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What Is the State of Digital Employee Experience in 2021?

July 07, 2021 Employee Experience
James Robertson
By James Robertson

The pandemic caused digital adoption to leap forward within firms around the globe. Activities previously done face-to-face moved to Teams or Zoom. The recently released results of my firm, Step Two's 2021 Digital Employee Experience (DEX) survey reflect this, with 21% of respondents reporting digital employee experience (DEX) greatly improved as a result of the pandemic.

It’s not all good news however. Key employee groups were left behind, and hard work is needed to complete the transition to truly new ways of working. Let’s dive into some of the key findings.

DEX Is Growing in Importance and Technology Is Ready

This year, 45% of respondents said digital employee experience was very or extremely important. This is on a steady — but not stratospheric — upwards trajectory, increasing from 39% in 2019 and 42% in 2020. While encouraging, 35% still say it’s only somewhat important, leaving DEX to battle it out with all of the other activities and priorities in today’s busy organizations.

When it comes to readiness, technology is far ahead of other aspects, with 55% saying it’s very or mostly ready. This aligns with the unsurprising finding that 40% have a single enterprise collaboration and productivity suite across their whole firm (with the presumption it is likely to be Microsoft 365). Only 20% say they are stuck with limited or patchy use of such solutions.

All of this suggests that technology is no longer a barrier to delivering a great digital employee experience. We have the tools in place to make rapid progress, using what’s provided 'out of the box,' and going beyond where needed.

We now need to focus efforts on the other components of organizational change, with only 31% reporting that people aspects were very or mostly ready and 35% saying that process aspects are ready to proceed.

Related Article: Where Employee Experience Fits in the Digital Workplace

We Are Only Halfway Through the DEX Transformation

From a strategic perspective, there is much yet to do. Only 27% of respondents indicated they have a DEX strategy in place or in progress. Broader employee experience (EX) strategy similarly languishes, with 26% having it in place or in progress.

These 'harder' strategies are at the bottom of the rankings, with 'easier' strategies well ahead in practice: 74% have internal communications strategies in place or in progress, compared to 71% for intranet strategies.

All of this is to be expected considering the relative nascency of both EX and DEX, but it does stand in sharp contrast to the increasing number of organizations that consider digital employee experiences to be very important.

A common complaint is organizations use new digital tools in relatively shallow and immature ways. Working days are filled with meetings, only now they're online instead of face-to-face, and richer collaboration capabilities have yet to be fully embraced.

The 2021 survey results reflect this, with 67% reporting that digital literacy is very important, but 65% saying digital literacy is currently mixed or highly variable. Only 19% said digital literacy is currently high or very high.

Clearly we’re only halfway through the digital transformations needed to achieve a consistently high level of digital employee experience. The challenge is now to accelerate the pace of change, to ensure we don’t fall back to previous practices when countries emerge from COVID-19.

Digital literacy is a perfect example of this. Fifty-two percent said they provide self-service online training materials, and 39% included digital literacy in technology deployment projects. While useful, these are very tactical approaches to making a strategic change. More holistic approaches lag behind, with only 11% including digital literacy in leader and manager training, and a similar 11% including it in formal job role descriptions.

Related Article: Digital Proficiency: Literacy, Fluency and Mastery

Key Employees Have Been Left Behind

This year’s survey looked at the lived experience of key employee cohorts, that’s to say, the nature of their day-to-day digital experiences. The results uncovered some disturbing differences between staff groups, with some staff still being left behind in 2021.

Unsurprisingly, so-called 'white collar' workers have fared the best when it comes to digital employee experiences — 35% of leaders and managers were reported to currently have either good or very good DEX, with only 22% experiencing poor or very poor digital experiences. Office workers (42% good, 24% poor) and knowledge workers (44% good, 22% poor) shared a similar breakdown.

Yet blue collar workers still lag behind, with only 17% of frontline workers reported to have good or very good DEX and 51% having poor or very poor. Field, mobile and out-of-office workers fared somewhat better, but still lagged behind white-collar workers.

Worse still, the pandemic generated the lowest degree of improvement in DEX for frontline workers. And while respondents expected improvements to come in 2021 for these workers, the strongest focus remains on office workers.

These findings should trigger alarm bells within businesses of all sizes and shapes. Frontline workers are the ones who have direct interactions with clients, and we know that customer experience is limited by employee experience. The poor digital experiences of these employees can therefore have a real, and potentially significant impact on customer service.

Related Article: Remember, Disruption Isn't Just About White-Collar Workers

Exploring the Full State of DEX in 2021

These have been a few highlights from this year’s survey. The expanded survey looks at many aspects of digital employee experience, from the use of UX techniques when delivering enterprise solutions to who is leading DEX strategy.

Read through the full survey results, and then use the insights to shape your decisions for 2021 and beyond.

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”

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