How to create a digital workplace

Because a secure remote-work strategy has become essential for business resilience, IT organizations are increasingly thinking now about creating digital workplaces. But doing so means much more than enabling remote work via VPNs, using identity controls, and rolling out cloud-based applications.

It also means devising a strategy that takes into account employee needs, regardless of location, in a way that ensures business moves forward smoothly.

As companies worldwide grapple with what the post-pandemic workplace looks like, it's important to understand the difference between a digital workplace and a digital workspace. They're not the same thing. And whether  companies plan a full return to office, an all-remote staff, or something in between - the "hybrid workplace" - the core issues they face in setting strategy remain the same.

Here's a look at the issues companies are likely to face.

The digital workplace defined

Research firms IDC and Gartner have their own individual definitions for the digital workplace, though both agree that technology decisions alone do not guarantee success. Other elements, if not considered, could lead to failure.

Gartner defines "digital workplace" as:

IDC's digital workplace definition is more succinct:

In both cases, the goal is to ensure that workers have the ability (and desire) to use digital technologies for their jobs, regardless of environment.

A digital workplace is not the same as a digital workspace. The former consists of a full approach to provide an environment where all can collaborate and perform their tasks; the latter focuses solely on the technologies needed for it.

Not surprisingly, tech vendors are happy to hawk their products as full-on digital-workplace solutions. But no product or service alone delivers a comprehensive digital workplace; for that, companies need a variety of tools and processes tied together by a cohesive strategy.

In April, an alliance of 10 vendors defined eight elements needed for a digital workspace: virtual desktops; virtual applications; secure endpoints; collaboration tools; policy and management; analytics, monitoring, and testing; print management; and security.

Although those elements focused only on technologies, the recommendations represent a useful starting point. It's  important to remember, however, that the digital workplace is a combination of three key elements: the space - be that the office, home office, or shared space; the technology; and the culture.

(CIO.com, a sister IDG publication, has outlined 10 strategic considerations in establishing a digital workplace, and this Computerworld story looks at the core technologies for enabling hybrid work - a key component of a digital workplace strategy - that IT will need to provide.)

"Organizations need to take a holistic, integrated approach that also incorporates augmentation that enables and embraces new digital coworkers - artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA), augmented reality and virtual reality, etc. - and work culture that fosters engaged and empowered workers aligned with digital skills, in addition to workspace," said Louise Francis, a research director at IDC.

It's also important to accommodate new and evolving technologies as the digital workplace progresses, because "the technologies that we may end up with today may be irrelevant tomorrow," said Gavin Tay, a Gartner analyst.

The digital workplace starts with a good hybrid-work environment

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic fast-tracked the adoption of technologies and hardware to support a flexible work environment and enable people to work from anywhere. It proved that not only can organizations trust employees to work remotely, but that companies must be prepared for unexpected disruptions.

Hybrid work - a pillar of the digital workplace - should be a mainstay for all future enterprise strategy, said Francis. "One can argue that there are some job roles or industries where remote work is less relevant or not necessary due to requirements to be onsite. Regardless, the thinking should be done from business resiliency or continuity perspective."

In other words, the exceptions should not get in the way of the flexibility needed to create a digital workplace.

It's becoming clear to most CIOs that hybrid workplaces are here to stay, said Tay, making the concept increasingly a top priority. And the technologies they choose must meet workers' needs if companies want to keep their employees.

A recent Gartner survey on the digital worker experience found that employees who appreciate their apps and technology - and use them - are far more likely to stay twice as long as those that don't. In part, that's because the COVID-19 pandemic made it simpler to change jobs, with interviews all conducted online - and the realization that a new job might not require a move. That's made it more challenging to retain talent, Tay said.

Recent Gartner research showed that organizations pushing in-office practices to at-home workers - such as virtualizing onsite practices, adding monitoring systems, and increasing the number of meetings - actually exacerbated employee fatigue.

The 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey of more than 2,400 workers in January 2021 revealed that employees who now spend more time in meetings are 1.24 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work. Overall, the fatigue brought on by bringing in-office practices into remote-work environments can decrease performance by 33% - and these employees are as much as 54% less likely to remain with their employer.

What to consider when planning a digital workplace

First, forget the physical office, said Tay, who's not convinced the physical office will have a future at many organizations. (And it's likely to have a smaller role at many others.)

He advised IT organizations to choose technologies that are flexible and easy to integrate, so businesses can orchestrate processes and tools more flexibly and easily - and manage updates and other maintenance with little or no user impact.

User experience matters, too. The worker should be top of mind, and IT departments and organizations need to consider how staffers work, behave, and use technologies to be productive. In addition to user experience, finding ways to automate work through RPA can focus employees on higher-value, more rewarding work. Remember that automation might be seen as a way to cut jobs (even if the data aren't so dire), which can damage morale and risk employee retention.

One key attribute of the digital workplace is that it should embrace continuous change, Tay said - not only in technology but in skills development and process.

Francis listed several aspects of the digital workplace that IDC considers essential: