COVID-19 and the Importance of the Digital Workplace
It seems like everyone is talking about coronavirus: what it means to the global and local economies, how it impacts different industries, even how to make your own hand sanitizer to combat it.
One of the key approaches many organizations are taking is to minimize sustained contact with large groups of people. This has led to the cancellation of numerous conferences and other events; many schools and universities are asking students to stay home and participate remotely.
Similarly, organizations are thinking about whether it makes sense to have employees come into the office and run the risk of getting infected or already being infected and, in turn, infecting others. Maybe it’s time for organizations to more fully explore the idea of a digital workplace.
At AIIM, we’ve been talking about the digital workplace for years. We’ve put together a toolkit for developing a digital workplace strategy and a report outlining how organizations approach this and what’s needed for it to be successful. And as a full-time remote worker since 2004 myself, including more than 9 years at AIIM, I think I have some unique insights I can share on how to make your digital workplace successful.
The Digital Workplace is More Than Technology
Many digital workplace initiatives start with technology. But as Sam Marshall notes in a recent blog post, a successful digital workplace requires much more than technology; in fact, much of what makes one successful needs to happen before the technology is put into place.
Planning for a digital workplace needs to start with an understanding of how the organization works today. Ask yourself:
- What information do employees need to access?
- What systems currently hold that information?
- Is information stored in systems that can be accessed remotely? (A file share is much more difficult to access remotely than a system built for remote access.)
We recommend that organizations do an inventory of their systems and the information they contain and identify systems that are hard or impossible to access remotely.
How to Prepare Your Organization for the Digital Workplace
One of the key challenges to remote work is the assumption, generally invalid, that remote workers spend all day watching March Madness, or playing Words with Friends, or watching cat videos. If your employees are doing that, you have a management problem, not a remote worker problem. Due dates and deadlines still occur in remote environments, and employees need to get the same work accomplished remotely as they would in the office.
It’s also important for the organization to remember that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind in two respects.
First, if the work is getting done, assignments, reviews, bonuses, promotions, etc. should reflect that and not be granted on the basis of “face time”. And the workday is still the workday. In an office environment, most employers would hesitate to call staff during off hours and wouldn’t have a realistic expectation of employees spending all night doing email. The same thing has to apply for remote workers.
Similarly, employees – and their families and friends – need to understand that working from home is work. While many employers offer some flexibility in the hours worked on any given day, the work still has to get done.
A home office with a door that can close is ideal, but remote work can still be as efficient as onsite work provided the employee has someplace to work without distractions and provided that appropriate boundaries and expectations are set.
It might also be helpful for organizations to determine “core hours” - say, 10-3 every day. That gives a set window when everyone should be available for calls, meetings, etc. as required.
What Are the Important Tools for the Digital Workplace?
All of that said, there are some technical aspects to address to help ensure your digital workplace is effective.
- Digitize Everything that Moves: One of the key challenges to remote working is getting access to paper or other physical documents. Even if something is required to be retained in paper or physical format, it can still be digitized and made available to remote workers. And digital information assets can be managed and moved in an automated fashion: during the creation and collaboration process, when being classified and used to support business processes, and ultimately through to the disposal process at the end of the lifecycle.
- Digitalize Your Business Processes: Better yet, work digitally. Don’t print things that don’t need to be printed; where possible, use digital signatures instead of “wet ink” signatures. Streamline and automate your business processes wherever possible.
- Determine the Right Way to Provide Remote Access: By its very nature, the digital workplace requires employees to access systems remotely. Some organizations will choose to require employees to use a virtual private network (VPN) to access networked resources. Other organizations may choose to leverage cloud-based solutions to streamline how employees access those resources.
It’s incredibly important that the organization standardize on tools and systems to the maximum extent possible – remote work is challenging enough without having to check a number of different systems depending on which one Bob in Accounting or Jill in Engineering is using.
How Do I Maintain Security with the Digital Workplace?
When it comes to safeguarding the organization’s information and systems, employees need a lot of guidance. Some of the key things to address include:
- What systems are allowed to be accessed remotely?
- What systems are employees allowed to access using a mobile device?
- What systems are employees allowed to access using their own device, whether computer, smartphone, tablet, or other?
- Best practices for avoiding phishing and other attacks.
- Best practices for remaining clear of viruses or other malware.
- Where to store information that belongs to the organization – ideally, this is on the organization’s systems and done automatically e.g., by opening files using Office 365, Google Docs, or some similar web-enabled tool.
- Encourage employees to share documents using links rather than directly sending files or attachments. Links require the recipient to have access to the requested document, while attachments can be forwarded and leave the control of the organization.
- Protocols for sharing with others outside the organization, including the same considerations as above, but also in thinking through the right access levels.
Collaboration is Key
One of the more challenging aspects of the digital workplace for many employees is how to collaborate on a document remotely. This often devolves into a series of email exchanges with attachments, in a variety of formats and versions, that makes collaboration much more difficult than it has to be.
Instead, organizations should consider implementing tools designed for collaboration. These can be grouped according to their primary function, though there is significant overlap. Each group has a couple of examples, but this should not be considered an endorsement of those examples.
- Person-to-Person Collaboration: This is the equivalent of leaning into someone else’s cubicle or office and sharing updates. These tools generally include some sort of public messaging or sharing, status indicators, screen sharing, lightweight/limited web conferencing, and private messaging. Examples here include Slack, Yammer, and Microsoft Teams.
- Web Conferencing: Why get on a plane and go somewhere when we have better video phone capabilities than the Jetsons envisioned? Today’s web conferencing tools allow dozens to hundreds or more to participate in a call complete with video, screen sharing, recording, drawing tools, and much more. Calls can be recorded to preserve them or share with those who couldn’t participate in the initial call. Examples here include Webex, GoToMeeting, and Zoom.
- Document-Centric Collaboration: These tools focus on how to create, edit, finalize, and ultimately approve of a document which can then be shared. Some tools offer synchronous collaboration in the form of coauthoring, such as Xait and SharePoint; others focus on a more traditional document management/version control-type approach, such as Box and Dropbox. Many of the traditional content services platforms offer these types of capabilities as well.
The Digital Office - It's Not Just About Combating Coronavirus
While the impetus for the digital workplace is currently due to the immediate issues with coronavirus, organizations should also consider whether the digital workplace might actually make employees more effective. Simply reorienting the organization’s processes away from paper to digital can make a significant impact, and what employee wouldn’t be more productive without having spent 60 or 90 minutes (or longer!) in crushing traffic or transit?
It does require proper planning, and the technologies involved should be planned, standardized where possible, and supported by IT. Employers and employees alike have to trust that work will get done in the way it needs to be and with appropriate access controls and security considerations. But organizations should consider remote work and digital workplace capabilities for any employee that is not physically required to be onsite (and meetings don’t!).