It’s Time to Think About the Post-2020 Employee Experience

In these fraught times, most of us find that it’s quite challenging to think or plan about business longer term. Yet the benefits of doing are not only self-evident, it is likely critical at this moment to successfully navigate the challenging journey that now lies ahead of us. One of the most important topics to address in this new reality is how to provide a healthy and effective workplace for our workers.

We are now likely at the end of the beginning of the pandemic. As businesses start to open up, the first major wave of return to work (RTW) protocols have now been released by various regional governments. They give us a detailed sense of the issues and capabilities — exemplified by this excellent RTW checklist from SHRM — that we’ll need to begin putting in place to begin transitioning to what will become our next situational phase of work.

Just as importantly, such views also give us a reading on what we must consider to embark on the process of determining what the new long-term future of our employee experiences will be. One sobering data point: As little as a quarter of workers are willing to resume working in a physical office post-COVID according to a recent Gallup survey. This data has major ramifications, not the least that this means that most organizations will need to provide a remote-first employee experience for the foreseeable future.

The Post-2020 Digital Employee Experience

Second, both our businesses and workers are not in their best shape. We’ll need to focus on wellness and taking the care of the fundamentals when it comes to healthy workers, both physically and psychologically. So too with the business, to ensure it recovers and is better adapted to transformed markets, different demands, and new operational challenges.

While this future is still very uncertain, given the continuing changes in the world, some key elements are abundantly clear: We won’t return to the physical workplace that existed pre-COVID. Nor will we be staying in our present digitally remote environment in its current state, given its apparent shortcomings, especially not when an entire organization now has to run mostly virtual. In this virtual state, the top challenge consistently reported across many surveys is adequate communication and collaboration, most recently confirmed in a broad survey by Buffer, though there are plenty of other challenges to remote work/work from home (WFH) as well.

The Post-Pandemic Employee Experience Will Be Mostly About the Digital Workplace

So much as already happened this year when it comes to employee experience, from the dramatic and sudden shift to remote work in March to a much greater focus on employee wellbeing and health subsequently, among a whole host of rapid and disruptive new shifts. And so much more was going to happen — please see my rueful interview with DWG’s Paul Miller about the many changes in trajectory — until the pandemic hit. Now it appears that 2021 will be the breakout year for a much different and more useful view of employee experience.

As many of you know, I’ve long sought to create unifying visuals of our digital workplaces and human collaboration through technology, as well as provocative views to help us conceptualize the vital work we have in getting technology right for actual use by humans in business. My main theme as always is that technology must be foremost about people, or what is the point?

Now it’s time to take everything that has happened recently, add in all the major tech and societal trends that were feeding into 2020, and paint a comprehensive new and updated picture to see where we are now with employee experience. I’ve already initiatied that process with my informal employee experience board of digital workplace practitioners, IT leaders, user advocates, researchers, vendors, and others.

What does this look like exactly? For the overarching concept, I’m already on record saying that digital experience is ultimately the only thing that truly matters in the end, and that particularly includes employee experience. Everything else is an implementation or vendor sourcing detail. Instead, it’s the nature and quality of the journey itself, the trust and value of the data within it, and communal human connection through digital touchpoints that is by far the most important aspects which we need to get right (and fix) for our workers, customers, and partners.

Because employee experience is badly broken today, congested by ever-accumulating digital channels, an endless multitude of (albeit useful and needed) apps, and mountains and mountains of data with little overall design or thought to how it all works or could better fit together.

I believe it’s time — a true imperative even — to do much better by completely reformulating the worker journey around the experience model, combined with our urgent needs post-pandemic, especially around wellbeing and resilience. Most of us will start at the core of their employee experiences and steadily go outward until we reach diminishing returns. Some will find that it’s better to start the edge and work their way inward. But change we must, because the status quo is near the breaking point in terms of ever-lengthening employee onboarding times, needless cognitive load on workers to manage growing complexity, stagnating worker productivity, and low employee engagement/satisfaction.

The Post-2020 Employee Experience Has No Silos, No Barriers, No Limits

As part of this, I’ve synthesized what I believe is a unified view of what the post-2020 digital employee experience stack looks like, given the pandemic, latest industry trends, and other factors I’ll explore soon. Given the scope of the entire employee experience today, there simply is a lot of necessary components to this view. It will take me several months to full explore it here and elsewhere.

There are number of key points in this model that are important to understand in order to appreciate why it addresses many key issues in employee experience better than previous models:

  • This model merges IT, HR, comms, and everyone else into a single view for the first time. There are no artificial boundaries, and the vision is integrated and unified. This means there are many elements in this view that are unfamiliar to people in each of these functions. That is just fine. We’re all going to have the learn all the moving parts to deliver significant and sustainable employee experience improvements. Note: The view above is the highest level one. I will be releasing the detailed view shortly.
  • If experience is at the core of employee experience, it should be the organizing principle. It should be represented as a recognizable capability on the IT side, and used by HR and everyone else to urgently produce the experiences we need that tap into our full capabilities as individuals and organizations. This is a very different view than in the past where we acquired individual digital tools, touchpoints, or suites, branded and configured them a bit, maybe added an integration or three, and threw them over the wall to workers. Invariably this just added one more thing to the grab bag of apps and systems they have to use. No more. A digital experience model that forms a consistent “center of gravity” for the worker and their daily activities is the most important focus in this model.
  • Automation, analytics, current and coming revolutions in digital experience, consumer-grade user interfaces, low/no-code and the emerging tech spectrum must regularly inform and improve the employee experience. The employee experience must evolve as fast the world, and it must therefore be represented in a cohesive but loosely-structured stack designed to change and keep up. Most organizations will spend the next five to 10 years getting this stack right for them, and they’ll never finish evolving it, nor should they. But it must be the primary focus, along with the worker journey itself.
  • The daily moments of the worker must be the unit of employee experience development and management. This makes it human centered and aimed at the most meaningful work activities. Re-organize disjointed work into singular job activities (sell a product, build a team, manage a project, get a promotion) that formerly spanned many to dozens of siloed apps and unify them into easily customized and personalized digital experience that are contextual, have built-in just-in-time training and can be created by anyone in the organization that needs to.

At its core, however, this is an attempt to put all the moving parts of digital employee experience together — perhaps for the first time in a truly comprehensive view — in what I believe is a new, useful, and compelling way that is centered around experiences while empathizing deeply with two vital audiences: Employees and the business, both.

As mentioned above, this is the beginning of a long exposition on experience-led employee journeys that I believe is becoming the next leading model for digital workplace and employee experience. Please join me here and elsewhere as I continue to explore it in detail, as well those organizations that are already starting to do it.

Note: No view of employee experience could be truly novel of course, as many in the industry have identified or created so many pieces of what I lay out here. We’re all building on the shoulders of giants. What’s different, I would suggest, is a truly holistic and inclusive approach that has the highest chance to be successful at addressing the largely accidental, disjointed, overly complex, and sprawling employee experience that most of us have built up over the years.

Please contact me if you have important contributions to make. Do consult the additional reading below for a fuller view of how all these pieces fit together into a much brighter and more effective employee experience that meets both the needs of workers, the business, and our times.

Additional Reading

How Work Will Evolve in a Digital Post-Pandemic Society

Revisiting How to Cultivate Connected Organizations in an Age of Coronavirus

My 2020 Predictions for the Future of Work

A Checklist for a Modern Core Digital Workplace and/or Intranet

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience

The Challenging State of Employee Experience and Digital Workplace Today

A Timeless Way of Building Software

Most of my readers know that I’m a software architect by trade.  I’ve been creating software large and small for over twenty years.  And I’ve experienced movement after movement in software design from object-orientation in the 1980s and early 90s to component-based design, distributed objects, Web-based software, service-oriented architecture and too many others to even mention.  I’m pretty jaded at this point because I’ve learned, in general, the problems that you couldn’t solve in the previous generation of technique are often only marginally more solvable in the next generation (which is invariably invented to "fix" the previous problems.)

Alas, a genuinely better mousetrap is really hard to find.

So in the end, if you couldn’t do whatever it is you wanted to do with the previous generation of technique, it’s actually not that likely you’ll succeed in the next.  Certain software problems remain hard, and in general, it mysteriously happens to involve the juncture between technology and people in some way.  To paraphrase this, I could say that the software and techniques get better fairly constantly, but people remain the same.

And please, bear with me because I’m going to try out a real zinger on you in a minute. 

Because every once in a long while, something new and big actually does come along.  Or at least something that looks new and big.  One of the new and big things that came along about ten years ago was the concept of design patterns.  It was pretty neat stuff.  It said that despite the current technology we have, the processes that continue to evolve, there are certain timeless solutions to certain software design problems.  It was a revelation at the time.  And the writers of the book that explained this got both famous and very successful.  Why? Because these design patterns really worked is why.  And anyone who has read the books and has ever really built software recognizes these patterns.  And what was strange was that no one really expected it. One day, we just had them.  And the kicker was, they were always there, but now they were in our conscious thought and we had real names for them.  My point: They were in our face all the time but most of us couldn’t see them.

We are in a similar place with the Web right now.  We’ve done this Web stuff enough now that we are just beginning to see the design patterns.  What works, and why, in a specific situations, bounded by forces.  Some folks have had the hubris to give this next generation a name and to tease out these patterns.  Some people are just now going aha, and some people haven’t got it yet, and most of the rest of us either aren’t ready for it or just haven’t heard of it.  But, I will tell you this.  It’s quite real.  The best practices and design patterns of Web software are just starting to become understood.  The strange part is, we’re discovering the same things over again.  What’s old is new again.

Now, before you get all worked up or worse, I bore you and you stop reading, I will give you a nice list of the the forces behind these patterns.  If you recall, design patterns are a solution to a problem in context.  We are starting to get the context and even the outlines of the patterns of this "new" generation of software.  But we have a long way to go still.  The Web is a monstrously big space with big problems, and it’s not getting better.  There are one billion of us out here now.  Clearly understanding what it takes to create great software on the Web that is successful, useful, and vibrant will be an ongoing challenge for a long time.  But it will get easier because we are codifying our knowledge of this exciting and huge place where we now find ourselves.

Comparing SOA, Web 2.0, and a Timeless Way of Building Software
Figure 1:  The driving forces in modern software.
With a rough comparison between SOA
and The Timeless Way (Web 2.0 by any other name).


Now is where I’m going to hit you with a flight of fancy.  I’m going to use Christopher Alexander’s opening chapter of a Timeless Way of Building and tailor it to describe this old-but-new way of building the Web and software for it.  We are lacking for a little inspiration and this book in particular continues to sell upwards of 10,000 copies a year, 25 years after it was frst published.  And Christopher Alexander, for those of you who may not know, was the person that originally discovered the design pattern.  But it wasn’t for software.  It was for creating great, timeless buildings.  He was one of the first that realized that his field of endeavor has certain elemental, timeless cores, no matter the technique, building material, or the people.  It was an amazing discovery that poured over into the software world with considerable success. 

My assertion is that nothing has really changed in software, we might understand the forces better but they are almost always the same.  People want software that does what they want, is available when they need it.  They want software that grows with them, helps them, teaches them, and lets them do the same with others.  They want software that gets out of their way, disappears, and is more convenient by far than inconvenient.  And they want to pay as little as possible for it, but enough so that it’s worth it.  They are willing to have software get right into the middle of their lives.  If it’s the right software.  And as long as we’ve had software, they’ve always wanted this. But now they might actually start getting it.

In any case, I don’t literally believe every phrase in this take-off, but I do believe the overall concept deeply and profoundly as a software professional.  And I will continue to update the diagram above (clearly marked beta 1) until we have more of the forces in it. And some are definitely missing.  Please, as always, leave any comments and suggestions for improvement below.

And now, without further ado, here is the The Timeless Way of Building Software, with sincere apologies to Christopher Alexander:

The Timeless Way of Building Software
Inspiration For The Next Generation of Web Software


There is one timeless way of building software.  It is decades old and is the same today as it’s always been.  And because it is timeless, it will always remain this way.

The great software of our time has always been created by people who were close to this way.  It isn’t possible to create great software – software that is satisfying, and useful, and makes itself a natural extension of life – except by following this way.  And as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to elegant, vibrant software which is itself timeless in its form.

It is the process by which the function of a piece of software grows directly from the inner nature of people and naturally out of the raw bits, the otherwise meaningless digital medium, of which it is made.

It is a process which allows the life inside a person, or a group of people, or a community to flourish, openly, in freedom, so vividly that it gives rise, of its own accord, to the natural order which is needed to be contained within it.

It is so powerful and fundamental that with its help you can create software that is as beautiful and enriching as anything else you have ever seen.

Once you understand this way, you yourself will be able to create software that is alive, that is intertwined comfortably with your life and the lives of others. You will design worlds where you and others will want to work, play, and co-exist together; beautiful places where you can sit and dream comfortably.

This way is so powerful, that with its help hundreds or thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people, can come together together to create software and community which is as alive and vibrant, peaceful and relaxed, as any living experience has ever been.

Without the central control of authorities and experts, if you are working in this timeless way, a genuine place will grow right from underneath your fingertips, as steady as the grass in the fields or the trees in your backyard.

And there is no other way in which a software which is fundamentally good can possibly be made.

That doesn’t mean that all ways of making software are identical.  Quite the contrary. It means that at the core of all successful software and at the core of all successful processes of creation and evolution, there is one fundamental invariant feature which is responsible for their success.  Although this way has taken on a thousand different forms at different times, in different places, still, there is an unavoidable, invariant core to all of them.

Take a look at the some of the great Web software like Google’s search page, Flickr or del.icio.us.  They all have that unique, yet unhurried, grace which comes from perfect ease and natural balance.  But what is it they have in common exactly?  They are beautiful, ordered, harmonious – yes, all of these things.  But especially, and what strikes to the heart, they live.

Each one of us yearns to be able to bring something to life like this. Or just be a part of it somehow.

It is a fundamental human instinct, as much a part of our desire as the desire to be part of something greater than ourselves.  It is, quite simply, the desire to make a part of nature, to complete a world which is already made of mountains, streams, stones, buildings, ourselves, our living systems, and our increasing connectedness together.

Each one of us has, somewhere in our heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe, and place of our own for us to share with others.

Those of us who have trained as software designers have this desire perhaps at the very center of our lives; that one day, somewhere, somehow, we shall build a software experience which is wonderful, beautiful, and breathtaking; a place where people can go and live their dreams.

In some form, every person has some version of this dream; whoever you are, you may have the dream of one day creating a most beautiful place, virtual or otherwise, where you can come together with others and freely share your knowledge, learn, participate in your community or government, and otherwise conduct your daily interaction with the rest of the world.

In some less clear fashion, anyone who is concerned with communities and other large group efforts has this same dream, perhaps for the entire world.

And there is a way that software can actually be brought to life like this.

There is a definable sequence of activities which are the heart of all acts of software design, and it is possible to specify, precisely, under way conditions these activities will generate software which is alive.  All this can be made so explicit that anyone can do it.

And just so, the process by which a group of independent people can make software become alive and create a place as real as any other can equally be made precise.  Again, there is a definable sequence of activities, more complex in this case, which are the heart of all collective processes of software creation.  And it is also possible to specify exactly when these processes will bring things to life.  And once again, these processes can be made so explicit, and so clear, that any group of people can make use of them.

This process is behind the design of community built software like Linux, Apache, Wikipedia, and many others.  It was behind the design of the great virtual places for people to live and work: the Internet, Usenet, and the World Wide Web.  It was behind the creation of simple, satisfying software of the kind that powers the iPod, the Blackberry, and Firefox; of SourceForge, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent.  In an unconscious form, this way has been behind almost all ways of creating software since the beginning.

But it has become possible to identify it, only now, by going to a level of analysis which is deep enough to show what is invariant in all of the different versions of this way.

This hinges on a form of representation which reveals all possible design processes, as versions of one most fundamental set of patterns.

First, we have a way of looking at the ultimate constituents of the environment: the ultimate "things" which a piece of software is made of.  As we shall see, every piece of software is made of certain fundamental entities known as design patterns; and once we understand software in terms of its patterns, we have a way of looking at them, which makes all software, all of their parts and function, all members of the same class of thing.

Second, we have a way of understanding the generative processes which give rise to these patterns: in short, the source from which the ultimate constituents of software come.  These patterns tend to come from certain combinatory processes, which are different in the specific patterns that they generate, but always similar in their overall structure, and in the way they work.  They are essentially like languages.  And again, in terms of these pattern languages, all the different way of building software, although different in detail, become similar in general outline.

At this level of analysis, we can compare many different software creation processes.

Then, once we see their differences clearly, it becomes possible to define the difference between those processes which make software vibrant, alive, and useful, and those which make them the opposite.

And it turns out that, invariant, behind all processes which allow us to make great software, there is a single common process.

This single idea is operational and precise.  It is not merely a vague idea, or a class of processes which we can understand: it is concrete enough and specific enough, so that it functions practically.  It gives us the power to make software and virtual communities live, as concrete as a match gives us the power to make flame.  It is a method of a discipline, which teaches us precisely what we have to do make our software what we want it to be.

But though this method is precise, it cannot be used mechanically.

The fact is, that even when we have seen deep into the processes by which it is possible to make software alive, in the end, it turns out this knowledge only brings us back to that part of ourselves which is forgotten.  Although the process is precise, and can be defined in exact scientific terms, finally it becomes valuable, not so much because it shows us things which we don’t know (though it may do that as well), but instead, because it shows us what we know already.

Of course, this way of building software has never be named.  It’s not service-oriented architecture, or the personal software process, or agile methodology, or the unified process, or CMM, or any of the others.  It’s the actual things that are conceived and done and worried about when software is created and used.  For now, because all software is quickly becoming connected to all other software, and because the Web is becoming the place where more and more of the relevant software is, and finally because it is a more complete reconception of what we thought we knew, we’ll give it a name temporarily.  An unsatisfying name, but one that we can remember for now.

We will call it Web 2.0.

What do you think?  Are we at a place where we can really identify the design patterns in Web 2.0?