Originally Published 3/31/2016 on Deloitte.com.
The increasing integration of digital technologies in all aspects of our lives is both a benefit and a challenge for employers and employees. How does an organization embrace the reality of today’s digital world, put it to work, and stay open to future innovations while balancing the needs of its customers and employees?
Embracing the digital challenge
Organizations are benefiting from the increased digitization of the workplace through increased productivity, cost savings, a more mobile and agile workforce, and generally increased flexibility and adaptability in an ever increasingly complex marketplace. Enterprises are collaborating more globally, and with more diverse and global staff.
While this has been a boom for employers, it has also changed the power balance in the employer-employee relationship, often more towards the employee.1 The ability to work from anywhere and stay connected through smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices has enabled employees to stay connected and collaborate with peers and stay on top of digital trends more readily than the organizations they work for.
This new digital workplace also creates its own challenges, including security, developing a new kind of digital etiquette to expectations for employees, and the tendency for building expectations of always being “on,” causing burnout and often leading to retention problems. Integrating digital technologies into the workplace can not only wreak havoc on the productivity of workers, but it also creates its own distinct culture, impacting the previous work culture and the general work experience. These changes will challenge the workplace by forcing both executives and employees to adapt the way they interact with each other and the technologies that enable their work.
Companies must be proactive in creating new systems and policies, and re-interpreting their corporate culture around digital in the workplace, or they risk losing clients, productivity, and employees.
Organizations that will succeed in this new digital work environment are those that can be open to innovation and adopting new digital methods while also curating those digital experiences for their employees, including creating distinct lines between work and non-work, and making the workplace overall more human-centered rather than technology-centered.
Technology the enabler
Having a more digital-savvy team has been a boon for employers. Technology supporting a digitally integrated workforce gets stronger and more robust every year, enabling enterprises to keep a very dispersed team on the same page logistically and moving toward the same goals. Mobile computing is rapidly expanding access to the network of global workers connected by data as well as voice. Teams across time zones and countries can work remotely while staying connected to their teams virtually via Skype, VoIP, email, and cloud-stored files. Companies no longer need to send workers on an expensive airplane ride to visit clients or collaborate with other teams. Today’s workforces are freer to go where they want to work instead of staying where work originates. Easier access to skill development resources is making vertical moves easier, too, for both people and organizations.
Companies are also able to create digitally integrated “on-demand” teams, offering the ability to tap into extensive networks of innovators, technical experts, and seasoned professionals from all over the world that can collaborate together. Researchers estimate that as many as 30 to 40 percent of all US workers today are contingent.2
Whether the employee is working remotely, working as an “on-demand” employee, or just checking emails from their phone on the bus ride in to work, an enterprise is responsible for creating a culture of security and secure data among its staff.3 This is leaving CEOs, IT managers, HR, and the rest of the C-suite stuck between a rock and a hard place on how to manage all of these changes and implement a digital system that balances both workers’ needs and the company’s.
The face of the digital workforce
Digital technologies have already dramatically impacted the culture around work and working. This growing group of younger, connected, and mobile workers are managing their careers on their own terms and often outside of categories that have defined the workforce for decades. Today’s workers have a new focus on purpose, mission, and work-life integration. They stay connected to friends and family digitally and are comfortable working in the same way, often blending the two. More workers of all ages are demanding more of a work-life balance that can accommodate more time caring for family, living further away from city centers, or just avoiding peak commute times. For them, this balancing act includes utilizing digital technologies to enable themselves and their broader goals.
In a world where a mobile phone is only an arm’s reach away and the lines between work and life are increasingly ill-defined, work-life balance can be hard to achieve. Humans across the globe report being overwhelmed by the digital capabilities they now possess and find it difficult to put limits or control how much technology they consume or how it infiltrates their lives. Workers are also often thrown onto demanding cross-functional teams that bring new people together at a rapid rate, which can make it hard to create truly cohesive and collaborative teams.
If unresolved, all of this connectedness can lead to employee burnout. Employees may feel unable to fully disengage from work, or possibly feel tracked by their company. This growing problem of burnout and being constantly “tethered” to work by mobile devices, email, or other digital formats results in lost productivity and high turnover for companies.
Despite the struggle to disengage from work, this rapid rise of digital, and in particular social media, has also had positive impacts on the way people connect and collaborate at work. People can quickly share ideas, information, and requests at a speed faster than any other in recorded history. The explosion of external people data (data in social networks, recruiting networks, and talent networks) has created a new world of employee data outside the enterprise that both organizations and employees can tap into in order to gain knowledge about the culture and process of any organization.
All of this sharing can be a boon or detriment to companies. Today’s organizations live in an era where every corporate decision is immediately publicly exposed and debated, thanks to sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others. Once-private issues are now posted online for every employee—and every potential employee—to read. Given the harsh spotlight of this new transparency, an organization’s culture can become a key competitive advantage—or its weakness.
Digital implementation: How to do digital well
No matter where an organization is on the path to digital transformation, executives can take steps to create a supportive, adaptive workplace for the people who can help their organization grow to the next level.
Below are key considerations for the digital workplace:
- Build your culture to support digital
Executives can give their company a competitive advantage and attract top talent by having a strong workplace culture already in place that supports digital implementation. Many studies now show that highly engaged companies can hire more easily, deliver stronger customer service, have the lowest voluntary turnover rates, and be more profitable over the long run.Companies must work to re-integrate the human into the digital workflow, and get people communicating seamlessly with each other almost despite all of the technology available. One way of doing this is to encourage person-to-person interactions. Many companies still encourage in-person meetings rather than virtual. Some companies also strongly push their employees to get up and walk over to chat with a coworker on the same floor rather than email.
- Treat your employees like customers
As the job market has heated up and new technologies have exploded, power has shifted from the employer to the employee. It is the job of the organization to make room for people to grow and feel like they are part of the team. Managers and executives must curate and create a digital experience for their employees, or they will be left to create piecemeal solutions for themselves that may leave them frustrated and perceive the company to be disorganized.A supportive digital culture allows team members to feel connected and included even if they are spread out across the globe. This can be as simple as using enterprise-wide digital collaboration tools like Yammer or Slack.It is important for the organization to make sure talent doesn’t burn out. That means creating policies that care for the whole person. This includes obvious things like health care and retirement, but in the digital age, it also includes having vacation policies that include a digital vacation and a chance to truly unplug.
- Be open to innovation
Corporations need to offer some flexibility in order to be able to adopt digital platforms and strategies. Be open to creative employee solutions, even something that may seem like a “time sink” like Facebook Groups or Slack. Usually, employees catch on to effective systems faster than executives, and a good leader needs to be open to that kind of innovation rather than trying to put limits around innovation.Set the stage for innovation by breaking down barriers and empowering your workforce. Give employees the opportunity to venture out of their standard career paths and customize their jobs to align with their personal and evolving skill sets, interests, and career goals. Provide a more open work environment with increased information transparency and trust in expertise by changing the default content and process working mechanisms from private to public.All of these can set any enterprise on the path towards a successful digital workplace and supportive culture.
 David Brown, Sonny Cheng, Veronica Melian, Kathy Parker & Marc Solow, Culture and engagement: The naked organization, Deloitte University Press, February 27, 2015.
 Josh Bersin, Dimple Agarwal, Bill Pelster & Jeff Schwartz, Introduction: Leading in the new world of work, Deloitte University Press, February 27, 2015.
 Irfan Saif, Sean Peasley, & Arun Perinkolam, Safeguarding the Internet of Things: Being secure, vigilant, and resilient in the connected age, Deloitte Review Issue 17, Deloitte University Press, July 27, 2015.