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The Digital Renaissance

The Ultimate Guide to the Digital Workplace: Past History, Current Transformation & Trends Shaping the Future

Business people brainstorming at digital workplace

The digital workplace isn’t a theory or a dream anymore: it’s 100% here. Recent global events showed how many industries–even the most traditional, “analog” bricks-and-mortar type ones – are ready, willing, and able to shift from a traditional work setting to an office that’s primarily digital. 

The numbers are in: 80% of business leaders rushed to use new technology in response to the pandemic, and we’ve now reached a point where we have to rethink remote work. We’ve gone past simply occasionally “working from home” to a new way of working entirely, and it’s time for employers to reimagine and redefine productivity in the digital workplace. 

With the right approach, companies can create a digital workplace experience that has the possibility of becoming even more efficient than the in-person environment. 

Learn about the benefits of the digital workplace, its evolution, and how your organization can take advantage of the digital workplace beyond 2022.

What Is the Digital Workplace?

While the digital workplace might feel like a relatively new concept, it’s actually been around for many years. Experts saw the writing on the wall long ago and predicted that physical offices would one day become a thing of the past as some of the most innovative tech companies were tapping resources from all over the world, rather than from within a single office. Over time, businesses needed to manage substantially larger volumes of information, driving the need for more comprehensive information management and information technology solutions.   

The digital workplace should be the virtual equivalent of an office environment: a place where colleagues can connect and collaborate in as many ways as possible. In some ways, it’s the great-grandchild of the corporate intranet, offering a digital gathering place for employees to communicate no matter where they work. 

Every company embraces the digital workplace differently, but most digital workplaces share these characteristics: 

  • Based in the cloud: Powerful cloud applications (and increased high-speed connectivity options) now make it possible to fully work and collaborate online. No more buffering or shaky images: a Teams (or Skype or ____) call works as well as sitting in an actual meeting room.
  • Digital toolbox: Businesses use an average of 16 SaaS tools. The digital workplace should act as The Tool Box for all of these tools: video chat, email, project management, social media, data analysis, HR, and more. Instead of searching for the tools they need to do their jobs, employees have access to everything in one place. 
  • Third-party integrations: In the digital workplace, employees don’t need to switch between different applications because everything integrates seamlessly. For example, you might have a Zapier connection between your email marketing platform and your CRM to log data automatically.  The business benefit is that you can meet employees where they are, enable use of the tools they prefer, make it more easy for them to customize (and therefore enjoy) their workspaces.

Still… for many people out there, when you say “digital workplace,” they think remote employees, but it can and should support hybrid work arrangements and in-person environments, too. Off-site, on-site, online, out-of-the-country: the goal is to give all employees an equitable experience no matter where they are or how they prefer to get their work done. 

Benefits of the Digital Workplace

Even before the pandemic, about 40% of businesses were saying they want a digital workplace because it will reduce their costs and give them a competitive advantage. 

Absolutely true, and also just the start. Digitizing will definitely make your business more competitive, but it also offers other benefits, like: 

  • Increased visibility: More than three-fourths (77%) of high-performance projects make use of project management software, which provides greater visibility into the status of projects, resource allocation, and what team members are working on. Workplace analytics tools also give increased visibility into the employee experience and output, so managers don’t have to guess what their employees are up to.
  • Time saved: Digital workplaces spend 17% less time on manual processes. Remote employees also report that they work faster remotely because there are fewer distractions
  • Employee retention: Switching to a digital workplace can decrease employee turnover by an impressive 25%. By allowing for greater scheduling flexibility or remote work, digital workplaces help to improve employee satisfaction. In fact, according to Lumapps, “employees who work remotely even just once a month have reported that they are 24 % more likely to feel happy while working.” 
  • Increased revenue: The digital workplace isn’t just great for employees. Businesses can see as much as a 43% increase in revenue when they go fully digital due to streamlined processes and improved productivity. 

The History of the Digital Workplace

The digital workplace is clearly a valuable innovation, but how did we get here? How did the digital workplace transform from a static intranet page into a centralized platform for work? 

  • 1960s – 1970s: DARPA invented the intranet, called ARPANET at the time, sometime in the 60s or 70s. It quickly became a useful way for businesses to connect employees on company premises. At the time, the intranet was mostly used for internal communications, like a company newsletter, that employees could only access while on their work computers.
  • 1980s: As companies like Apple and IBM continued to innovate, the price (and footprint) of the personal computer became much more accessible for everyday people. More machines in more homes: a cornerstone in building the digital workplace.
  • 1990s: The 90s heralded the arrival of home internet and even more (and more affordable) personal computers. While dial-up internet was slow and cumbersome, it still allowed more people to remotely access work desktops and more. 
  • 2000s: The 2000s is when things really picked up speed. Data went from being localized on machines to being stored in servers in the cloud. The size (and cost) of personal computers shrunk considerably, and the arrival of the iPhone shrunk both even more. With the floodgates opened for personal handheld devices, people were now able to do most every task imaginable from anywhere with a web connection… including checking their work email. 
  • 2010s: By the 2010s, laptops, smartphones, and internet-connected devices were now affordable and ubiquitous. High-speed internet also became more affordable, which allowed people to stream large amounts of data, like what you might find in a PPT deck for a client presentation, in high definition. 
  • 2012: In 2012, experts predicted that businesses would eventually decentralize and form digital workplaces. Businesses were further transforming intranets into resource hubs for employees (e.g., instead of just being “a place” where employees could access tools and information, intranet technology was being used to facilitate collaboration).
  • 2020: COVID-19 poured gasoline on the movement towards digital workplaces. It changed how we think about work, moving many businesses away from a “people in seats” model to a KPI- and results-focused model.

Today, the digital workplace gives employees all of the content, communication, and collaboration tools they need to be successful. Instead of just sharing information, it allows employees to engage and collaborate. It’s possible to: 

  • Create a post in an employee forum and get real-time feedback
  • Chat with coworkers about a presentation
  • Edit a slide deck remotely, in real-time

While it’s clear the digital workplace has arrived, it’s equally clear that it continues to evolve. Perhaps the only upside of the COVID-19 epidemic was that it helped accelerate changes to the digital workplace and forced brands to cope with mountains of change in a short period of time. 

Even if your business has a digital workplace, you have to ensure it’s set-up to evolve quickly. We predict that these five trends will shape the future of the digital workplace as we know it.

1. Security Concerns

IT professionals saw a 71% increase in cybersecurity attacks during COVID-19. While increased connectivity is a great way to keep your remote team engaged, it can also open your organization up to the unsavory side of the internet. 

Attackers are going after businesses of all sizes and industries: no one should assume they’re safe. Any business that operates in a digital workplace needs to take common-sense security measures like: 

  • Strong passwords
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Encryption
  • User and access management
  • Employee phishing training

Since the average cost of a single cyber attack is $133,000 (and attacks are on the rise), security must be a priority for every digital workplace.

2. New Corporate Hierarchy

COVID-19 forced businesses to become more immediately responsive, and embrace an Agile model, which meant that traditional (and often slow), top-down leadership just couldn’t cut it. In fact, 33% of millennial employees say a more collaborative approach (less vertical, more horizontal) would make them more loyal to an employer. 

Management practices have evolved to keep up with these new employee expectations. In the digital workplace, managers often function more as resource hubs providing support, instead of foremen providing direction. 

3. Employee Learning

Technology and processes change frequently in the digital workplace. If you want your team to keep up, you need to arm them with the knowledge and skills to do their jobs. That means remote teams need more coaching and learning opportunities to stay competitive. 

The good news is that employees actually say they want training these days! Gone are the days when staff saw training as a drag. In fact, 76% of employees want digital skills training from their employer (but only 44% of employees say their employer offers it).

That number is even higher for remote workers, 85% of whom claim to be open to learning new skills, so take advantage of your team’s natural desire to learn. This means investing in your employees through:

  • Training while on the clock: Don’t ask your employees to learn on their own time, because they won’t do it! Train your team and compensate them for their time. It might mean a momentary dip in productivity while they’re learning, but it reaps dividends in work quality down the road. 
  • Mobile-friendly learning: 90% of employees want mobile-based learning. If you do offer training, offer it in an Android or iOS app or mobile-friendly web app so it’s accessible on the go.
  • Microlearning: Don’t throw a two-hour training at your team and expect them to absorb everything. Format your training in 15-minute increments with microlearning. When in doubt, format your training like it’s a YouTube video so you maintain your employees’ attention. 
  • Gamification: Who says learning has to be boring? Add gamified elements to employee training to maintain their attention and boost retention. 72% of employees say gamified lessons make them work harder, which translates into 14% higher scores on skills-based assessments. 
4. Machine Learning and AI

Remote workers may often be faster and more productive than in-office workers, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for improvement, room to reduce the time and costs of manual labor. Which is why automation is an exciting trend for the digital workplace.

Approximately 5% of all tasks can be automated, taking advantage of tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Some employees are nervous about the idea of AI, worrying that “robots” will take over their jobs. However, 40% of employers believe AI can solve employee skills gaps, and that AI will create opportunities for humans to work in ways we have yet to envision.

In our opinion, machine learning and AI don’t mean losing jobs. Rather, they contribute to improving jobs as mundane tasks can be automated, while more complex and rewarding tasks (such as driving new business) can’t be.

With machine learning, you can significantly speed up the decisions your team makes in the digital workplace. This technology learns as it goes, improving data processing or even identifying trends in your business that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

You can’t ask a robot to do everything, but this technology is able to lend a hand with tasks such as:

  • Customer support (bots!)
  • Data analytics
  • Social media graphic generation
  • Expense reports
  • Email automation
  • Split testing
  • Social media scheduling

With AI and machine learning, there’s less waiting and more doing. Ask your employees to focus on tasks that matter while the robots handle the tedious, less enjoyable parts of their jobs. Your employees will be happier and there will be fewer errors in your work, too!

5. Remote Work as the Default

Even after the pandemic, 44% of companies don’t allow any form of remote work at all. While some work truly can’t be done from home, most office work can be completed from anywhere in the world. 

Approximately 78% of managers think that remote collaboration will be here for the long-term, and 80% of businesses that switched to remote during the pandemic plan to continue offering it. 

With nearly 50% of employees working remotely in 2020, remote work is a standard employees now often expect. If organizations dig in their heels and demand in-person only–refusing to build or support the digital workplace–they risk losing employees. 

While remote work and the digital workplace go hand in hand, it’s an evolving relationship and there are some guidelines employers should consider as they offer more remote work options, such as: 

  • Flexible hours: 43% of remote workers say they’re more productive at home because of flexible working hours. If you don’t already offer this, allow your team to set some, if not all, of their own working hours. If you need everyone online for meetings, you can set core hours when they need to be online and available. 
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies: 60% of employees use their personal smartphones for work. Allow your team to use their personal devices, but also require reasonable security measures for those devices. 
  • Track KPIs, not 9 to 5: Your leaders might be accustomed to managing in an in-person environment, where attendance is key. But is attendance truly a measure of productivity? Instead of tracking employees’ time online or their mouse movements, focus on the value they bring to the business. Implement a KPI-focused approach to productivity and give your team the trust they deserve. 


The Digital Workplace: Innovate and Thrive

Digital workplaces are already here, and it’s time to prepare for what’s next. The workplace of tomorrow will have the freedom of location, the ability to work from any device, and seamless integration of our personal and professional lives. 

But while the technological foundation is important, the cultural foundation should come first. Businesses have to change their mindsets and processes to create a framework for an effective digital workplace. Planning for the five trends just detailed  can help make room for the digital workplace in your own organization.

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