The last phenomenon observed in this series on the post-COVID enterprise is the Digital Workplace. I have written a lot about the Digital Workplace in the past, less so in the last few years, and this is an opportunity to realize that COVID may have succeeded in bringing about some advances that had been hoped for in vain for ages.
What is a Digital Workplace?
Let’s go over what a digital workplace is, because a lot depends on this definition. In the past, several definitions have been given and they have been constantly evolving, so I’ll remind you of mine:
“The digital workplace is the digital environment where employees work, live and develop together or alone and meet the company.”
The “meet the company” is important. It mainly refers to the company’s internal communication function, which has always been central to enterprise projects, whereas it is in the minority in terms of employees’ needs, which explains the obvious errors in the design of many projects and their relatively low adoption by employees.
From a functional point of view, the digital workplace is the meeting of :
• the traditional intranet dedicated to internal communication
• support services
• collaboration and communication tools
• business applications
Meeting or even intersection as, sometimes, the interest of the thing lies in the fact of “crossing” functionalities, putting the data of one of the services in the context of those of another etc.
The functional scope of the digital workplace in the COVID crash test
The pandemic has put the digital workplace under pressure for two reasons. First of all, the confinements that have reinforced the need to do and live together remotely and the preventive measures that have led to the dematerialization of certain processes.
As far as working together remotely is concerned, there were not too many problems. In most companies, there already was a range of tools, even minimal, between Microsoft 360 and Google Workspace. So the question was not a question of digital workplace in the functional sense of the term but a question of usage. The tools had been there for ages but were not, not much or not well used.
The confinement was therefore an opportunity for many to discover tools that they had had access to for a long time but that they had never bothered to really use. From there to say that they used them well, there is a step that I will not take: not trained to the use cases that remote work imposes, many used new tools to work in an old way, so they used them very little, even with a disappointing experience because when you use a tool for a scenario for which it was not designed…
Living together was also more of a cultural issue than a tool issue. When I accompanied companies in such projects, there was always a sensitive discussion about its governance. Should we or should we not tolerate that employees use collaborative and community spaces to create their own spaces, on topics that bring them together as employees or people with common interests even if it is disconnected from work itself. The experiences of the most advanced companies at the time, led by IBM, told us yes, but only the most mature companies offered this freedom in the early days.
In the absence of appropriate governance and established practices, it was sometimes complicated to “build a community” from a distance during these difficult times. Fortunately, messaging systems, which are freer in their use, have replaced other tools, and discussion and support groups initiated by employees have migrated to Facebook or even LinkedIn, which is, in my opinion, the worst failure for a company.
Indeed, when, due to a lack of tools, a lack of knowledge of their use, an inadequate governance or corporate culture, spontaneous solidarity between employees in a critical moment is going to find its place on WhatsApp or Facebook, I call that a huge failure.
But in the end, it was not so much on the functional perimeter that things were played out as on the human dimension and accessibility.
Digital Workplace and social discrimination
Unfortunately, the Digital Workplace is like many digital initiatives in the company. It starts as a pilot at the headquarters with a selected population, then it spreads to all people working in an office and having a computer and…. it doesn’t go any further.
How many frontline workers felt more isolated than ever? Not only could they not work because they could not do so remotely, but they were also cut off from the digital life space of the company.
How many front-line workers have an email address and access to the intranet? How many can connect from a personal tool because they are not on a shared computer on the company’s premises, have a company laptop or benefit from a BYOD policy?
The field, the blue collar workers, the people who work in stores, warehouses, factories have mostly been left out of the digital workplace and what can be seen as discrimination in normal times has been a catastrophe in these times of crisis. As Facebook (er..Meta) Workplace product manager Ujjwal Singh says of the future of his product:
“The important part here is it’s not that frontline is more important, it’s that frontline is equally as important” as other workers. “
“And the challenges frontline employees face are equally as important as the challenges knowledge workers“.
He continues on the success (according to him) of his product Portal for business, especially for “Frontline workers”.
We can think what we want about Facebook’s products for businesses (personally I’m quite a fan of Workplace as long as we take it for what it is and not for a collaboration tool) but one thing is certain: the company’s DNA, originally B2C, makes them design products that are easy to deploy for all employees “by design” and certainly encourages them to push their customers in this direction.
But the reality for most was that, deprived of information, deprived of links and exchanges with others (at least through official channels) they often had to stick together to get the information they needed.
Then, when they were able to return to work, they had to deal with preventive measures, the most anecdotal of which added distress and mental burden to jobs that were already difficult. An example? Eliminating paper forms to prevent the spread of the virus. But in some companies the processes for these populations were not digitized, there was “no app for that”. How to dematerialize the tools and processes of a population that constitutes the digital third world of the company? The other day I heard a cashier in the supermarket discussing with a colleague: “Why do we have to use a paper form to ask for time off when in the office they do it on their phone? Why can’t I easily check my balance?”.
But that’s not all.
A computer? What computer?
I think for most of my readers the logistics of leaving the office and moving home were as simple as they were for me: they left with their laptop under their arm or even preferred their more powerful personal computer or one with a bigger screen.
And the others? Of course the people in the field but also all those who still work on a desktop computer? In the age of hybrid work and flex office, the latter will soon become an incongruity: the work tool must move with its owner. But this is not yet a reality for everyone and it was even less so two years ago.
We can talk about the good and bad reasons why an employee has a desktop computer and not a laptop, whether it’s useful to them or not and the costs involved. So be it. But in this case you have to be able to offer an alternative. Indeed propose a nice digital work and life environment but it must be accessible to employees when they need it.
Larger companies that can afford it have sometimes gone to great lengths to provide some of their employees with either a large screen or a desktop computer. But not everyone can afford it.
It was therefore necessary to implement BYOD policies in an improvised manner, with all the risks and limits that this entails in terms of security and the capacity, when necessary, of VPNs to support such loads for which they were not initially designed. Let’s add to this that if computers have long found their place in many homes (the crisis has shown us how the least wealthy have found themselves in distress for lack of appropriate equipment), it is not for professional use and that few so-called “digital” employees have been hard pressed to convert a leisure tool into a work tool.
And we’ll finish with the companies that had “almost” everything right. Employees had laptops, remote work was not widespread or at least quite well practiced and…the infrastructure was not made for it. As a proof, I have a friend who is a project manager in a large company, in charge of a critical project for the company, and who could only connect to the internal tools for 3 hours a day because not all the members of her team could connect at the same time, nothing being dimensioned in terms of security and infrastructure to support so many remote connections at the same time.
ROI of a digital workplace in times of crisis
Many companies wonder about the ROI of internal projects, always the poor relation of digital projects compared to what is done for the customer. The crisis has demonstrated this through an inverse approach, the RONI (Risk Of Not Investing).
Poorly equipped companies that did not have the right practices, governance, culture or infrastructure have :
- Had trouble getting their employees to work (at least those who could work remotely)
- Had a hard time getting them to work together
- Created a gap between white collars and front line workers and disengaged the latter
- Had difficulty to make the collective live from a distance, to maintain and strengthen the link
In short, they have had difficulty delivering and existing as a human group.
We said ATAWAD
Don’t expect a new and magical answer here, the only thing we have learned from the crisis is that inventing concepts was good, implementing them is better.
In 2002, and precisely about Digital Workplaces, Xavier Dalloz introduced the term ATAWAD for AnyTime, AnyWhere, Any Device.
- AnyTime: it must be accessible at all times
- AnyWhere : it must be accessible from everywhere
- Any Device: it must be accessible from any tool (PC, mobile, tablet, professional or personal).
If the Digital Workplaces of 2020 had been conceived and designed according to these principles, we would have been spared many disappointments and we can hope that the lessons of the crisis will have been learned for the future.
I will nevertheless make an addition which either Dalloz had not thought of, or which he thought was obvious (the future having proven the contrary: Any Employee.
Let’s add BYOD: Bring Your Own Device. When the company cannot or does not want to invest in the physical capacity to work remotely, it can at least have a plan B to activate when needed.
The crisis has not taught us much about the Digital Workplace, just that it should deliver on its original promise.