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What's at the Core of a Successful Digital Workplace?

May 05,2020 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

We all live in a digital culture, and the majority of us work in a digital workplace. The definition of a “digital workplace” is not written in stone, and the term means many things to many people. Which begs the question, what is at the core of a successful digital workplace, and why is it important? In this article, we will look into the specifics of the digital workplace, tell you how you can improve your own digital workplace — and why it’s vital that you do so.

A Digital Workplace Empowers Employees

CMSWire spoke to Chris Tubb, digital workplace consultant for Spark Trajectory. Tubb defined the digital workplace as “the collection of all the digital tools provided by an organization to allow its employees to do their jobs.” Tubb stated that “the digital workplaces of large organizations tend to be aggregations of many products, each in different stages of maturity and lifecycle.” Certainly, without the digital tools that employees use each day in their jobs, virtually nothing would be accomplished.

We also talked with Paul Miller, CEO and founder of Digital Workplace Group, and author of the book The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work. Miller’s definition from that book is that “the digital workplace is the virtual, digital equivalent of the physical workplace.”

One of the most appropriate definitions, for the scope of this article, comes from Gartner group, who defined the digital workplace as something that “enables new, more effective ways of working; raises employee engagement and agility; and exploits consumer-oriented styles and technologies.”

Now that we understand what the digital workplace is, and we can agree that the majority of us work in a digital workplace, using many of the same technologies that we use in our daily life outside of work, we can move on to learning how we can improve the digital workplace, as business leaders, for those who work for us, as well as those with whom we interact.

The Digital Workplace Helps Business Evolve and Survive

The first half of 2020 has been a turbulent, historical, and unprecedented time of challenges for businesses and society in general around the globe. Many countries have been on a nationally or locally imposed lockdown, and many industries have had to shut down completely, laying off employees with the hope that when things return to normal, they will be able to reopen and hire them back.

Some industries, such as the IT industry, and others that work within a digital workplace, have been fortunate enough to have been able to adjust to this crisis by working with a diminished workforce, or having many or all of their employees continue to work remotely. The remote and distributed workforce continues to work primarily in a digital workplace, albeit largely from home offices. As Miller put it, “With, at one time, a third of the human population in lockdown, there has been an unintended but essential shift to remote — and almost always home — working at a scale never witnessed before. This happened within days and weeks, and the strange and wholly unpredicted outcome was to discover that whole swatches of the workforce were able to work remotely quite effectively.”

James Kies, TEDx speaker and agile consultant, spoke to CMSWire about what he sees as the problem with thinking in the same old way when it comes to the digital workplace. Kies stated that “It doesn't matter if a company is operating traditionally, more agile, or trying to use some new fully-remote invention during this crisis; most of us have the basics wrong.” Kies emphasized that it’s important during this period of workplace experimentation that we not just fall back on old habits and practices, but rather learn from our mistakes and evolve them into more exceptional practices. Kies looks forward to seeing businesses use the current crisis as a way of moving forward, and stated that this is particularly obvious to millenials and Gen-Zers. “Everyone 40 and under has now experienced a world that is ready for us to behave differently. Training us to behave differently — but for whatever reason, the minute we all walk through that corporate door, many tend to step back into classic patterns of the same behavior that were comfortable before. In all the ways and places that we know we can, and probably should, do better, we are not making aggressive movements towards them — we are choosing limited organizational debits and adding piece-by-piece tremendous burdens to every single member of our workforce.”

Some sectors that previously did not embrace the digital frontier have now found that Kies’ perspective is exactly what they are after, including the medical industry, which is now using telemedicine — that is, video conferencing with patients — to assess and treat patients. Other industries have followed suit. Miller suggested that this is a positive outcome of the crisis, and stated that “Sectors and regions considered out of the reach of remote working — China for example, and the legal profession and even media — have realized this flexible way of working actually works for them. Leaders at all levels have been forced to lead from home without any travel and guess what — they can. So why travel at the scale we did pre-COVID-19? Why not work remotely a few days a week? Why go back to ‘normal’ when the new normal is so much better.”

Kies agrees, and said that “The opportunity to make the solution/solutions viable are clearly there to fully adhere to all the aspects of the business. Having an organizational agreement allows the focus to be on a clean ‘digital workplace framework’. We can then give ourselves a great boon in addressing the types of organizational changes these systems tend to beg of us, as leaders, with the types of maturity models and healthy social eco-systems that offer an individual employee, and team, the opportunity to flourish.”

A Plethora of Technology: Software, Apps and Devices

The move for some of those businesses, even those who have been working in a digital workplace all along, has been challenging. Many workers are now working from their homes or remote offices, so the IT department, which is typically in charge of the technology that is used in the workplace, has less control over what is being used. As Tubb stated, “An organization’s ability to manage the coherence of their digital workplace is dependent on their ability to choose and manage these products.”

With an overabundance of choices available to enterprise businesses, there is also a burden. This has been a problem even before the current COVID crisis. Tubb suggested that “We are in a time of unprecedented competition in the enterprise software market and employees are directly targeted with advertising (such as Teams and Zoom) and managers of all stripes are courted as buyers, specific to their speciality. Operational and strategic governance has never been more sorely needed — controls on what people are expected to use, and processes to ensure that organizations can pick up new, valuable tools and merge and migrate duplicated tools, are key here; otherwise there is risk of official stasis (‘we have all that we need’) and an unofficial tangle of tools more specific to people’s needs, or just a pure wild west of teams choosing whatever they like.”

Tubb believes that this is something that must be addressed or businesses can fall into a trap, as he said that [having] “no governance in place results in increasing confusion, inadvertent isolation of certain teams as they choose their own communication and collaboration tools, and the subsequent return to common defaults: email, a spreadsheet, a four hour meeting.”

This is where leadership needs to step in to allow an informed IT department to make discerning choices geared towards the specific goals and needs of the enterprise. As Tubb said, “The management of all this requires leaders within the business to be able to control the mess but deliver the opportunity and also be able to rationalize this world for colleagues in their organizations, so they can get on with their jobs, without having to be their own IT strategy, IT procurement and IT support department. The IT function therefore is critical to the delivery of the digital workplace addressing the risks and seeing the bigger picture, and the digital workplace team is essential as a coordinating and simplifying force.”

Kies used a sports metaphor to describe what Tubb is talking about, referring to the fact that everyone — leaders, department heads, and employees — needs to be on the same side, playing the same sport. He emphasized that it’s about “all people, on teams, one sport, one pitch, one shared vocabulary, all together playing their part in one single sport at the same time that we did not invent here. Are we in the business of inventing business process and operations methodologies? No, no we are not.”

Digital Literacy Helps to Define the Digital Workplace

The ability to use digital technology to solve problems, create, locate, access and communicate information defines the productivity and success of employees and businesses. A continuing digital literacy program also enhances employee loyalty, retention, and interdepartmental collaboration — breaking the barriers of the dreaded silo effect.

CMSWire spoke with Sam Marshall, digital workplace consultant at ClearBox, and he stated that “Digital literacy is an area that is vital and completely overlooked in many cases. We wouldn’t give a manual worker a power tool and expect them to use it well without training. We even have competence tests and licenses before people can operate some kinds of equipment. I don’t see why we should be so lax about the same for knowledge work. Productivity has flatlined and I think it's partly because the technology we give employees isn’t complemented with the skills to exploit it well. From a risk perspective, we create stress and mental health issues if we don’t train people adequately on things like collaboration, digital emotional intelligence and digital team leadership.”

It’s not just workers that need to be digitally literate — it extends to leaders as well. Miller explained that “the companies with a generally digital literate workforce have managed this period of turbulence better than those with lower ‘digital IQs’. And there have been deeply embarrassing instances where C-suite executives turned out to be far from digitally literate. We would not tolerate a leader who could not read, why have we allowed such leaders to be unable to navigate the digital world with equal dexterity? Raising digital literacy across the entire workforce is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but is about business resilience and workplace security. Training and development in this area will become a huge program of change for every organization.”

Miller’s co-author, Digital Literacy expert Elizabeth Marsh, wrote a research article in 2018 entitled "The Digital Workplace Skills Framework" that addressed the issue of the lack of digital literacy among employees. The article stated that “88 percent of organizations have not taken any action to tackle the lack of digital skills of their employees" and that "the digital skills deficiency in their workforce is impacting on performance, with lost productivity and decreased customers the main negative impacts." It’s obvious that digital literacy is vital to the longevity and success of every digital workplace.

Business leaders need to address digital literacy first by looking in the mirror to access what Miller referred to as their own “digital IQ.” Once they can walk the digital literacy walk, they will be able to more precisely determine the level of digital literacy of their team leaders and the employees who work under them. By encouraging a culture of continued learning, often by offering online classes, webinars, and on-the-job training courses, they will be in a position to provide employees with the opportunity for upward growth within the company, while increasing the overall level of digital literacy among employees.

A Digital Workforce Builds Upon a Digital Culture

It may seem obvious that a digital culture is something that leadership should embrace, but much like the term “digital workplace,” it’s not always apparent just what is meant by “digital culture.” In a business sense, a digital culture is one that has embraced technological innovation and advances that facilitate the use of digital tools for improving business, enhancing efficiency and evolving a company.

No matter what our specific job skills are, on a personal level, all of us live within a digital culture. As sociologist Dr. Julie Albright, TED Talk speaker and author, indicated, digital culture is pervasive in today’s society. She pointed out that the majority of us sleep with our cell phones within reach, and “more than half check them in the middle of the night. A third send over 35 text messages after having gone to bed." We use technology throughout our day, both at work and at home, from the time we wake up, until we finally drift to sleep. We are seldom without internet connectivity, to the extent that internet access is considered a utility rather than a luxury, much like electricity and water.

According to the website MerchDope, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and almost 5 billion videos are watched every day — and more than half of those views come from mobile devices. Statistica reported that 129.1 million people in the United States use music streaming services, and that almost half of all those living in the United States pay for a video streaming service such as Netflix or Disney+.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that computer and IT-related jobs are projected to grow 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, which is “much faster than the average for all occupations.” These new jobs will be in areas such cloud computing, big data, and information security. According to a Brookings Institute report, “more than 32 million workers are employed in highly digital jobs, while nearly 66 million others hold moderately digital positions,“ all of which is part of what they call the “digitalization trend.”

Although these are interesting facts, more importantly they are indicative of how much our society relies on digital technology on a daily basis. We live in a digital culture, work in a digital workplace, and if a business is to prosper, it simply must embrace and encourage the digital culture within the workplace. The digital culture, much like the digital workplace, is not a piece of software or hardware, it’s a combination of many ideas and things. Marshall stated it well when he said, “You can’t buy a digital workplace, it is a concept not a tool.”

Final Thoughts

The digital workplace is an extension of the digital culture that we live in. Enterprise businesses need to embrace and encourage the digital workplace, allow IT to make informed choices when it comes to the technology that is used, and provide a continuing digital literacy program for employees. By providing a positive, unified digital workplace to one’s employees, a business can help to ensure its survival and growth, through good times and bad.

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