Digital Workplace: Moving Ahead One Step at a Time

As companies forge ahead with their digital transformation initiatives, renewed focus on the employee workplace is taking center stage. After all, the more IT improves employee efficiency, the more competitive the company becomes.

But unlike many IT projects, digital workplace initiatives never formally end. They typically start off rather slowly, while employees gain familiarity with new interfaces and apps. Once the projects gain traction, though, the potential for innovation is endless.

Some view the digital workplace as simply an extension of a corporate intranet, but that's only a part of it. The digital workplace is growing to include much more, including communications and collaboration applications.

Digital workplace platforms are available from several vendors, ranging from small to large -- for example, Akumina InterChange, BMC Digital Workplace Solutions, Claromentis Digital Workplace, IBM Digital Experience, and Unily Hub.

From a high level, the platforms integrate, customize, and leverage technology to make people more productive. By consolidating numerous enterprise apps, collaboration apps, electronic forms, and functions into a single, personalized dashboard, accessed by any devices anywhere, people can work more efficiently.

Beyond that, though, we will see much more seamless interaction between the physical and virtual worlds.

We see the digital workplace developing in three stages. The stages are somewhat fluid, and exactly what happens during each depends on the company and its goals.

These are our general guidelines for each:

Commencement Phase – During this phase, IT rolls out the platform. It's imperative that an individual or group is responsible for marketing the capabilities to employees and making sure they are trained in the basics. Employees should learn how to use the dashboard, from a functional standpoint, but more importantly, how it will help them become more efficient.

Typically, they customize the look and feel of their personal dashboards and start using basic apps, including document search, people search, or personalized newsfeeds. They also may start automating manual functions with built-in forms, or use such forms from HR, for example, to enroll in benefits that had previously required paper.

Some companies start to integrate limited collaboration capabilities here. For example, social software may become part of the dashboard, enabling employees to tweet or check company blogs from a scrolling newsfeed. Toward the end of this phase, and continuing into the next two, we see analytics developing, particularly with measuring success of corporate marketing programs.

Execution Phase – Things start getting more interesting here. IT accelerates integration of additional apps into the platform. For example, employees may be able to add a team chat screen or link to their dashboards, and connect it to the document repository.

Machine learning and automation take hold: By integrating the calendar into the dashboard, the video call may start automatically at the designated start time, with the relevant materials from the team chat channel and document sharing site loaded automatically as well.

Innovation Phase – As the name implies, here is where innovative thinking really takes hold. Development speed picks up, as employees are well entrenched in the concept of a digital workplace. As a result, ideas come in fast and furious -- and, in fact, the platform should house an idea management or innovation management app to organize them.

Changes expected during this phase (and in some cases, these will come earlier):

  • Enhanced/augmented interactivity - Human-machine interface begins, where a robot will be able to read pointing and gestures. Augmented reality and analytics become more common, as well. Imagine being able to ask a robot: "Where are the designs for Project X?" The bot points a laser beam at the exact spot in a storage room.
  • Embedded security - Biometric authentication, already in use, becomes more intelligent. Perhaps the workplace knows you via facial recognition, heart rate, or DNA, and permissions are assigned based on that identity. Going one step further, if an employee is working alone at night and has a cardiac issue, the workplace can sense that and call 911. (Yes, the privacy concerns are real!) Device management also takes a new form. The workplace may not allow you to enter until you place your phone in a bin, because the highly secure area of the building does not allow for recording devices.
  • Always-on collaboration - As the portals integrate more with collaboration apps and the room itself, miles separating people may truly disappear. We expect persistent video, where the camera is always on (providing the user gives permission) during a project so there is no need to initiate a call. Also, when employees collaborating on a design hand-write something, cameras (perhaps guided on drones) move to the right position to show the drawing -- even if it's on a pad of paper on the desk. And through personalization, the settings follow you to any device or office, and sense when the location has changed automatically.
  • Workspace customization - Privacy advocates forewarned! Imagine being in a building where office furniture is smart. So any chair knows you via biometrics and auto-conforms lumbar support, height, neck rest support, etc., to your preferences (which may be determined by ergonomic intelligence built into the furniture). Of course, this may mean the company has ready access to your weight, height, and other personal data you may not want it to know or store. But in exchange, your neck and back problems are alleviated (and the company reduces its potential lawsuits).

One of the biggest hopes I have for the digital workplace is advanced analytics. I speak regularly with IT executives who want some sense of the business value of the technologies they deliver. With automated analytics, putting a dollar value -- or even a health value, via biometric readings -- on increased productivity of any of these apps or integrations will be straightforward.

If the apps produce positive results, keep using them. Negative or no results, scrap them. It will put a bigger onus on vendors and developers to make sure they deliver value.

Of course, there are many challenges in this emerging world. Privacy concerns are obvious. But others include developing a digital workplace that, well... works -- for up to five generations now in the workplace, each with different workstyles and preferences. Companies also must spend increased resources on governance so the rules are clear, options are intuitive, and punishments severe for violations.