Entering the Matrix: What the Digital Workplace Means in the Real World

Victoria Barber looks at the different definitions of the digital workplace and how these understandings have shaped our approach to managing technology within the workplace

We’ve recently been having a lot of discussions about the challenges of digital transformation, and whether organisations are truly transforming their operations with digital technology or simply optimizing the technology itself. During one of these debates, the conversation focused on the term ‘digital workplace’ and whether we all meant and understood the same thing by it.

What is a digital workplace?

I’m a remote worker, with no fixed work location – I might work on a plane (as I’m doing now), in a hotel, from home, from any one of Snow’s offices, from a customer site, a conference or a train. It doesn’t really matter where I am, as long as I can access the tools I need to do my job and engage with my colleagues. This isn’t necessarily the way the majority of people work (despite what those of us who work in the technology industry think!), and those of us who do so tend to be in the minority within our organisations. This presents the Technology Guardians tasked with ensuring we can work effectively with additional challenges, as they need a more detailed understanding of user roles to be able to provide solutions over and above the office-based/home-based options that they primarily focus on if they’re going to avoid IT bypass. As I explained to the colleagues who live inside my computer, my workplace is truly digital in that it transcends physical location, and they are part of that digital environment.

As we researched the idea of the digital workplace further, it turns out that there is no single definition – and most people agree there shouldn’t be, as it’s an evolving concept. What we now call a ‘digital workplace’ started with the idea that you could access workplace tools and services within a single portal (often an intranet) around 10 years ago). The term first started to become popular in around 2013-14, and has really taken off in the last few years with Gartner expanding their Digital Workplace Summit from EMEA to the US in 2019 (which I wrote about last year).

Some people describe it as having the technology/digital tools to do the job (which may or may not be company provided), while others talk about a continuously evolving approach to using digital technology to support changing working cultures and practices. You can see the difficulty in trying to define the digital workplace as it is constantly changing as the technology we use changes. Over time the technology included within the digital workplace has expanded from primarily on-premises tools and hosted services to include a range of SaaS and cloud-based offerings.

As the term ‘digital workplace’ becomes more pervasive, it can mean different things to different people: 

However we choose to define it, it is clear that the boundaries between our working and personal lives are increasingly blurred, and many of us use the same technology and services for both.

Digital workplace is an approach to technology that puts people at the heart of the way in which we build our digital environments.

The challenges for Technology Guardians and IT leaders

During Gartner’s Digital Workplace Summit last year, Stephen Kleyhnans observed that IT can no longer be the “Digital Dictator”. The upcoming generation of digital-native employees know how they want to work with tech, and this (together with changing technology) is changing the role of the IT department. As Jesse Stockall points out in his Forbes article, Technology Guardians are challenged to “find a way to provide and enable services from multiple portals and vendors, while ensuring consistent performance, security and governance” and to provide digital environments that reflect the changing workforce.

The digital workplace must be a workplace that adapts to user needs, reflects the demands of global business and a workforce increasingly made up of digital natives (even if all those blog posts about millennials with their laptops working from a beach in Bali aren’t necessarily typical of mainstream working practices).

In his presentation, Stephen described the digital workplace “evolving as a new work nucleus providing users with the tools that allow them to work”, and cautions IT departments against being too focussed on devices (specifically PCs) when users are increasingly device-agnostic and may not use their laptop for significant periods of time. While this isn’t currently true of the majority of users in most organisations, the analyst lifestyle that informs this view (and with which I am very familiar) isn’t unique. Many of us who work in the technology industry, rather than in the IT teams supporting our customers’ organisations would do well to remember that while digital technology is transforming working practices in many roles, there is a long way to go before everyone has the flexibility to work from anywhere using a range of technologies. There are roles that aren’t flexible such as delivery drivers and others who support supply chains, emergency services, healthcare workers, warehouse operatives, call centre agents and more. While technology still enables them, the nature of their role dictates what they use and where they use it. Not everyone has the same choice to work from that beach in Bali…

The digital workplace in the real world

I wrote this on a plane to California and looking at my diary over the following 10 days, it’s unlikely that I’ll spend more than a few hours using my laptop (I finished editing the post during the jet-lagged insomniac small hours in my hotel room). While I can use it on the plane, this flight at least had no Wi-Fi, and once I landed my diary is a continual round of conference sessions, meetings and further flights until I get home, so I’ll be primarily reliant on my phone(s) and tablet to keep on top of any time-critical work. As I have no fixed work location, my workplace is truly digital – it exists in and through the devices I use to access it, whether connected or (as I am now) disconnected. While Stephen pointed out that IT teams tend to be focussed on the PC as a primary device, in the world of SaaS and cloud, there is also a tendency to think that we are always online. However, it isn’t just travel (not all flights yet have usable Wi-Fi – if they have it at all – and Wi-Fi on trains and in hotels is generally pretty poor) that means that locally installed applications still have a place in the digital workplace – there are plenty of 3G and 4G dead spots, and the recent storms and flooding in the UK have cut many people off from wired broadband. However, these offline times are fewer and shorter than previously, so although we may find that continuous monitoring is impossible for people in these roles, they are likely to be online at various intervals. 

While I’m looking forward to this week’s conference, to the opportunity to meet up with customers, and the events we’re hosting in NYC and Chicago with our partners Anglepoint (there’s still time to register if you want to come along!), these trips are only really possible because of the evolution of the digital workplace, which travels with me.

In a world where every organisation is reliant on digital technology, the digital workplace needs to be adaptable and flexible, creating a hybrid environment leveraging an eclectic and constantly changing selection of technologies. Deep tech intelligence is essential not only to providing, maintaining and supporting these services, but to understanding the differing needs of end-users within any organisation.

As for that original discussion about Digital Transformation? Watch this space!