How to unlock stellar employee experiences with smart digital workplaces

A cornerstone of any successful digital transformation, the ‘digital workplace’ has become instrumental in helping businesses cope with the pandemic. The term was first used by Charles Grantham and Larry Nichols in their book The Digital Workplace: Designing Groupware Platforms in 1993. Almost three decades later, today’s digital workplaces enable employees to stay connected to their work from any device, anywhere. 

With easy access to core business applications, internal communications, and enterprise social networks, digital workplaces offer us a virtual equivalent to the brick-and-mortar workplace. No surprise that the global digital workplace market is expected to reach $44.9 billion by 2026, rising at 21.5% CAGR undeterred by the global pandemic.

Before we talk about the future of the workplace, it is important to dwell on the past. Throughout history, workplaces have experienced transformational shifts to accommodate changing business requirements and real estate demands. This transformation is most palpable in the role of the worker or employee. In fact, what the 21st century knowledge worker shares with factory workers of the 18th century is a certain vulnerability in the face of big changes in the workplace. The workplace both shapes and, in turn, gets shaped by the experiences employees have with relation to their work. Therefore, for workplaces to become effective in terms of both productivity and wellbeing, employees need a fulfilling experience of their jobs.

With the advent of globalization, which facilitated the movement of goods and services across geopolitical borders, and technology, which is instrumental in creating consumer-centric experiences, there was an increasing need for rethinking the employee experience in the workplace.

According to this HBR analytics service report, employee performance and morale are intricately linked with easy-to-use technology. Despite the increasing adoption of cloud services by companies, countless studies show company-sanctioned business software as chunky, hard to use, and needing a lot of external support for implementation. Employees often prefer their own devices—mobile, personalized, and intuitive—to desk-bound enterprise applications.

Fortunately, in the last decade, the digital workplace has experienced a rapid refashioning in terms of its shifting emphasis from technology to users—the consumers of the digital overhaul of work. Gartner, in 2014, defined the ‘digital workplace’ as “an ongoing, deliberate approach to delivering a more consumer-like computing environment that is better able to facilitate innovative and flexible working practices.” Today, Gartner describes the digital workplace as that which “enables new, more effective ways of working; raises employee engagement and agility; and exploits consumer-oriented styles and technologies.”

The physical and the digital workplace

As the pandemic transformed every aspect of life as we knew it, compulsory work-from-home mandates pushed companies to convert physical workplaces into connected workspaces through the use of apps, technology, and smart devices. This global move from the physical to the digital has been the swiftest in the history of transformational shifts, confounding many people, and even raising generational barriers.

For instance, the newness of work as introduced by digital workplaces almost confounds the 64-year-old retired banker Nikhil Singha Roy. On weekdays, he sees his daughter splayed out on a faux leather sofa, updating editorial spreadsheets on her laptop, attending virtual conference calls with colleagues around the globe, and sharing a joke with a co-worker on a messaging platform. 

For Nikhil, who was stationed most of his life in a tiny hamlet almost a hundred kilometers from Kolkata in India, the experience of personally meeting his customers and colleagues created a space of physical connectedness that enriched and added excitement to his overall experience of work. His ‘workplace’, a rural bank overlooking the Jamuna river, was where he traveled to four hours every day to offer financial services to customers, who became friends in a summer’s time. The workplace in Nikhil’s ruminations, as in the collective imagination of a lot of people today, is a place of everyday adventures, a curious commingling of colorful characters, a space for work banter and friendships, punctuated by hot snacks and loan overdrafts. An experience of a lifetime, lived every day.

It may be true that the digital can never possibly replicate the affective experience of the physical workplace. But the world is changing fast, and with the changing nature of work, workplace tools, and business processes, the digital workplace can offer businesses what they need to create transformational employee experience focused on empowerment, collaboration, flexibility, and happiness. Using an empathetic mix of work culture, operational insights, digital know-how, and engagement initiatives, a great employee experience can be a game-changer and help businesses ride the digital wave.

Here are some best practices to help you get there.

Foster an innovative work culture

A 2019 Microsoft report states that 86% of employees in an organization with a vibrant work culture feel that a conducive work environment is crucial to employee experience and retention. With value-based leadership and active collaboration, an innovative work culture can enable employees to foster a sense of belonging in the digital workplace. Critical to this is building an organization that values the importance of work culture for employees, prioritizes employee initiatives, and dedicates significant resources to help employees make the most of the digital workplace.

We reached out to Suman Gopalan, CHRO at Freshworks, about the role of employee experience in work culture at Freshworks. Here’s what she had to say:

A quote from Freshworks CHRO Suman Gopalan about employee engagement in the digital workplace

For more information on fostering an innovative work culture in an organization, let’s chat about what makes Freshworks who we are.

Simplify communication and collaboration

As our nature of work becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, and silos break down, the importance of simple and effective communication—the secret sauce of collaboration across pillars—becomes fundamental to organizational success. 

In this digital environment, clarity across all business communications is crucial for teams to run efficiently and ensure high levels of productivity while fostering strong, positive company values. An average day for the modern workforce involves collaborating on multiple projects across social media, forums, Slack groups, and Google docs, to name a few. In such an environment, a break in communication among teams can be the rabbit hole that not only brings down productivity but also creates a negative environment where employees do not feel connected to their peers, and cannot often air their apprehensions or ask for clarification on tasks.

To counter this, managers and team leaders must focus on building a positive digital environment for employees based on clarity and openness of communication. In a study by Queen’s University, 54% of the employees who participated agreed that a strong sense of community—great co-workers, simple communication, celebrating milestones, a common mission—kept them at a company for longer. Simplifying communication and collaboration can thus go a long way toward reimagining employee experience in the digital workplace.

Promote employee engagement

Employee engagement matters infographic
Source: HBR-Freshworks report

The primary aim of William Kahn, the psychologist who coined ‘employee engagement’ in his book, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work, published in 1990, was to identify the conditions that enable it to happen, particularly “the moments in which people bring themselves into, or remove themselves from, particular task behaviors.”

By analyzing different workplace behaviors, Kahn found that engagement isn’t static. Rather, an employee’s experiences of the workplace in different moments can cause fluctuations in engagement. And true to Kahn’s formulation, an HBR study estimated that low levels of employee engagement could cost employers more than $300 billion every year in lost productivity. However, the dynamic nature of employee engagement also presents an opportunity to design a work environment where engagement can thrive.

According to Suman, “engagement is a scientific way of measuring the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and go the extra mile in delivering on their work. The higher the engagement, the higher is the ‘level of performance’ and greater is ‘retention’.”

Key to employee engagement is motivation. Employees need to feel part of a team to work productively. In practice, businesses must ensure that employees are appreciated for their individual roles in the big picture. The motivation to contribute stems from this appreciation and sense of belonging. As William Kahn emphasized, engagement occurs when a person is able to ‘harness their full selves’ at work. 

Google’s Project Aristotle found that teams characterized by empathy, openness, and not having to wear a “work face” showed patterns for increased collaboration and engagement. To that end, organizations are actively engaging their employees and teams in breakout sessions, games, and friendly banter to build a wholesome sense of the digital workplace. 

Empower employees with self-service apps

Impact of technology in the digital workplace in a HBR report commissioned by Freshworks
Source: HBR-Freshworks report

Employees experience the power of self-service in their lives every single day as customers—when they buy products online, withdraw cash from an ATM, go to supermarkets, among sundry other things. For an organization to be productive, it is important to replicate a similar experience in the workplace. According to Gartner analyst Carol Rozwell, “the idea of the digital workplace is to bring the same simplicity and intuitiveness to employees when they’re doing their mission-critical work.”

The experience of the digital workplace comprises all tools and technologies that employees use to work effectively. As such, it spans across HR apps, core business applications, emails, instant messaging, enterprise social media apps, and virtual meeting rooms.

According to a Paychex report, 80% of employees want self-service tools to be more productive in the digital workplace. For this, businesses need to empower employees with one-stop self-service portals that provide quick access to digital assistants and self-service chatbots, saving cost and time. With the help of interconnected workflows, routine tasks can be automated, empowering employees to spend more time on creative work. Such automation should include AI-driven smart and efficient feedback tools for employees to state what is working, and what is not.

Chart a roadmap for the future of work

Creating a future ready workplace infographic Freshworks
Source: HBR-Freshworks report

The age-old dichotomy between work and home has undergone a drastic transformation as more and more tech-savvy employees join the workforce, creating the need for a unified workplace experience that revolves around collaboration and meaningful use of data. With the ability to connect from anywhere, and at any time, employees now joke about ‘living at work’ instead of ‘working from home’. For organizations to thrive in this digital climate, understanding the needs of their employees and addressing the changing nature of work is paramount. 

The IDC defines the future of work (FoW) as “a fundamental change to the concept of work that transforms worker behaviors and skills as well as organizational culture; supports a dynamic work environment; and fosters human-machine collaboration.”

With the effective combination of connected tools and technologies, work culture practices, and the emphasis on employee experience, businesses can chart their roadmap to the future of work in the digital workplace.