Creating a great digital workplace experience (DEX) goes beyond merely purchasing the latest software and hardware to increase your employees’ productivity. It’s an opportunity to design an ecosystem that supports efficient work and provides connection, feedback, context, and growth that attracts, motivates, and retains top talent. How do you get started? Think of it like a recipe that requires the right ingredients and the right process.
Sounds easy, but just like preparing a great Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, a lot can go wrong in the process!
3 Core Components of Digital Workplace Experience
The digital employee experience (DEX) is the total environment that people encounter as they use digital tools in their jobs whether they’re working in a traditional office or off-site. It’s more than just having the latest and greatest hardware and software. It’s creating an environment where people feel competent, connected, and congratulated.
1. Competent: The vast majority of people really want to do a good job at work and they like to feel competent. That means having the tools and information they need to do their job efficiently. Just like you would not lay out a warehouse in a way that had shipping clerks spend most of their time running from place to place rather than engaging in valuable tasks, you should not have a software suite that requires them to launch different software products, constantly open new tabs and pages, and re-key information.
2. Connected: Employees need to know the context of their work. How’s the company doing? What are its goals and values? Who are its leaders and mover and shakers? What are new initiatives that impact my work? Do I have friends at work and feel like I can call on the right person who will readily help me if I need a hand? Does the boss recognize me if I run into her at the grocery store?
3. Congratulated: The one thing that makes people run from a job is if they don’t feel appreciated. That’s more than a pat on the back or a 5% raise. It means listening to their suggestions and worries, and taking action. It means giving regular feedback that’s specific and lets them know how their work impacts the organization. It even means being recognized as “somebody” when you walk the halls.
Now, not every organization got these three elements right even in the “before times” when most people worked 9-5 in a traditional office. In today’s hybrid work world, it’s more challenging to accomplish all of these. Getting routine tasks done was easily moved to digital platforms – most of it already existed there before and we could easily replace meetings with Zoom calls. However, the connectedness and the measures of appreciation often happened in random moments and encounters - things that don’t happen naturally in a remote or hybrid environment. Be intentional with those parts of the equation.
Designing a Successful Digital Workplace Experience
Most organizations don’t have a great DEX - simply because the plethora of new applications addressing hybrid work challenges came upon us so quickly that we haven’t had time to plan. This can lead to workers having to spend a great portion of their time hunting down information, bouncing back and forth between applications, re-entering data, waiting for screens to refresh, and forcing old systems to do new tasks. Research shows that most employees are dissatisfied with their software tools and may be so frustrated that they’re thinking of quitting.
Great DEX is all about giving people an easy way to access the information they need while also facilitating ways to connect employees with one another.
The Washington Post recently profiled Julia Cummings, a remote worker for software start-up Buffer which employees 84 people in 27 countries. With such a distributed team, the company’s approach to digital workplace experience needs to be very intentional. According to Julia, Buffer makes it easy to access all kinds of information that give her an informed perspective on the context of her work. She can:
- Check out the company’s current financials performance
- View co-workers’ salaries for benchmarking
- Read through shared notes from all meetings (even ones she didn’t attend)
The company also recognizes the need for building bonds and having mentors. Julia was assigned a “role buddy,” who helped her navigate her position, and a buddy to keep her connected to the company culture. Buffer even wrote a guide to help employees write in ways that don’t get misinterpreted in emails and text messages.
When looking at digital workplace experience, organizations need to consider every angle, from information sharing to culture building. A helpful framework to consider is design thinking, a problem-solving approach that puts user experience first.
The way to create a great DEX is not to randomly add more “cool tools”. Rather, we need to use design thinking to model out the entire digital and physical work system, and then conceptualize an integrated architecture. A recent Robin report, conducted with Wainhouse, illustrates what this kind of system looks like, incorporating people, places and processes.
Typically, software platforms are chosen or built by IT departments with some limited input from end-users. As the concept of employee experience takes hold, HR has become more involved. However, it’s best to actually empower end-users to take the lead.
Systems design thinking and user-centered design are two different but complementary approaches and both include user-centered empathy, looking at multiple stakeholder perspectives, and doing quick prototypes to iterate potential solutions. Design thinking is not about fixing problems – rather, it’s about imagining the ideal and building it gradually with input and trials.
Emerging Digital Employee Experience Tools
New DEX tools are being created by vendors who recognize this enormous opportunity. Digital employee experience solutions can offer not only a platform for integrating applications but also offer new capabilities such as collecting employee activity and sentiment data, and creating actionable insights driven by improved analytics and artificial intelligence.
When do people typically come into the office? With whom are they meeting? What spaces are they using? Analytics tools can tell you a lot about the kinds of environments and teammates they are seeking and desk- and room-booking platforms empower employees to choose their times and environments.
Other DEX platforms focus on being a central information portal for news and online collaborations.
- Deloitte’s ConnectMe platform enables employees to communicate, collaborate and make work/life decisions on demand; it consolidates information across platforms and contextualizes it based on an employee’s role and location.
- Willis Tower Watson’s Embark delivers rich content including images and videos in a personalized way to employees; it also includes employee survey functions. Their related product called Engage is an employee listening platform that uses artificial intelligence to analyze employee’s stories and provide advice to managers on how to improve employee experience.
- Tivian claims to support what it calls employee experience intelligence or XI; it’s a “complete, 360-degree approach to the Talent Strategy Experience that uncovers insights and delivers action. It not only offers employee listening and surveys, but it helps leaders to create customized communication campaigns. What’s next? Biometrics, according to Tivian’s web page that explains its technology. “Harness face recognition and emotion recognition and apply it to CX and EX to take understanding to a whole other level. It’s not with us yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”
As the workplace continues to evolve, we’ll have more choices of modalities and venues. With the emergence of “Web 3” and the metaverse, it’s possible to create more realistic digital versions of physical offices. Virtual offices like Tandem or Teamflow, or software like Focusmate make it possible to work together in a virtual space in a more natural manner, making a big difference in creating a sense of belonging.
For instance, they can see who’s working, who doesn’t want to be disturbed, and who might be up for a brief chat. These tools can help employees create casual encounters which can be important mechanisms for informal learning and mentoring and to help new people understand the culture.
Creating Workplace Experiences That Inspire and Delight
The job of managers has always been to support great performance, but the mechanisms to do that have changed dramatically in the past few years. It’s no longer relevant just to assign tasks and walk around to make sure employees are busy completing them. If you’re in a hybrid workplace, you can’t even count on being able to read body language to get a sense of who’s looking stressed, or to buy them a coffee to thank them for good work.
In today’s knowledge and experience economy, organizations need employees to self-manage and be boldly creative in their approaches - to generate insights, products, and processes you never would have imagined. Our complex talent market and workplace eco-systems require leaders to focus on attracting terrific employees and creating an experience that delights and motivates them. It’s the same concept as customer delight: creating that “wow” factor - going above and beyond expectations and surprising them in ways that make them feel personally acknowledged, “heard”, and appreciated. Experiences that are memorable have a lasting impact and lead employees to share their delight with others and we know that positive word-of-mouth is the most credible PR that any company can earn.
The factors that create a great DEX are nothing new: they go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs . We clearly need to ensure that employees have a physically comfortable and safe environment. Some organizations have decided to just let employees work remotely if they feel unsafe returning to work or if they enjoy their home office space. However, they won’t truly be engaged unless they feel a sense of belonging and connection – unless they experience respect, recognition and freedom.
I may be able to crank out work at home in a cozy environment where I’m not exposed to possible illness, but it’s going to be more difficult for me to develop the relationships and feel the appreciation and camaraderie from co-workers that will make me love my work. The latest research on healthy workplaces finds that if you monitor my every keystroke and never praise me in front of someone, I may well become depressed and even engage in antisocial behavior.
Finally, I’ll never reach the peak of self-actualization if I’m not not in a positive and nurturing environment where I can excel and have the energy to be the “best I can be” - imaginative, flexible, self-confident – in short, your ideal employee!
Today’s leaders are experience designers - like a great chef, they need to source great ingredients, fine-tune the process of combining them, add their own unique flourish, and focus on creating experiences that delight and nourish.
Diane Gayeski, Ph.D. is acknowledged for her innovation, research, and teaching in corporate communication and performance improvement. She conducts research and shares her insights in her roles as Professor of Strategic Communication and former Dean at Ithaca College’s Roy H Park School of Communications and as Principal in Gayeski Analytics.