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Workplace of the Future, Today

Experts share tips on how to avoid productivity pitfalls with digital workplace transformations


What did your workday look like today? Perhaps you shared your screen with an IT technician to diagnose a printing problem? Or you filled out an employee engagement survey through an internal digital portal?

Maybe you attended a digital town hall, took part in a Skype meeting or collaborated via Microsoft Teams on a big presentation due next week – all without leaving the comfort of your home?

Today’s workplaces have long since evolved beyond the cubicle culture. Instead, they have entered a digital age where the tools of today are not pencils and notepads, but instant messaging and videoconferences.

Earlier this year, global research and advisory giant Gartner estimated that more than 70 per cent of organizations globally have a goal to achieve a formal digital workplace.

“Workplaces want to move to models where employees can help themselves to the tools and resources they need. This enables employees to work anywhere, any time,” says Catherine Heggerud, who teaches business technology management within the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary and is the director of the master of management program.

“We think about employees getting offices in a box – everything you need to work from wherever you would like.”

Yet workplace transformation experts warn the effectiveness of these new tools is not guaranteed. They argue that a well-intended digital journey can easily take a costly detour without proper evaluation and change management, leading to disengaged employees and productivity shortfalls.

“A lot of organizations are wrestling with how to create a road map to roll out all of these tools. The reality is there are way more tools and technology than organizations know what to do with,” says Chris Radcliffe, a digital workplace adviser at Habenero Consulting Group, which has worked with companies such as Suncor, Enbridge, Wawanesa Insurance, Lululemon and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

“A lot of our work is focused on the planning and envisioning side where we help organizations make sense of the way to roll out these tools and drive successful experiences for their employees to create frictionless collaboration.”

The path to the promised land starts by choosing the tools that best meet what a business is trying to accomplish, says Heggerud.

“Many organizations don’t spend enough time up front on figuring out what they are trying to do,” she says. “They pick a tool (i.e. we need email!) and then rush to put it in. Perhaps their organization really needed a coffee room.”

What is the goal of the organization? Increased collaboration? Document retrieval? Whatever the case, the organization needs to be aligned with the outcome, says Heggerud.

She notes Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite are two of the more prominent digital workplace tools available today. Other players gaining traction in this space include Slack, Dropbox or Box and Workfront or Asana.

When it comes to implementation, companies should ask employees what they’re struggling with today before attempting to create any sort of digital workplace, says Mike Hicks, chief marketing officer with Igloo Software, a Canadian-based digital workplace solution provider.

What do they like and what they don’t like about the tool set they are being given? Where do they think things are being dysfunctional? What’s frustrating them?

“Then work to figure out what you need to do to solve those problems,” says Hicks, whose firm has worked with companies such as Enmax, Hulu, Cigna, Canfor and Gildan. “You can’t underestimate the difficulty in change management across the board.”

Adds Heggerud, “If anyone has ever tried to take up an exercise plan, quit smoking, give up chocolate, it’s really hard if we rely on external motivators. Employees need to buy in to the change and believe that it is in their best interest. Then they will change their behaviour to use the new tool.”

Radcliffe urges companies to ditch traditional change management thinking because it assumes employees will “just get it.”

“The historical perspective on change management is to create some posters, send out some emails, offer a couple training modules and hope it works. That’s like throwing darts at a wall,” he says.

“We see a lot of companies that are struggling with change management because they never really considered it enough in their initial roll-out phases. They just assume people will adopt the new tools.”

Instead of a traditional big-bang waterfall-like roll-out, Radcliffe recommends companies adopt more of an agile and iterative approach to introducing their technology, and factor training and communication into their plans from the outset.

That could involve engaging an early adopter group in initial phases where employers see those interactions first-hand. In subsequent phases, those early adopters could collaborate as project champions on the materials and education needed to successfully switch over to the new system.

Radcliffe also recommends involved IT on that journey as they may want to change how they’ve configured the solution based on the feedback.

Horror stories of digital workforce implementation gone wrong are, unfortunately, common, says Hicks. It most cases, it traces back to confusion around the tools that should be used, including when and how they should be incorporated.

“A lot of times, customers or prospects will come to us and say we’ve got a major communication issue, or we have a knowledge management issue because there are data repository silos all over the place,” he says. “In either case, these issues are severely impacting productivity and the ability for people to get their work done in an efficient way.”

When evaluating the effectiveness of a digital workplace, Hicks urges senior leaders to avoid using traditional return-on-investment formulas.

“You have to start looking at things like increases in employee engagement,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about spending money on technology to gain five per cent efficiency that allows us to output 10 per cent more widgets at the end of the day. It’s more about job satisfaction and how that helps with retention. And retained and engaged employees are more productive, which ultimately saves the company money.”

He points to a Corporate Leadership Council study that found those employees who are most committed perform 20 per cent better and are 87 per cent less likely to leave the organization.

“They’re also more willing to break down barriers to cross-functional collaboration, which is a key to innovation,” says Hicks. “They’re willing to come to the table and share ideas on how to create additional value for the company.”

Heggerud also cautions that digital workplace transformations are not a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Just as we have seen in the legacy ERP space, different applications fit different organizations better. The same is true for digital workplace tools. You need to pick the services that fit your organizational road map.”

And with so many choices, the best advice Hicks has is to not just throw technology at this problem. “You have to understand how this technology is going to be used, you have to plan the roll-out and you have to have open communication about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”