The digital workplace, or virtual work environment, has been gaining popularity for years, and not only because of the pandemic and the necessity of remote working. We are very familiar with tools such as intranets and electronic document flow, but the fundamental change in the topic of the digital workplace took place when we stopped thinking about it as a collection of tools and switched to thinking about the processes that take place in a company.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book Remote, published in 2010, helped a lot in this revolution. Its main topic is remote working, but also the virtual work environment that allows you to effectively work in such a model. This requires, among other things, decentralisation, asynchronous work (i.e.: everyone works during their own chosen hours, which becomes unavoidable if we have employees from all over the world and different time zones) and a completely different approach to the tools that build the digital workplace.
Instead of thinking about what tools are available, we need to think about how to design them so that they actually work and are useful in our organisation.
Most important rules of creating the digital workplace
The new philosophy of building a virtual work environment can be simplified to three issues:
- beliefs vs. knowledge – verifying whether what I know about the users’ needs is reliable knowledge confirmed by research, or just my beliefs;
- centralisation vs. decentralisation – designing the system so that, on the one hand, it eliminates barriers between employees of the same organisation, and, on the other hand, meets the needs of users from specific locations, departments, and teams;
- divisions: “us” and “them” – the effective combination of designers’ knowledge and experience with the expectations of future users; designing according to needs.
In this text, we introduce these principles, giving specific examples from our work as UX researchers, and at the end of the article, you will find a checklist that may be helpful in implementing a digital workplace.
Beliefs vs. knowledge – how do you collect data to create a digital workplace?
“I know what my team needs”. – this is the mistake many managers make, and in good faith. Of course, knowledge about the most important tasks of the department and the most frequently performed tasks is essential, but even the best boss is not a fortune teller and cannot predict what their employees will need.
When designing digital workplace tools, you need to abandon your beliefs about how the system should work, and instead gather reliable data from its future users.
Questions to ask during the analytics phase include:
- What online productivity tools are already available in our organisation?
- Which ones do our employees use?
- What do we know about how our employees use these tools?
- Who is responsible for their maintenance and administration?
- Are there any statistics, such as those built into the tools?
In some companies, quantitative research data is available – for example, the results of surveys conducted about the intranet or similar tools. However, this is not enough to design a digital workplace that reflects the processes well. For that, we also need qualitative research. Statistics already provide some kind of hint; they give an outline of the situation, but to get the full picture, it is necessary to examine what the daily routine of the employees looks like.
During, for example, ethnographic research, that is, observing the user in the office, at the workstation, during the performance of activities, a UX researcher pays attention to the things that the manager omits, because he/she has grown accustomed to them. An example: cards with the same information, stuck to monitors, repeated at many workstations.
Sometimes they contain phone numbers of employees that are hard to find on the intranet, or shortcuts to important documents. For a researcher, this is already an important signal – such information should be easily accessible in the new system.
From our experience
Ethnographic research means observing the user at work, so remote work naturally makes it more difficult. But it does not mean that such research is impossible to conduct. When working with a client, a multinational company, we planned to travel to offices on several continents, but we had to modify our plans. We constructed an exercise to complete and distributed it to the company’s employees.
The exercise involved writing out a list of tasks included in their daily duties. We wanted information on: how the users performed tasks on the intranet, an what helped and what hindered them. We collected 15,000 responses, which allowed us to construct the required research material. In accordance with the Pareto principle – 20% of tasks are responsible for 80% of the work, so we selected the 10 most frequently repeated activities and focussed on them.
When so-called task mapping, i.e. collecting the most important and frequently performed activities, it is worth remembering to examine them in appropriate periods – a day, a week, a month, a year – sometimes, some important activities do not occur every day, but at certain intervals.
The next step is to reach out to everyone involved in the administration and maintenance of the tools used to date. A popular myth is that IT is responsible for the intranet – but this is only a half-truth. Indeed, the IT department usually handles the technical aspects, but a few other activities remain, such as:
- Who publishes the news?
- Who updates the available content?
- Who publishes onboarding materials for new employees?
- Who manages access to the tool?
Often, the operation of an intranet is very decentralised; there are many tools for internal communication, different employees are responsible for them, from various offices scattered around the world. Our task is to identify all such people and make them into a team of testers and ambassadors of the new solution. This is not strictly research or analytical work, but it is essential for the success of the project.
For this group of employees, it is necessary to plan a series of meetings, workshops – often very intensive – to examine what works from their point of view, what does not, and what should be improved. The researcher should pay special attention to limitations or problems that recur in many different departments or locations.
Designing an appropriate digital workplace cannot begin with the designer’s ideas – after some time, you will likely find out that they are completely disconnected from the way the organisation works.
Between centralisation and decentralisation – how to consider global and local dimensions of the organisation while creating digital workplace tools
Another challenge while creating a digital workplace is proper balance between centralisation – ensuring control over the work and standards across the whole organisation, and decentralisation – maintaining some degree of freedom and preserving elements important from the local offices’ points of view.
Good design helps in creating applications that will be used by all employees. In the past, we were used to coarse views of the intranet, and the thought of going through correspondence or invoices to be described and accepted made our skin crawl – all because of unintuitive and simply ugly solutions.
An effective virtual work environment is one that employees use. We are already accustomed to user-friendly and eye-pleasing applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Therefore, your digital workplace should take inspiration from these services, and not only in terms of design.
From our experience
Email, while it will definitely stay with us, is not the only way to stay in touch. Companies are getting inspired by Facebook groups, and similar solutions, among others. Some tools resemble them very much – for example, internal systems where you can share files, ask questions, join group discussions, etc. Employees use them eagerly and they do not need training or instructions, we just rely on their similarity to popular and effective applications.
To make digital workplace tools more local, decentralised, we have to take into account those elements which are not so important from the company’s point of view but will be useful for employees in a particular location or office.
When does an intranet foster an organization’s culture?
Elements such as: an announcement forum for the office, where employees can post about losing or finding an item in the office, a menu for the local cafeteria, bus timetables between offices – these are things that give the company a friendly character. These are solutions to specific, local problems that accompany employees every day. They may seem trivial, but including them in the project can change the perception of the tool – it is no longer just a system where you have to log in, but one that is worth looking at every day, because it helps in different situations.
The challenge in creating a digital workspace is, on one hand, avoiding divisions between HR employees from Kraków and HR employees from London – it is worth providing them with a place to exchange ideas or common projects – and on the other hand, offering some kind of personalisation – I work in Wrocław, so I am interested in the office in Wrocław. When working with our clients, we keep this in mind and implement solutions that will allow them to maintain the local character, but at the same time will not create artificial divisions between users.
Divisions: “us” vs. “them” – how to arrange cooperation between the company and digital workplace designers
Dichotomies exist not only in the form of the designer vs. user divide, but also within the company – we have divisions between teams, organisational silos, problems with cooperation between locations, etc.
When implementing new digital workplace tools, internal communication is essential – the employees must understand that the designers do not want to impose their ideas, they want to help in solving everyday problems.
The activities in a company start with a content audit. In operating organisations, there are always some tools, resources, ways of cooperation – most often disordered and not closely reflecting the business processes. The need to implement a digital workplace results from the fact that the current solutions are not sufficient, but it does not mean that they are bad – many elements work very well and need to be included in the new virtual work environment.
From our experience
We use specific canvas designed by us. This allows us to organise often chaotically arranged content, and to do it in a logical and understandable way for users.
Example: for a given organisational unit, there should be information on the intranet such as:
- What does this unit do?
- What is its role within the organisation, in what matters should it be contacted?
- What does it do externally?
- Who works in this unit?
- What are the most important regulations and rules concerning this unit?
Employees must be strongly involved in the content audit. It is together with them that we make decisions about:
- Which resources should be transferred to the new tool?
- What is missing and should be created?
- What should we remove because it is redundant?
The role of researchers in this process is, among other things, to ask questions, including those that may seem silly on the surface, such as “W hat is this done to?”, “What is this document and who uses it?” – often within an organisation, such issues seem obvious and such questions are not asked by anyone. Indeed, with many resources, employees will answer such questions without hesitation and in doing so show what exactly their specific tasks are, but it may also happen that they discover misconceptions about the usefulness of some documents (they seem necessary, but in fact no one uses them).
Once the process of digital workplace implementation is completed, the organisation cannot be left to fend for itself – this usually has fatal consequences in the form of incompetent use and poor management of the tools. Such reasons lead later to the conviction that the designers “created a system for themselves, not for the employees”. After all, chaos reigns again, and the users grow frustrated again (even more than before, because they were used to the previous systems and their flaws).
After the implementation, internal trainings are necessary, but also good practices and guidelines in the scope of, e.g., creating new elements of the system, e.g. to create a new information section in the intranet, it is necessary to have a template, established colours, font patterns, their sizes and cuts , guidelines concerning buttons – generally, a document describing the visual style. It can be, for example, a design system. This is a very good solution.
In organisations, to maintain order and improve the flow of information, things like a file naming system are essential. The feature of a good naming system is that the files do not confuse the users, the name describes the content of the file well, it is easy to find, and everyone also know which version it is and how to recognise the latest one.
Ultimately, we can talk about the success of implementing a digital workplace when we see that the employees actually use it, and their experience is generally good – both when they are users, and when they are content creators or administrators – and new sections, created by employees and not the designers, are consistent with the rest of the system, and navigation between parts of the site is still intuitive and easy.
Conviction vs. knowledge:
- Analyse and make UX research, preferably as close to the end user as possible
- Do not rely only on quantitative analyses
- Map the “employee’s day”
- Identify those responsible, involve them now
Centralise vs. decentralise:
- Think globally about the organisation, but design with the “smallest field unit” in mind
- Design to break down silos, both geographic and organisational
- Communicate “global” and “local” equally. “The Everyday Intranet”
“Us” and “them”:
- Engage in the process of inventorying and moving content
- Use the project to “do a cleanup”
- Prepare the audience to “take over the intranet”