“When I started working 20 years ago, everything was already online. But, we did not call it ‘digital’. We did not call it anything.”
Wedge Black (pictured right) has always been at the forefront of working and communicating online. First with his iconoclastic writing at KiloboxCommunique’ and now as the founder of the IntranetNow conference, he believes that the term ‘digital’ will not last for long.
“We should have been using that word 20 years ago, but we didn’t. I just think that, maybe, it is a bit late. But, the phrase digital workplace will probably be useful for another decade.”
Yet, semantics aside, Wedge is willing to accept the term when he consults medium and large enterprises on their intranets. “I am happy to use the word digital in the practical day to day work when we talk to our colleagues as they use a lot the phrase.”
The curiosity for a software
New roles have emerged as a consequence of the digital workplace. But, it can be difficult to tell just by job titles and the organisational chart which skills are required to do the job. Indeed, Wedge points out that some companies are asking their communications and intranet managers to do more than classically expected. And, “that means that personal upskilling is crucial.”
Surely, employees can train on any output or process that they need to specialise in. But, for Wedge, the thing that is going to fix anything is “software curiosity.”
“Too many people think of the software as a one shot solution. I use PowerPoint to do this. I use Word to do this. I use SharePoint to do this and this. And, that it. But, we are barely scratching the surface of what is possible to accomplish.”
Indeed, all the software Wedge is referring to is multi-purpose. And, he suggests “having the bravery and the time to dig into those menus, and to work out what those tools can do to your work and workflow.”
In fact, with today’s ability to even edit videos on our iPhone, “frankly, there is just not excuse not to explore all the software for work that we have.”
But the problem is, of course, that today although almost everyone talks about the digital workplace, some people are still terrified of talking about software. “Because it sounds like you are saying that technology will solve all our problems.” Indeed, Wedge is not saying that. “This is definitely a people matter.” Yet, he finds perplexing that “there are some people who don’t know how to collaborate on a Word online document, and yet they are put in charge of digital teams.”
Merging the physical and digital workplace, for everyone
“Our workplace should affect every member of staff, not just the knowledge workers and those who work in the head office.”
Wedge points to the ivory tower problem where the head office is often glorious and uses innovative ways of working. While the call centre or the shop floor workers are sometimes left behind.
“When I visit organisations, I am often impressed by the airiness, the lightness, the glass, the steel, the planting, and even the ponds within their headquarters! Those places have break-out areas as well as quiet working spaces. There are team areas, hot desks, high-speed WiFi, open canteens and private dining rooms.”
This is all gold standard. Those are places where a person can have space and time to think about their role.
And, yet, when he visits the call centres or shop floors, Wedge sometimes finds a very different experience for employees. “People are literally tied to their desks and often they can’t even use their own smartphone. They have a limited digital workplace and, I feel, a limited physical workplace.”
But, those employees are the face of the company. They are the people who serve the customers and as Wedge puts it, “they represent the brand.”
So, in the long term it may well make sense for companies to think of both the head office and the shop floor employees while building an innovative workplace. For Wedge, it requires revisiting “the fine balance between the individual’s needs and the organisational goals.”
Indeed, evidence-based decision making can help. “Users research is necessary when designing parts of the digital workplace, in the same way that ergonomic and social studies are needed when designing the physical workplace.”
Notifications – the watchword for next year
Discussing the latest digital workplace trends, Wedge’s watchword for the next year is ‘notifications’.
“Some people talk about how we evolved from web apps to native apps, back to web apps, the responsive intranet, responsive internal apps, and ubiquitous screens. But, all those things bring us notifications.”
Indeed, automated systems can tell workers what is happening in their digital workplace. And, of course, they are doing it via notifications.
Today, an employee might receive an email telling them that their document has been approved by their colleague. But, Wedge’s argument is that people should be allowed the choice of how they are notified. “You start thinking, ‘Did I want it as an email? Or did I want that notification as a message on my phone?’ That is a personal choice.”
After all, right now, external apps can talk to the browser even when people are not surfing that particular website. For example, “my Twitter account is linked to my Firefox web browser. It doesn’t matter where I am on the web, I can receive notifications on Twitter via my browser.” So, for Wedge, the question to ask is: “Wouldn’t it be great in the enterprise, if your browser gave you notifications about your intranet even when you are not on the intranet?”
Indeed, Wedge believes that this is important from an employee engagement point of view. “Employees should be able to control how they receive their notifications.”
But, it is also relevant to the internal communications teams who “need to understand that their messages are competing with those tiny, concise and useful automatic notifications.”
Doing the work on mobile
Wedge believes that managing virtual teams – field workers and those who work from home or on the road – will become a normality. “The natural consequence of the new ways of working and communicating, which people have adopted in the last two decades.”
For that to happen, mobile has to be there. In fact, it is unproductive to avoid mobile when you are working with remote staff and their individual needs. And, for Wedge, mobile shouldn’t be merely a communicative channel, but task-focused so that employees can do their admin while they are on the commute or in between meetings. “I am hoping that not only can people do their emails no matter where they are, but that they can actually get work done on their mobile.”
Intranets and the SharePoint add-on market
Today’s intranets are generally responsively designed so that employees can access them across devices. But the biggest change that Wedge has seen since launching IntranetNow in 2014 is the SharePoint add-on market.
He explains that, in the past, agencies helped their clients make their SharePoint intranets be usable and useful. They did that by going through a design process. “They worked closely with the organisation to create a bespoke solution in the same way that websites were created over the last 15 years.”
However, SharePoint add-ons have come along recently. “Now agencies are creating out-of-the-box intranets, which companies can deploy on top of their SharePoint.” That means that an organisation can have their intranet built in just days or weeks depending on how much architecture they need to do.
“Maybe, I was a bit cynical and fearful about those out-of-the-box solutions a few years ago, but the fact is that the market is maturing.”
Intranets ten years from now
“Perhaps, by 2026 tools will be invisible.” Wedge believes that making the technology disappear from the view of workers will help them use it more intuitively. Employees will not have to think about the tool but just focus on the work.
“That will allow people to get more done by using a variety of services without caring of what those services are. People can be task-focused instead of tool-focused.”
Additionally, he is hopeful of a future where workplace technology will be seamlessly integrated: “And, maybe, just maybe, all our tools will have single sign-on across the enterprise.”