Attaining digital workplaces’ promised productivity boost demands leadership-wide collaboration and immediate action.

Digitalization has one theoretical and undeniable value: equal opportunity to have an effect and to be heard. Digital Democracy has been making waves of late, with visible figures like Mikael Junger driving it. There’s something new, and very Finnish, about taking the digital layer of our society, which most use for maximizing profit, and turning it into a tool for democracy. I fully stand by it and find myself looking for ways to bring digital democracy into the corporate world. Not to maximize profit, but to democratize decision making.

In the sense of democratic decision making, digital workplaces are perfect tools for igniting and leading change. It follows along the trend of restructuring organizations from pyramids to hives. This comes in the wake of baby boomers making way for Gen X in leadership. 54 % Gen X’ers reportedly consider themselves tech savvy, and use each week up to 40 minutes more time on social media than millennials [1]. There’s real potential for this transition to usher in a new era of corporate culture, where a global and diverse staff can work together as equals on a digital platform. At least that’s the vision, we’re not there yet.

As all things to do with society, structures and culture, there’s many reasons why it’s taking us so long. I’d like to dive into two manageable and attainable parts of the dilemma: The human-digital-human translation and the Digital Employee Experience (DEX).

The Human-Digital-Human Translation

We aren’t very good at it.

We don’t often think about digital communication as the translation that it is, as it’s so commonplace. A face-to-face communication bases on, among other things, shared understanding of context and connotation, with the added benefit of full haptic audio visual clues as to what the speaker means and live feedback on how the listener takes it. Digital communication is none of that. It’s you translating an idea to a specific digital channel with your personal digital dictionary and the recipient translating it back according to theirs. Mistranslations happen, a lot.

In an organization’s transformation phase, employees’ access to their superiors and leaders is critical, and digital workplace is a fantastic platform to host that connection. But we need to be aware of the mistranslations that happen when communication is heavily digital.

A While back there was an eye opening article on Harvard Business Review [2] about the virtual work skills we all need whether we work remotely or not. They referred to something called ”Virtual Intelligence”, the skills of establishing “rules of engagement” for virtual interactions, and building & maintaining trust. Having these skills is what makes digital workplaces work, because they keep the digital translations on the right path and successfully simulate face-to-face interactions. As the article pointed out, learning these skills isn’t just a personal responsibility but a task for employers, as they have plenty to gain from it.

For example, one thing to consider is Google’s research into high-performance teams [3], which uncovered the significance of psychological safety in team work. Trust is a key component in the phenomena, where teams either feel, or do not feel, safe to take calculated risks, to innovate and collaborate openly. Without sufficient employer support in learning virtual intelligence, we can’t hold our remote teams to the same standards as our local ones.

The Case for Digital Employee Experience

In the past year or three we’ve successfully cracked down on employee experience. What we have now are organizations that are modern in structure, culture and physical space, but lack in their digital layers. Bob Egan and Rita J. King‘s webinar “Born Disruptive” [4] pinpoints the dilemma of current digital workplaces pretty brilliantly by referencing these facts:

“Employees often cite technology as a key barrier to efficiency.”

”Technology failure is regarded as one of the top 3 pain points in the workplace.”

As the next step of improving the employee experience, we need to consider the digital experience as well. It’s not just about offering digital tools and platforms for work, but about creating a digital organic extension of the office. That means moving work & processes to digital platforms only to solve existing issues. If we go digital just for the sake of being digital, we’ll see a worrisome drop in user engagement as soon as the introduction is over and self-management is required.

One reason to this predicament could be that DEX falls somewhere in between HR’s, Business leadership’s and IT’s jurisdiction. None can handle the entity on their own, and collaboration has been painfully difficult. The unfortunately delicate process of creating a successful DEX hinges on their collaboration [5]: mapping out the actual need for digital workplace solutions, understanding the users’ different backgrounds and level of digital know how, engaging the staff in feedback and development, communicating a clear and concise idea, and finally always maintaining the build-measure-learn loop.

So what if we don’t do any of it? Fixing digital communication & experience doesn’t sound imperative, and in some scale it certainly isn’t. But the continued success of employer branding, talent acquisition & retention, overall improved organizational agility and additional profit via e.g. Distributed Agile models (digital teamwork across time zones to ensure 24/7 service), make a compelling case for developing one hell of a digital workplace for your virtually intelligent staff.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/11/generation-x–not-millennials–is-changing-the-nature-of-work.html
[2] https://hbr.org/2018/10/the-virtual-work-skills-you-need-even-if-you-never-work-remotely
[3] https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ84OUy8zO0&feature=youtu.be&t=559.
[5] https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/the-recipe-for-a-digital-workplace/