For most people, the digital workplace experience (DEX) is their workplace experience. Whether we’re working remotely or in the office, most of us spend a majority of our time getting work done on a computer.
When employees navigate digital platforms to perform tasks, collaborate, and access information, they are either energized or frustrated. They form impressions about the company’s culture and viability, and that directly impacts how much effort they’ll expend (think “quiet quitting”) and whether they plan to stay.
Digital tools are more than mechanisms for completing tasks - they are an essential element in building a company’s intangible assets of reputation, brand, knowledge, and innovation. Here’s how to understand and assess the benefits and risks associated with your DEX based on 4 key concepts:
- Today’s digital workplace experience is very much like yesterday’s physical office and workflow. It needs to be designed not merely to support peak performance, but it also needs to represent your organization’s image and help to forge important connections and learning.
- Most organizations’ digital suites are a haphazard collection of applications that hinder productivity and frustrate users. All processes should be streamlined and simple for maximum employee productivity.
- Companies with well-integrated and contemporary digital tools are much more likely to retain top talent, especially because they are demanding an infrastructure that supports hybrid work.
- It’s critical to assess your organization’s DEX from the perspective of key user roles to understand their workflows, their impressions, and their use beyond task-related functions such as mentoring, making new connections, and knowledge-sharing.
Want to dig deeper? We explore each core concept in detail below.
What is a Digital Workplace Experience?
The digital workplace experience is the total environment created by technology that employees encounter as they:
- Perform their day-to-day tasks
- Seek news and perspectives from leaders
- Interact with co-workers and external partners
- Manage their schedules and benefits
- Engage in formal and informal learning
As teams navigate the various apps and websites, they form answers to questions that are vital to their motivation, ability to perform well, and interest in remaining in their job.
- Is this a progressive company?
- Does this organization care about providing flexibility for employees to work productively from home or office?
- Do managers really understand what it takes to get my job done?
We’ve always recognized that an unattractive, uncomfortable office and a disjointed workflow can lead an employee looking elsewhere. An ugly building that’s poorly maintained will certainly not make a great first impression on a prospective hire. Office layouts that are too open create distractions, but those that isolate people don’t promote the kind of unplanned interactions that promote social bonding and informal learning “by osmosis”.
It’s the same for the digital experience. When I sign on to a company’s recruiting website, it’s just like walking into their lobby. When I’m working from home, the windows on my laptop are like the windows in my office – it’s either an attractive scene that helps to inspire me or it is chaotic and adds to my stress. Navigating through applications is like walking the halls to choose the best place to perform a task, or to find a co-worker who might help me think through a problem.
While most leaders recognize the importance of the physical environment and invest in professional designers and refurbishing, they may not be paying attention to the digital experience. If it has not been designed and remodeled with intention and discipline, workers will waste time hopping from platform to platform with different interfaces and passwords having to re-enter data from one system to another. They’ll struggle to find information and access learning opportunities, and fail to engage in collaborations. They’ll feel unproductive, uninformed, and disconnected. A great DEX supports all of the needs of employees - getting their work done efficiently, understanding the meaning and context of their work and the company’s goals, and creating important relationships that build business and knowledge.
A Critical Building-Block of Your Company’s Valuation
My research on value creation in the new economy has demonstrated that over 90% of the value of today's companies resides in intangible assets such as brand, reputation, agility, employee knowledge and motivatiÏon, and ability to innovate. Much value resides in digital assets such as intranets, project management applications, learning management systems, CRM tools and datasets.
In 1975 when many senior executives were entering the workforce, it was just the opposite: tangible assets like real estate, equipment, and money in the bank were about 90% of a company’s valuation and the rest was a mystery called “goodwill”. So it’s going to require a mind-shift for many leaders to understand why it’s critical to invest both money and expertise in building a digital infrastructure that promotes a positive employee experience.
If you were to buy a company today, you probably wouldn’t care too much about the office building and desks or even its manufacturing equipment and bank balance. They all represent the past and current state, but investors care about the future.
You’d be looking to gain its proprietary knowledge, its strong brand and reputation, and a stable and committed workforce. The idea that human resources are critical assets is gaining traction. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (the body that regulates the stock market) has instituted new regulations that require large public companies to disclose their investments and strategies regarding human capital so that investors can better understand the company’s strategies and predict its future success.
“While data and digital technologies were once enablers of efficiency and cost-cutting, today they’re the engines of innovation and revenue growth,” says Linda A. Hill, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Elevating the Digital Workplace Experience.”
Having a great digital workplace experience goes beyond being a “nice to have” asset; not having it is a major risk. Seventy-seven percent of executives in a January 2022 survey by PwC rated hiring and retaining talent as the most important factor in their company’s ability to grow. Capitalizing on digital transformation was the second most popular choice, at 66%.
How Well are we Doing with DEX?
Bottom line for most places: Not too well! Even before the push to work online due to COVID, a study by software review hub G2 found that 96% of employees said they would be more satisfied at work with access to better software.
More recently, a 2022 study by Qualtrics found that only 30% of employees say their experience with their company’s technology exceeds their expectations and there’s a 91% engagement rate with employees who have access to productivity-enhancing technology. That’s compared to a 24% engagement rate for those who don’t. Maybe the “quiet quitting” trend has a lot to do with increasing frustration around working online with poorly designed applications.
Challenges like poor network connectivity and applications that are hard to navigate and slow to respond cause “digital friction”. If the digital ecosystem is so ineffective that employees are forced to come into the office, 64% of the global workforce will consider looking for another job. Those most impacted by poor digital systems and investments are IT workers, the very people who can help us bridge this huge gap. According to the State of Burnout in Tech report by Yerbo, 62% of IT professionals report being “physically and emotionally drained.”
Most digital workplace systems have been built as a series of add-ons with a lack of an overall design architecture or any coherence. It’s like expanding a cabin by building random additions, bolting on prefabricated units, running yards of extension cords, and making living rooms out of garages and bedrooms out of porches – resulting in an ugly and unsafe monstrosity. Over time, organizations add tools from different vendors and home-brew other applications.
Most employees currently have to spend a lot of time switching between tasks, learning new interfaces and searching for the right information. In a study observing 20 teams, totaling 137 users across three Fortune 500 companies for five weeks, workers toggled among different applications roughly 1,200 times each day, which added up to about four hours each week signing on to different applications and reorienting themselves after toggling.
In one of my consulting engagements with the Public Works department of a large California city, we found that employees in two key customer-facing roles were wasting about 8 hours a week trying to hunt down information they needed in various files and applications to respond to citizens’ requests. Often when they finally did find information, it was out of date. The city was losing taxpayer dollars because citizens were frustrated by their slow response times and were choosing to privatize functions like trash collection and waste. The county didn’t have enough budget to add more employees. My analysis for them showed that if they improved their digital infrastructure to make key information easier to find and update, the efficiency impact would be the equivalent of hiring more than 20 more employees!
When you do select some new technology platform, it’s critical to introduce it carefully. That should include a small group of “beta testers” who provide feedback, developing a change management communication campaign to let users know how and when it will be installed and how they’ll have to prepare, and providing mechanisms for ongoing feedback and issues, anticipating that there will be glitches. Some companies even have fun ways for users to identify problems early on – contests to see who finds a bug first and so on. It’s important to encourage these reports and questions so that problems can be diagnosed and addressed quickly.
Designing an optimum DEX involves both “rules and tools”: policies and practices that allow users to easily track and retrieve important information, and software and other infrastructure like network connectivity that’s designed to fit the task.
For example, do employees working from remote sites have connections to the servers that are fast and reliable? Are we using old technology like spreadsheets to perform complex tasks that newer apps support more fully and with better access via mobile devices? Who decides which video conferencing software is to be used for a team project involving external partners? Where will key documents be stored on shared projects if there’s confidential information contained?
The Cost of Poor DEX Goes Beyond Productivity
It’s pretty easy to understand that poorly designed digital systems are inefficient and frustrating. However that’s only part of a larger and more critical picture. Adobe’s State of Work survey found that:
- Before the COVID-19 pandemic, (22%) of workers say they had already quit a job because workplace tech made their jobs harder and a follow-up survey in 2021 showed that almost a third of workers (32%) say they have said goodbye to an employer whose tech was a barrier to their ability to do good work.
- Almost half (49%) of US workers say they are likely to leave their current job if they're unhappy or frustrated with the technology they use at work.
- However, the number of digital workers who reported applying for a job because they heard a company's employees use great technology increased by 7 points after COVID forced remote work.
- Workers now rely more on technology to foster creativity and innovation (+9 points) and develop new ideas (+8 points) than before the pandemic.
The first impression that most applicants have of a company are its HR recruiting systems and its website. For new hires, their digital resources and the way they are trained to use them are critical in their assessment of the company and their ability to thrive there. “Intranets serve as a virtual front door, creating a first impression for potential employees, customers, and partners,” says Elizabeth Kiehner, Vice President of Enterprise Transformation at Capgemini Invent in a recent report. “They are also the place where new hires start when looking for help.”
By 2025, Gen Z will make up about a third of our workforce so it’s critical to understand their expectations. (Hint: Robin’s e-book Understanding Gen Z: How to Win the Race for Talent is a great free resource.) This research found that for 88% of G Z employees, workplace culture is important to their overall job satisfaction. More than half say they are experiencing burnout and while compensation is important to them, having a healthy and less stressful life is even more critical.
Numerous studies show that about half of the workforce feel like they aren’t reaching their full potential at work due to a mismatch of software tools and challenges in getting the feedback and mentoring they need to understand the overall corporate goals.
A recent Gallup poll explored whether “quiet quitting” (employees doing the bare minimum to keep from being fired) was a real trend. It is: about 50% of workers are exhibiting these behaviors, and there was a marked decline in employee engagement. The overall decline was especially related to clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn and grow, feeling cared about, and a connection to the organization's mission or purpose -- signaling a growing disconnect between employees and their employers.
Five Steps to Assess Your Digital Workplace Experience
It’s time to take a hard look at your company’s DEX and assess where you might be at risk. Here are some concrete actions:
1. Build a Workplace Experience Team
These teams are made up of a group of people who represent key employee-focused roles: Human resources, IT, facilities, union or employee interest group representatives and other key operational managers are all viable participants. This group acts as your internal consultants to provide insights and lead projects that build a great workplace experience - both physical facilities and digital infrastructures.
Charge them with organizing a few brainstorming sessions with employees, asking them how their digital workplace experience could be improved. Do they need faster Internet connections? A better way to track progress on complex projects? A more streamlined way to set up meetings including finding shared times and appropriate spaces? Whatever the questions, the goal should be to better understand what employees need to do their best work, regardless of location.
2. Collect Insights with Analytics
Data points like employee bounce rate or desks booked are important metrics to monitor. These statistics give workplace leaders a snapshot of office performance. With the right tools, you can look beyond resources and start understanding general behaviors that drive office attendance. Do people book more often when their team is in? Does taco Tuesdays up the overall attendance rate? What seems to deter people from coming back?
Leaders are tasked with investigating why certain things are happening and what changes need to be made. Some examples of questions worth asking:
- If people are going back once and not coming back, why is that?
- What was it about the office that did not work?
- What are some of the challenges with flexible work?
- What could have made their office trip more enjoyable?
3. Observe a Sample Group to Understand DEX
Develop a list of 5-10 key roles within your company - for instance in a retail chain this might be store managers and assistant managers, HR business partners, IT solutions engineers, call center staff, and purchasing agents. For each of these roles, observe a small sample of 5-10 individuals in that role for at least half of a typical work day, noting how they are interacting with various digital tools and systems.
Regularly running these sample groups can help paint a full picture of how various teams interact with digital tools. When putting all that data together it becomes more clear what areas of your DEX need attention and where things seem to be running smoothly.
4. Talk with IT Leaders About Blind Spots
What kind of requests regularly come from employees? Are there certain tools that regularly need updating or integrating? What’s their assessment of the systems you’re using now? What are their biggest obstacles in terms of end-user support? How many different interfaces and sign-ons are needed for important tasks?
Go to the source. Make time to talk with IT leaders and teams to better understand where the biggest points of friction are in your digital workplace experience. Keeping a finger on the pulse of these problems allows you to get ahead of them.
5. Play the Role of Someone Thinking of Applying to Your Company
What platforms are you required to use to send in an application? What information would you like to have before you did an initial interview and where would you find it? What impression would you get of the company based on these tasks?
What we now call the workplace is vastly different and more varied than ever. The leaders in creating optimum DEX will be those with vibrant and productive cultures in which every contributor can achieve their peak performance and satisfaction.
Tales from the Trenches
To bring it all home, here is an example of how a bad digital workplace experience can cause unnecessary complications from my own experience.
Professors, like me, at Ithaca College have access to a rich but overwhelming list of software tools that’s grown tremendously over the past decade.
Let’s say that a colleague emails me saying that one of my advisees hasn’t shown up for his class for two weeks and hasn’t responded to emails. He wonders if any other professors were noticing the same thing or if I know if she’s dropped out. He recalls her saying that she’s been anxious about her family’s ability to pay her tuition. He has no way of seeing what other classes she’s in, but as her advisor, I can do that.
In order for me to intervene, I need to:
- Access our student information portal to see what courses she’s in and jot down the names of each professor
- Go into our online directory to get the email addresses for each professor
- Go to Outlook and email her professors to see if she’s been in their classes
- Check with the bursar’s office to see if there’s a financial hold on her account or if she’s dropped out
Two days later, each of her other professors emails me to say she’s been out of their classes, and the bursar replies that there is no hold on her account - she still should be enrolled so now I’m worried. I recall that the College has just developed two online tools for reporting concerns about students so that various professionals can reach out to them, but I’m not sure which one to use. When I click on each one I find that ICare is used to report “a student exhibiting concerning behaviors or signs of distress” and Academic Alert is “a way for faculty and staff to relay information about a student who may need extra academic assistance in order to succeed. Examples include absenteeism, failing grades, not turning in assignments, or being disengaged in class”.
After three days and probably two hours of my time digging around I’m still not sure what to do next for a student who could be in a real crisis. It would be easy for me just to forget about it. Retention of students is our college’s number one priority right now, and my digital workplace experience is not helping us quickly identify and assist students who are at risk of dropping out.
That's what bad digital experiences can do - deter productivity and waste everyones time, leading to frustration for your teams.
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.