The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

It’s a very difficult time to be in the business of providing a digital employee experience today. By digital employee experience, I mean the totality of the end-to-end digital touchpoints that a worker uses to get their job done. This view is also sometimes called the digital workplace, and it includes all the devices, apps, and data that a worker employs in their day-to-day work, whether it’s company provided or not (as we’ll see, an increasingly fraught topic.)

But digital workplace is now seen by many, including by myself, as an inadequate and incomplete construct. Certainly, it consists of the local intranet, computer desktop, productivity tools, enterprise search engine(s), collaboration apps, and line of business systems, most of which was acquired and deployed with almost no thought to how they should fit together as an overall digital journey.

In other words, though I now see more and more digital workplace groups within organizations who are actually in charge of it, the reality is that we’re a long way from a consistent, seamless, effective, widely adopted, and well-designed digital workplace.

The Complex Digital Workplace Landscape of Apps, Data, and People We Must Design Into an Employee Experience

The Issues in Realizing an Effective Digital Journey for Workers

There are a complex and interrelated set of factors on why digital workplace is in reality very much on the ropes in many, if not most, organizations. In my view, the critical factors are:

  • Employee experience is proving to be a more complete and effective view of digital enablement, but comes in at a harder-to-address and rather disruptive angle. The employee experience takes into account a much more complete view (physical, cultural, and technological) of what employees should have addressed in their digitally-enabled work lives. Yet this view, while likely to produce substantially better outcomes if it’s realized through this lens, is highly problematic in that it clearly straddles at least two major organizational silos: HR (the people component) and IT (the digital side) in order to achieve, plus some other groups as well, including everyone from facilities to compliance and regulatory. Getting all of these groups to work together at the same time — and with the same vision — is very challenging.
  • Apps have proliferated by the millions and become hyperspecialized. Every function in the business (marketing, sales, operations, legal, HR, etc) are getting highly targeted apps that they can use to address their work much better than the general purpose, one-size-fits-all that IT much prefers (for cost, manageability, governance, etc.) Consumer and enterprise app stores are filled with countless solutions that will do exactly what you need for an individual task. The supply side of IT has become so vast and large that it’s almost impossible to be a departmental conduit for it (like IT is supposed to be) or design up-to-date experiences around this galaxy-sized pool of choices.
  • The cloud (especially SaaS) and mobile app stores have definitively disrupted IT, creating vast and rapidly shifting Shadow IT dominions on the edges of organizations. While ERP, HR benefits systems, e-mail, and the proverbial cafeteria menu/corporate HQ driving directions pages on the intranet don’t seem to be affected, everything else, starting with CRM and going deep into every corporate function, satisfying near every user requirement, whatever it is, for cheap (often for free), available right now at a button click, has upended the game. Marketing departments are almost certainly the leading example of this: The excellent Scott Brinker has been tracking the vast explosion of apps in this category, going from about 150 in 2011 to a staggering 7,000+ in 2019. What’s more, the churn in the category is astonishing, with 83% of marketers ripping and replacing key apps each year. Other functions are seeing similar proliferation of choice as I’ve shown in the past (and they’re often very good options indeed), though not quite to the degree that marketing groups are experiencing.
  • A strong desire and legitimate need to have a more integrated, centralized, simplified, and streamlined set of digital workplace tools. The above trends are driving a strong inclination — even an imperative in many organizations I speak with — to create a center of gravity for digital work. This is where apps, data, and people are brought together as much as it makes sense and where functionality can be more easily accessed and used (and searched), without switching between hundreds of apps or importing/export data all day or struggling to get co-workers to join and adopt yet another new app, service, channel, or collaboration tool. I’ve called this the digital workplace hub, and something like it is needed, though arguments have been made (by me as well) that mobile devices and their operating systems are ultimately heading in this direction. Enterprise apps such as Slack, Box, and others have increasingly managed to create large numbers of integrations to business systems that workers can use, though said workers are not actually trained for the most part how to benefit from or use these emerging hubs.
  • Design is absent from the overall digital employee experience. We simply haven’t used employee experience as the lens to consider what we should do, and moreover, we haven’t had the tools or composable apps to achieve a more designed experience. With the widespread rise of microservices and easy-to-integrate online apps via APIs, this is now all changing. We are now able to carve out and bring together the features, experiences, and journeys from most of our IT systems into a more comprehensible design that’s better designed (though, never finished and very much co-designed with individual workers, who already do most of their employee experience design day-to-day.
  • The need for digital workplace, and consequently now employee experience, to reflect a wider range of an employee needs, to drive overall engagement, which digital tools are actually very capable of delivering. I often say that nothing is worse that hiring smart people and then giving them poor tools to do their job, or just as bad, a terrible overall employee experience. We simply have to do much better with design of our employee experiences.
  • Limited tools, platforms, models, or prior experience to dealing with all of this in our industry. To be clear, we are in uncharted waters here. Never has the digital workplace or employee experience landscape ever been anything close to as large or complex as it is now, and it will only get worse for most. While I am tracking some early lessons learned, new tooling, and initial planning/design frameworks, we are in early days. As with most of digital, we will all have to get very good at complexity management at high scale.
  • High levels of technical debt and insufficient willpower or support to comprehensively address the core issues. I’ve talked about issues of ever-faster accumulating technical debt before, and it can’t be forgotten how much this hold positive change back. Cloud will help for a while, but new architectures are going to be required.

How Will We Overcome These Challenges?

What is IT, and indeed, HR and the whole organizations due to address these very considerable obstacles and headwinds? That is the question. I’ve argued that the methods that we ar led to by the concept of Design for Loss of Control will be key. I believe in this more now, than ever before.

People will also be key to this. While cultural change will be the hardest and take the most time, we don’t have to wait for it. Harnessing and enabling change agents who are hungry to improve their local digital workplaces and employee experience will provide a lot of the scale and local change that we need. Other techniques are emerging, such as digital adoption platforms. I am actually very hopeful that we’ll get to a much better place, but not until we’ve learned a lot of those hard lessons. I’ll be surveying our BT150 digital leaders en masse early this year to see what they’re doing to improve this state of affairs. I’ll release the data when I have it.

Until then, we have to take what we’ve already learned to heart and apply it: Use employee experience as the master lens over it all, and use exponential methods to realize it. Collaborate with everyone in our organizations that we’ll need to make it a reality. Measure and improve it often. Be inclusive, and don’t overcontrol. Good luck.

Additional Reading

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

How to Develop the Minimum Viable Employee Experience

Tech Foundation for Employee Experience: An Integrated Stack

One Response to The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

  1. Pingback: Vom Social Intranet zum Digital Workplace Ökosystem - der IT-Ansatz braucht ein Umdenken » Digital Workplace Blog

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