Clocktower Advisors

Employees in 2020 have a reasonable expectation that the digital workplace will enable them to get work done simply and efficiently.

Many of the leading organizations I have worked with over the few years, have come to realize this and have concluded that the digital workplace experience must improve and evolve beyond a disorganized stew of links and tools, poorly organized and requiring separate logins.

In this blog, I’m going to provide a working definition for the digital workplace and I will share seven digital workplace trends for 2020 that should be part of your company’s strategy.

What is the digital workplace?

The digital workplace is a new way of organizing technology tools employees use to get work done that emphasizes usability and an overall improved experience. It recognizes that winning and retaining top talent depends upon creating a world class working environment which minimizes friction, connects people, improves morale, encourages collaboration, and is in harmony with the company’s stated work culture.

Most places of work have included digital productivity tools for decades. We have no shortage of intranets, email, virtual calendars, spreadsheets, presentation tools, word processing, learning management, and more specialized systems for managing and measuring the daily business of the company.

These tools are often poorly organized, outdated, difficult to find, or hard to use. If there is a central hub that lists these tools like a company intranet, that intranet is static, obsolete, and unfriendly to new employees. The applications, provided you can locate them, require separate logins and maybe even a special request for access to start using them.

As apps and productivity tools have multiplied, it has become easier for employees who do not like a company’s choice of digital tools to roll their own solutions. Free, freemium, or minimal cost software on demand is easier to spin up than going through a tedious governance process for getting approved to use a company-mandated application, applications that tend to come with an abysmal user experience and outdated (even buggy) technology.

For example, Slack is free and one heck of a lot better for collaborating and sharing links than company email or a static intranet.

Digital workplace is an element of digital transformation

The digital workplace is just one element of digital transformation. Executive leaders have recognized the importance of digital transformation long before 2020.

Forrester, as far back as 2015, stated that by 2020 46% of executives believed that their revenue would be greatly impacted by digital, both in terms of revenue acquisition and digital talent acquisition and retention.

But attracting and keeping that digital talent requires an ecosystem, a digital workplace, conducive to getting work done. “Digital workplace” itself is a relatively emergent term.

Google search trend showing increased interest in the term "Digital Workplace" from 2010 to the present

“Digital Workplace” searches since 2010 according to Google Trends

It has taken time for the idea to take hold in the marketplace. But executives have become more digitally literate due to their personal use of public social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook. They have also grown more aware of the quantifiable impact a digital workplace can have on their workforce and bottom line.

As a result, more CEO’s and other executive leaders in charge of talent, communications, technology and innovation are growing more keenly interested in how their digital workplace stacks up. They know that there’s a lot more involved with picking a set of tools and mandating that employees use them.

A smart deployment of a digital work ecosystem can make the difference between financial success and failure, happy employees and a talent deficit, product innovation and stagnation.

Here are seven trends to watch in 2020 related to digital workplace consulting I’ve performed over the past year.

I am drawing these trends from my personal experiences consulting with multiple Fortune 1000 (and up) organizations seeking to reinvent their digital workplace and create a greater sense of community.

1. Digital workplaces will be increasingly organized as a more holistic employee experience

Rather than using a static company intranet as a giant link farm to applications used by employees, the best social intranets provide access to frequently accessed tools based upon the permissions and workgroups to which a given employee belongs.

These tools can be updated dynamically by a system administrator. In addition, employees are able to add their own favorite links to further personalize the jumping off point to other applications so that their experience can be as useful as possible.

To further reduce friction, moving from a company intranet to a specific application does not require the employee to remember yet another password. A holistic digital workplace requires a Single Sign-On (SSO) solution that takes the pain out of getting from one app to another.

2. Executive leaders will relate the digital workplace to quantifiable business goals and company culture.

There was a time in the early 2010’s where executive leaders would sign off on corporate portal / social intranet projects because they had a sense that it would improve employee productivity. Those days of light accountability are gone.

Great interconnected digital workplace experiences involve a significant investment in people and technology. Even if the platforms used are relatively low cost, turnkey investments, the API integrations and operational support and governance of these platforms can be quite high.

Executive leaders who are signing off on digital workplace projects today are deeply interested in tying the results to ongoing business initiatives and the Key Performance Indicators associated with them. A few elements that are often tracked in these initiatives include:

  • Employee engagement and sentiment (usually measured in annual HR surveys)
  • Employee turnover rates
  • Innovation and ideation
  • Task efficiency (closed tickets, projects completed, time to completion)
  • Walking the talk of company culture

Those executives who do not themselves take an active hand in the digital workplace, put in place teams to manage the ongoing governance and accountability of these initiatives.

3. Digital workplaces will more intentionally incorporate online community

Building a sense of community is an implicit mission in most digital workplace initiatives. Leaders are looking for ways to help employees feel more connected not only to the mission and culture of the organization but also to other employees.

According to Gallup research, employees who feel connected to manager and co-workers in the workplace are far less likely to leave their job.

That means not only helping employees feel connected, sometimes over great distances, so that they can see that their co-workers care as much about doing quality work as they do, but also making it possible for them to collaborate meaningfully in digital working spaces where they can exchange ideas, resources, opinions, and small talk freely.

Digital workplaces that do not provide easy-to-use places for connection and conversation invite employees to go outside the approved digital ecosystem and set up unregulated messaging and chat tools.

4. Executives will recognize enabling peer conversations is not as scary as they originally thought

Many of the larger enterprises that never allowed peer-to-peer conversations in their social intranet or other places within their digital ecosystem have expressed to me their hesitancy to allow them.

There’s usually a story behind these concerns. Someone turned on Microsoft Yammer and within twenty minutes, an employee was saying bad things about the company, dropping expletives, or selling timeshares in Florida.

The problem isn’t the tool, it’s the implementation. Like any online community, setting one up without providing context, change management, and rules of the road for your employees is an invitation to mistakes and misuse.

The biggest problem also tends to be that the organization has dropped a lot of money on the implementation of the technology but they didn’t allot anything for the ongoing management. Digital workplaces, like external online communities, require active, daily management.

The biggest influence you can have on the successful implementation and management of your platform is to budget for and hire an experienced community manager to see to its adoption.

Community managers do more than monitor for bad actors and troubleshoot technical issues. Their primary job is to encourage the meaningful use of the platform by

  • Showing how to do things better in the digital ecosystem
  • Answering questions
  • Fostering conversations
  • Connecting employees with each other, with experts
  • Sharing useful tools and resources

An experienced community manager can actively model the kinds of conversations and employee behaviors you want to see in the digital workplace while watching for and managing conversations that are not desirable.

5. Old, hierarchical intranets will be replaced with highly interactive, centralized social intranet experiences

Just about every older company with more than 50 people has a legacy intranet, which consists of company updates and links to other systems and tools. These older intranet experiences were designed to be updated by just a few or even one person. If that person has left, or if the person in charge has a lot of other responsibilities, or if that person hasn’t needed to access the system to make updates in a long time, then the chances are the intranet is full of useless old links.

Yes, these intranets still exists in lots of companies, but they are (slowly) going away in favor of more open, interactive platforms like Liferay, LumApps, and Jive (to name just a few).

I could spend a lot of time talking about the many existing and emerging intranet platforms, but I will leave that for future posts.

The idea here is not so much that interactive intranets are growing more popular (they are), but that they are being applied as a way to tie together the overall employee experience. It’s not just a single social intranet platform, because what social intranet could hope to fulfill all of a company’s specific use cases for its employees?

Instead, these new social platforms are a hub for connection, conversation, and key resources, but they are the jumping off point for the critical applications and tools that each employee needs to get work done. Figuring out where the social intranet ends, and where your other productivity platforms begins is at the heart of a digital workplace strategy.

6. Employers will incorporate more peer interaction capabilities in the digital workplace

Whether conversations happen in a core social intranet as a sort of digital commons where all employees can connect with each other, ask questions, and exchange ideas, or the conversations occur in one or more of the many productivity apps through chats or other enabled commenting, the companies that enable peer interaction tend to thrive the most.

Those companies that disallow employee conversation, not just the ability to comment on approved corporate posts (which is better than nothing) but also to post opinions and questions, will find that they have not stopped these conversations from happening.

They’ve simply pushed them into unofficial, often invisible channels–out to social media platforms which are impossible to monitor and may even be sharing sensitive information in an insecure environment.

Peer interaction enables value creation for the enterprise. Employers are beginning to acknowledge and design digital workplaces that foster an intrinsic motivation to share ideas and information. They do this by creating spaces that encourage employees to post what’s on their minds and to share small talk (important because self-disclosure is critical to forming deeper workplace relationships and reducing turnover).

7. The digital workplace will require cross-functional team engagement

Finally, the digital workplace needs oversight, not just from a community manager but also from a cross-functional steering committee to provide input and require accountability to the business goals for the ecosystem.

Setting up governance is increasingly the best step to take to allay the concerns of executive leadership about rogue employees complaining about the latest benefit that got changed. Keeping digital workplace platforms under close management and accountable to quantifiable goals gives comfort.

The steering committees that top employers are using to manage the digital workplace work best when they are cross-functional, drawing participants not only from middle management and various departments, but also from new hires, influential employees, and power users who have a variety of perspectives about using digital tools and environments.


I opted not to get into the feature-based, tactical, and technical trends related to digital workplaces, like improved search, API’s, artificial intelligence, and chatbots. I have opinions on these and will maybe take them up in a future post, but the topic has been addressed by some other smart people here and here.

Reinventing your digital workplace in 2020 will offer you more options and it will be easy to be paralyzed by them. If you can keep in mind the business purpose of the redesign and align your inventory of platforms and tools to a fantastic user experience and connects and empowers your employees you’ll be on the right track.

So what’s happening with your digital workplace? Are you leveraging your technologies to create a great overall digital experience for your employees? You can contact me to talk about your ideas and to get more resources.

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