The State of the Digital Workplace

June 2017

Over the last three days, I’ve spent my time in conversations and presentations revolving around the digital workplace at the inaugural Digital Workplace Experience conference put on by CMSWire and the Digital Workplace Group. The conference on the whole was indeed a great experience. Attendance was measured in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands, which gave it a much more intimate and engaging vibe. There were a good mix of general and breakout sessions with small vignettes interspersed throughout the agenda.

There were some great thought-leaders that presented, including Paul Miller, Stowe Boyd, James Robertson, and Tony Byrne. Jill Christensen broke down employee engagement and gave a clear path for improvement. Companies that shared their experiences, successes, and learnings included Adobe, IKEA, EY, Verizon, Cargill, Richemont International, Japan Tobacco International, General Electric, Estee Lauder, and Southwest Airlines (me!). And, attendees also heard many varying perspectives from the conference sponsors.

I learned a lot, but there are three big questions that I am walking away from the conference still mulling over.

  1. If — according to many reputable studies — employee engagement and productivity levels have remained steady (stagnant) for the past decade plus, what exactly do we think we are accomplishing?
  2. Why do we keep talking about “digital workplaces” at a general level, and then show people our intranets when we cite specific examples?
  3. What are we tangibly doing today to prepare for a future where today’s computing norms (i.e., desktop/browser centric computing) will be a thing of the past?

Let’s explore these in a bit more detail.

Peak Engagement & Productivity

What if this is it? What if we’ve reached peak engagement? Peak productivity? Honestly, I find that doubtful; however, with the current available technology, I think it may have a ring of truth to it. We leaped forward in productivity with the mass adoption of computing power. Now, we are only making incremental software based improvements. Nothing radical. Sure, AI is on the horizon. And when it lands, I think we have a likely shot at seeing relevant productivity gains. Until then, we are just moving the furniture around.

Productivity can be argued to be tightly correlated with engagement. So, maybe we just need to be more into our work. How are we going to achieve that? We don’t know (hey, that’s what the data says). Corporations can take blanket steps to improve work conditions, and they have. I think the results are that as employee expectations have risen, corporations have responded with additional pay, benefits, and perks. The system balances itself out. Engagement holds steady, and we meet the increasing demands of our jobs with little micro improvements in efficiency.

Digital Workplace ≠ Intranet

I was an early skeptic when I started reading about digital workplaces with their lofty goals and aspirations. Then I drank some decent Kool-Aid with just the right amount of sugar, and started to buy in to the concept and vision. I started casting the vision myself. But all I see is people talking about digital workplaces and then showing their intranets! I am guilty as accused. I don’t care what your title is. I don’t care what your team is named. Who truly is doing/running/managing a digital workplace? I haven’t seen it yet. And already vendors are latching on and trying to sell “digital workplaces.” Companies are proud that their digital workplace has reached “product” status. It isn’t’ a product. An intranet is a product. An ESN is a product. The unified communication suite is a product. Slack/Teams/HipChat are products. WorkDay and SAP are products. Whatever you are using to deliver and consume video is a product. Your learning system is a product. The digital workplace is not any ONE of those. In fact, it is all of those and more. It cannot be a product. Thinking about it in product terms is small thinking. Small thinking isn’t going to take you anywhere meaningful.

Mobile

When is this industry going to get serious about mobile? Every demo I saw was on the browser. I thought about doing a portion of my intranet show and tell on my phone, but gave up when I encountered too many issues with getting a passably decent resolution to display on the projectors from my MacBook. I didn’t want to risk screwing it all up mid demo by switching the cabling. How can we claim digital workplace status when we struggle with mobile solutions? How will we deal with wearables and augmented reality? We don’t have to have all of the answers now, but I don’t hear us even having many conversations about it.

What If…An AI Laden Future

I hope you weren’t expecting answers. I don’t have any. I can fairly clearly see the problems, but the solutions aren’t self-evident. If I had to wager on potential fixes, I would put my money on artificial/augmented intelligence. With AI, I can imagine a path forward for meaningful productivity increases and improved employee satisfaction/engagement from AI assistants taking over menial tasks and allowing workers to focus on deep work (as Stowe would put it). I can hope that AI creates a layer across the varied, decoupled systems we use today and allows workers to access the information they need via simple voice interactions and conversational computing. This AI layer could live on our phones, tablets, cylindrical standalone speakers both squat and tall, and a myriad of other devices up to and including whatever laptops/desktops look like in the not too distant future. It could be more than mobile. It could be omnipresent.

Maybe. Maybe not. If so, we won’t be seeing true digital workplaces for a while yet.


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