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The State of the Digital Workplace? More Work to Do!

March 14, 2022 Digital Workplace
Dan Hawtrey
By Dan Hawtrey

The digital workplace has made real progress over the last two years — most of us recognize that. Lockdown meant the exponential growth of remote work and the subsequent large-scale adoption of Teams, Zoom and other communication and collaboration tools. Finally, digital workplace teams have achieved the kind of reach we’d always been aiming for.

The pandemic has also put to bed the notion that the digital workplace is not important. In fact, most stakeholders regard it as a critical area that is fundamental for organizational survival. We’ve also made progress in areas that were previous lacking: such as delivering solutions for frontline employees, mainly through built-for-purpose mobile apps, and in bringing learning into the center of the digital workplace, when it was previously more of an outlier.

So when we consider the state of the digital workplace, we have moved forward. But as the dust settles from the pandemic and we think about what we need to do now, it strikes me that we still have a lot of work to do. It's also clear that it’s still quite early days for the digital workplace. Yes, the tools are more mature, but whether organizations and employees know how to get the best out of them is another question. I also expect the digital workplace will be tested in the coming months and years.

Here are seven specific areas where I think more work needs to be done on the digital workplace.

1. The Era of Mass Hybrid Working Still Hasn’t Really Started

The seemingly endless dissection and discussion around hybrid working means it's probably the last thing you want to read another article about. Yet the great irony is that despite the media attention, the era of mass hybrid working has not yet started. Work still feels predominantly remote and offices are still not full. This is starting to change, but I don’t think we’ve really hit our stride with the hybrid workplace.

The digital workplace will be challenged primarily around how to create an experience that is equivalent to the real world. We’re talking across meetings, social interaction, collaboration, culture and team coordination. Remote working and hybrid/office working are not the same, and there’s still a lot of progress to be made in bringing the two closer together.

2. Poor Findability Is Still a Thorn in the Side of the Digital Workplace

Poor search and findability is the digital workplace problem that won’t go away. It’s frequently the number one employee complaint about intranets and it may turn into the number one employee complaint about Microsoft Teams. The proliferation of Teams spaces and channels is already causing significant issues for users to find what they need. The additional cloud-based apps that get used across the enterprise are also leading to multiple repositories, with search solutions struggling to keep up. I am starting to see federated search solutions crop up. These solutions connect to lots of different information sources but give the user a single interface to search from.

Related Article: (I Can't Get No) Search Satisfaction

3. We’re Still Wrapping Our Heads Around Analytics

Digital workplace analytics has been another area where we’ve struggled, but I definitely detect a shift in thinking towards a more rounded view of analytics around employee experience, with products like Viva Insights helping. Organizations need to not only define and gather the analytics that matter but then adopt practices and processes that act on the numbers. Working out meaningful numbers in relation to hybrid and remote working also remains largely unchartered waters.

4. Adoption Efforts Need to Shift Focus

Adoption and usage of digital workplace tools saw exponential growth over the last two years, but we need adoption and change management more than ever. Rather than just focusing on monthly active users, which was a dominant pre-COVID-19 paradigm, we now need to focus on how tools are used. We need to look at the comms, training and support that will result in more advanced usage and practices that drive value — for example asynchronous collaboration — and a more informed use of the best tool to use for which scenario to drive better outcomes for specific use cases.

5. The Digital Workplace Isn't Fully Aligned With Employee Experience

The general increased focus on employee experience has been good for the digital workplace in terms of ensuring that we take a more user-centered view of what we deliver through projects. It’s certainly promoting more people-centric rather than technology-centric approaches and practices, as well as providing a common reference point for different stakeholders across communications, HR and IT, so they are on the same page. There’s clearly a lot further to go in terms of aligning tech with employee experience, particularly in areas such as wellbeing. And some of the areas mentioned above, like facilitating hybrid working and improving findability, will also support better alignment with employee experience goals.

Related Article: It's Time for an Adult Conversation About the Hybrid Workplace

6. Setting the Foundations for AI and Automation at Scale

The opportunities for organizations to leverage AI and automation at scale have never been greater. The Microsoft 365 Power Platform has capabilities for non-IT resources to automate workflows, create simple apps and deploy bots. But sometimes we’re missing the critical steps that will allow this to happen. Getting AI and automation to work at scale requires the right foundations, including ensuring the right data and security governance, knowledge framework, training and ongoing support is in place. Digital workplace teams and knowledge management functions have a critical role to play in laying down these foundations.

7. What Does Mesh and the Metaverse Look Like in Practice?

To date, augmented and virtual reality has only had limited impact within the digital workplace, mainly across some specific niche cases such as learning, health and safety, and online events. Microsoft Mesh and Meta’s Metaverse have the potential to disrupt the digital workplace. Perhaps they will, but many are struggling to see what this will mean in practice. At Content Formula, the digital agency I founded, we undertake large amounts of employee research per year across global organizations, smaller business and everything in between. The desire for AR / VR solutions and experiences simply isn’t there yet, but the need to support better findability and improve employee experience certainly is.

The State of the Digital Workplace

The digital workplace has made huge leaps and bounds in the past two years. It’s in a good state, but it’s still early days. We mustn’t take our feet off the pedal – there is still a lot to do – and organizations need professional digital workplace teams more than ever to help grasp further opportunities. Time to roll our sleeves up, again.

About the Author

Dan Hawtrey is the Managing Director of Content Formula, a consultancy that designs and builds intranets and digital workplace tools on the SharePoint and Office 365 platforms. He has written extensively on most topics related to the digital workplace for many years on the Content Formula blog.

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