience. His advice for someone who’d like to achieve a similar position is simple: Stick with it and treat it like an obligation. 

“I think many workplaces have not reached the potential of what is possible in this space,” he said. “If you have an interest in communication, efficiency, design, people leadership and are generally annoyed with how people continue to collaborate ineffectively because they are not leveraging the vast array of wonderful technologies, you really do have an obligation to push this agenda.”

Plus, he said, this type of work is transferable to all types of businesses of all sizes. “It is still very niche so it is a good time to get further invested by seeking roles in digital enablement, digital workplace, digital experience,” he said.

One cautionary tip, however, is to look for roles that report directly to the CEO or very near executive-level management, he said. “This type of work, when hidden away in IT (CIO or CFO), can not have the voice it needs to really effectively address the needs of the organization.”

Related Article: The Growing Need for Contingent Workforce Leaders

Digital Workplace Leadership Careers Grow in Importance

According to McKinsey, 58% of Americans have the opportunity to work from home at least one day per week, and 35% can work from home full time. And when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87% take it. 

What that means is twofold: One, the digital workplace isn’t going away anytime soon, and two, today’s businesses can’t ignore the growing need for digital workplace leaders.

Tubb says if organizations fail to implement leaders in this area, they’re not going to get the benefits of increased adoption, understanding, digital dexterity and shared awareness. “People won’t just adopt these things and learn how to use them and get the best out of them without some help from other kind people within the organization,” he said.

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