Why digital workplace initiatives are failing

Karen Roby talks with a Gartner analyst about the difficulties companies face when trying to implement change through digital workplace initiatives.

Why digital workplace initiatives are failing Karen Roby talks with a Gartner analyst about the difficulties companies face when trying to implement change through digital workplace initiatives.

A new report shows that the majority of digital workplace initiatives will fail to establish new ways of working through 2021. TechRepublic's Karen Roby talked with Carol Rozwell, an analyst with Gartner, about the findings. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Carol: One of the biggest problems that we see with digital workplace initiatives is poorly designed change plans. So you end up with somebody who's well-intentioned, who's trying to lead a digital workplace initiative, knows that there's a lot of change that needs to happen, and what they do unfortunately is they give the workers a directive that says, "You're going to change and do this now." And we know, as human beings, the neuroscience tells us, human behavior tells us that people will change, but they have to understand why, why should they do something different? 

So the more successful organizational change plans for digital workplace initiative includes helping people to understand things like, "Well, what is the vision? Why is this change so important to our corporation, to our organization, to our mission? What is it that I specifically have to do in order to work differently?" And then perhaps the biggest question is, "What's in it for me? Why do you want me to make these changes, and how am I going to have an easier time at work once we get through all of these changes?"

Karen: We talk so often about digital transformation and how it's not necessarily just an IT thing anymore like it used to be. So when you talk about these changes, is it more of a cultural shift that needs to take place? Is it something that more CIOs and CFOs and everyone needs to be in on?

Carol: Most definitely, the latter. So in the old days, let's face it, many of us that have worked for a long time have seen implementations of various technologies that might have been portrayed as helping us get our work done, but in reality, we're helping the organization run business processes. So the digital workplace concept is very different from that approach. And our Gartner definition for digital workplace initiatives is that they're business strategies and they're designed to improve the organizational business performance as well as improve individual employee digital dexterity. 

So that brings in a couple of things. First of all, we have to make sure that the leaders in the organization are aware of how their behaviors have to change. So this would be the business leaders as well as the IT leaders. And they also have to be very clear in making the connection between improved business performance and the outcomes of the digital workplace program. And the business outcomes, they could be anything really. They could be improving sales performance. It could be increasing the time to market for new products. It could be improving customer support so that the customers are more satisfied with the service they're getting from the organization. And so what you hear as the common theme there is it's about business performance. It's not just about putting a product into a digital workplace and saying, "Here workers, you can use this stuff now." 

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic) 

Karen: When you talk about the digital workplace and how things are trending, what are some of the bigger things that you're seeing, changes, or trends if you will when it comes to remote workers and flexible work and things like that, and even in the physical workspace as well?

Carol: There are many, many trends that we're starting to see or we're continuing to see in the digital workplace. And actually, the fact that you and I are talking to each other from different kinds of spaces, I'm working in my home office, it looks like you're working at a more corporatized facility. That's one of the big trends that workers of all ages I should emphasize are looking for a much more flexible work environment that fits in with their busy lives. I've often heard people talk about work-life balance. And I chuckle at that phrase because to me it seems like there's really not a balance. It's not like I go to work, and then I come home. It's really like we're integrating the various pieces of our lives into how we're operating. And as human beings, I think it's pretty clear that, for instance, if I've got something on my mind because I've got a family issue I'm dealing with, then that's going to stay on my mind regardless of how much I say, "Oh, concentrate at work." So the trend towards remote work is one that's most definitely one that we're seeing. 
In our 2017 survey, when people were asked, "If you could make your own work schedule, where would you prefer to work?'' The answer was that 56% of people said they would like to work in a corporate office. In this year's survey, the 2019 survey, only 47% of people said they would like to spend time working in a corporate office as opposed to other locations like home or in a public place, while they're traveling, et cetera. So that's a real difference. 

SEE: Policy pack: Workplace ethics  (TechRepublic Premium)

Another big change that I'm seeing with clients is that they want to redesign the spaces themselves to be more appealing for employees and also make it much easier for employees when they do go into a corporate facility. Or perhaps when they have a visitor into a corporate facility, make it easy to find out where's that nice conference room that has the electronic whiteboard and the great projector, make that process very, very simplified. And as I mentioned, this is not limited to any particular age group. This particular tide is floating all boats. And across the board and also regardless of the geography, this is worldwide data; people want to be able to go to maybe a conference room if they're having a small meeting. They want to be able to have private space if they have to do drill-down thinking and have a quiet environment. So what's really critical is for the facilities people, HR, and IT to work together to make sure that the employee experience, when they're in a corporate facility, is as positive as possible. 

Karen: Are you still seeing that workers are wanting collaborative spaces as well as places they can go to when they need quiet or privacy?

Carol: That's a concept that is called activity-based working. And the short version of it is that it's providing spaces for people that allow them to do the work that they need to do at that particular point in time. And I think if most of us really stop to think about how are we working over the course of the day, it's not like I'm always sitting here, as a Gartner analyst, writing a research note for eight or 10 hours. In fact, I'm doing many different kinds of work. So, in some cases, I want a space where I can work with other people. In some cases, I want a space where I can work heads-down quiet and literally if I do the right thing, turn off every distraction so I can make sure to focus.

Karen: How much of this do you think is being driven by that younger generation of Millennials and Gen Z-ers?

Carol: That's a challenging question for me to answer because I'm not really a fan of the generational-related research. And one of the big reason is, it's really hard for me to imagine when people have been born over a 25-year span that they all think the same way. Instead what we've done, and this also came out of our digital workplace survey that we did at Gartner, we looked at a series of questions that helped identify different personas in the digital workplace. And so we had some people, for instance, that were very comfortable using the technology, totally depended on the technology during the course of their workday. Other people weren't so enamored with the technology and really didn't feel even like they needed it as much to get their work done. 

So I prefer to develop a breakdown that helps the people who are planning the digital workplace initiatives focus on what's the stuff, whatever it might be, be either a space or technology, devices, applications. What do we need to provide to our workers, so they are going to be as effective as possible? There's typically not a single worker that we're trying to accommodate; there are a series of these personas. And understanding which ones exist in each organization is really critical to get that business process change that we were talking about earlier. 

SEE: CXO: More must-read coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

Karen: Talk a little bit about the recent summit that addressed a good bit of these topics.

Carol: We had the digital workplace summit in North America, in Orlando, in May. And we have a similar version coming up in London in September. And these themes are carried throughout, both how does the workplace change, in terms of its physical change, as well as what new technologies are available to help people, and even things like how do you run a better meeting not only taking into account people's preferences but also some new tools that are available. 

Was there anything that really stood out or surprised you guys when you got the results of this? I know you talked about comparing it to the 2017 conference, but was there anything that really stuck out or surprised you guys that you found with these results?

Actually, in many cases, the fact that there wasn't more difference of opinion based on age I think is pretty interesting. Now, that's not to say that there is no difference based on age. But there were other differences that were more significant. And what I also found interesting, one of the questions asked does your employer utilize your technical skills? And one thing we found is that there are many people who are very technically capable in organizations, but they don't feel that their employer is taking advantage of their knowledge. So I think that's another factor that needs to be considered because not all the tech smarts exist in the IT organization itself. 

I would add to the list of mistakes that we've seen with digital workplace initiatives is all too often there is ageism, quite frankly, that comes into play making exactly that assumption that those of us that may be in the Boomer generation, we still have VCRs that are flashing 12:00. And I don't even have a VCR anymore, for instance. So it's important, back to the point that we mentioned earlier, it's important to remember that WIIFM question, what's in it for me? And digital workplace initiative will be vastly more successful when the what's in it for me question is answered for every individual or at least every group in the persona that the organization is hoping will change their behaviors to improve business outcomes.

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By Karen Roby

Karen Roby is a reporter for TechRepublic. Prior to joining CBS Interactive, Karen worked as an anchor and reporter for several CBS affiliate stations owned by Hearst Communications and Gray Television.