Employee experience, AI, drones, and getting HR onboard: Interaction event explores the challenges of the Digital Workplace

Interact welcomed attendees and speakers to 30 Euston Square this Wednesday, 10th May for its 10th annual intranet and internal communications conference.

85 delegates gathered in the heart of London to explore current trends and challenges surrounding the Digital Workplace, with guest presentations from Sam Marshall (Clearbox Consulting), Angela Ashenden (MWD Advisors), Mike Ryan (Fusion Futures) and Scott Fulton (Public sector organization).

Attendees on the day gathered from across the UK and a broad selection of industry sectors, benefitting from the London sunshine on the roof terrace during morning coffee and a viewing of the intranet exhibition before sessions commenced.

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“Enterprise IT has been on hold, while consumer IT has been on fire”(Geoffrey Moore, as quoted by Sam Marshall)

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Opening the event with the first talk of the day, Sam Marshall delved into the need to approach the internal experience with the same diligence given to customer experiences – mapping out the end-to-end journey for employees and meeting their expectations in a digital age.

“Employees want fluidity, simplicity, progress and meaning from their digital workplaces,” Sam argued, “and we need to reduce ‘digital drag’ to make this happen”.

In his discussion, Sam explored the ways in which organizations can – and should – meet consumer benchmarks for technology within the business environment. Topics included personalization of employee digital communications and experiences, catering to multiple devices for ‘always on’ content, and the need for dedicated resource to champion user experience for employees.

“It takes leadership support to change thinking,” Sam noted, “and we need an iterative, progressive approach to continually improving and evolving the employee experience.”

Sam concluded with a summary of what the digital workplace needed to answer:

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“We need to move away from a one-size-fits-all mentality. It fits nobody. Target your change.” (Angela Ashenden, MWD Advisors)

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The second session of the day went one step further: when you’ve identified the need for new technologies or to improve on the employee experience, how do you ensure adoption and engagement of those tools?

Angela Ashenden of MWD Advsiors explored the reasons why social collaboration initiatives fail, addressing challenges such as:

  • Resistance to change
  • Poor education and support
  • Insufficient executive support
  • Unmanaged expectations

“Think ‘education’, not just ‘training’ when it comes to employee digital adoption,” Angela implored.

“Not everyone is an early adopter: you will face resistance. Identify it, understand it and continue to address it over time.”

Advocacy networks could be a solution to drive adoption, Angela argued, by identifying individuals from across different areas of the business who would lead by example. Social collaboration initiatives should also embrace non-work use cases – “don’t be afraid to encourage users to come onboard for non-work purposes: they can help people learn how to use the technology,” Angela explained. “Once they are confident using tools for non-work purposes, the work elements will follow.”

challenges of the digital workplace technology adoption

(Successful adoption of technology is everyone’s responsibility, Angela argues).

Fundamentally, adoption and engagement of technology is a matter of cultural change – not simply implementing new tools and walking away, Angela concluded. It requires a long-term approach.

“It’s time to look beyond the ‘HIPPO’ – the highest paid person’s opinion – and separate fact and fiction.” (-Haydn Smith, Interact)

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(“Forget everything you ever knew about the way people work in the Digital Workplace”: Nigel and Haydn stepped up to challenge beliefs and misconceptions using telemetry and data)

The final morning session was hosted by Interact’s own Nigel Williams and Haydn Smith. The talk drew on an extensive report on the State of the Digital Workplace – due to be published next month – which used anonymized data generated by 1.1 million users across 700+ Interact customers. Telemetry, Nigel argues, can help us break free from misconceived opinions that hold back – or even damage – our internal communications efforts.

Some of Interact’s findings served to confirm hypotheses and provide a tangible, measureable ROI figure – while others challenged long held beliefs within the internal communications community.

“From customer data obtained around intranet usage and engagement, we could pinpoint a correlation between activity – that is, everything from liking, sharing or commenting through to intense options such as blogging – and retention, or the number of user licenses activated or deactivated within the intranet,” Nigel explained.

“We found that if 50% of employees act socially or collaborate at least once a month, retention increases by 12%. If you want a compelling business case for the power of social technology just look to Sport England – who saw activity levels of 93% and a 19% increase in retention rates.

One of the more surprising findings surrounded the power and role of blogs within intranet and internal communications strategy. “The focus during an intranet project often falls on creating this page or that page – blogs are an afterthought or not considered during the strategy or planning process,” explains Haydn.

“However, we found that blogs see 15 times more interaction than standard content. If a blog is commented on, there’s also an 80% greater chance that person will repost. Likes, shares, comments – these are the currency of social technology.”

challenges of the digital workplace blog telemtry

(Diversity is key: part of the telemetry explored which types of blogs had the greatest levels of activity, concluding that CEO blogs should be supplemented with teams, departmental or personal contributions)

The duo went on to explore the types of blog content that drive highest levels of engagement, and challenged the preconception that there are ‘peak times’ or particular days when it is better to post content internally.

“There is no ‘prime publishing time'”, Nigel explains. “We are connected in a 24/7 environment; activity outside core business hours is on the rise; mobile device access is increasing. The key thing is simply to publish.

“Artificial intelligence will be the biggest challenge and change to the way we work.” (-Mike Ryan, Fusion Futures)

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What are the biggest opportunities, threats and challenges on the technological horizon? What new concepts, innovations or consumer trends will impact on the way we do business? These were questions investigated by Mike Ryan of Fusion Futures as the audience returned post-lunch for our 4th presentation of the day.

Drawing on ideas such as Elon Musk’s “underground road” concept from his TED talk in April, Mike explored how technology is already beginning to shape the digital workplace.

“Law firms are now using Amazon Echos to record meetings and even transcribe them,” Mike Ryan explained.

challenges of the digital workplace ai

“Meanwhile IBM’s ROSS intelligence, built on its Watson cognitive computing platform, can perform legal research in a matter of minutes that would take paralegals weeks to scope. Artificial intelligence will transform the way we work – and in law firms that are trialling it, ROSS is already replacing paralegals. AI will continue to overtake more roles.”

Interestingly, Mike also made the case for AI to step into the role of CEO – based on the premise that technology can’t be programmed with emotion, and 40% of CEOs in tech firms qualify as psychopaths.

Delving into the possibilities of drones transforming consumer experiences and the future of carless, on-demand travel, Mike’s presentation nonetheless came with a warning.

“Technology should be part of the background, not the foreground,” Mike cautioned. With new, shiny innovations appearing daily, there’s a danger of technology overtaking the workplace – “technology should be about building environments that help employees.”

“Getting the basics right makes all the difference. Nothing groundbreaking: it just needs to work.(-Scott Fulton, public sector organization)

challenges of the digital workplace scott fulton

The final talk of the day was delivered by Digital Product Manager, Scott Fulton, who took to the stage to recount the highs – and lows – of rolling out a large-scale intranet project within his large public sector organization.

The organization’s previous intranet system had a bad rep, Scott explained.

“When surveyed, employees came back with feedback including, ‘it’s like pulling teeth’, ‘I just pick up the phone instead’ or ‘I lose to will to live’. We had a serious problem on our hands.”

The old intranet, joint owned by IT and communications, had become a dumping ground – where departments had free reign to put content on and homepage content was based on “whoever shouted the loudest”. When considering the strategy for their new intranet, Scott’s team needed a different approach.

“We went with a task-based approach, working with different departments such as HR, IT, estates, to identify their top high volume tasks,” Scott explained. Departments were asked about the highest volume requests and whether these had any generic answer; then, using employees, these were logically grouped into ‘collections’ of tasks to form the site hierarchy.

Search is not an excuse for bad structure on an intranet,” Scott emphasized. “Mapping out and grouping tasks makes for a better user experience.”

Content then went through Scott’s team to apply best practice for writing for the internet, streamlining 20-page long pieces into half a page and ensuring better control. The structure was scrupulously tested and reshaped based on feedback. The team also ran a competition to name their new intranet – with, naturally, the odd comical result.

“Intranet McIntranetty Face”

Scott and his team introduced the new intranet ‘by stealth’, originally alongside the old system and gradually onboarding more and more employees. The results and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive.

However, the organization’s new intranet “Is not a project,” Scott argues. “The work never stops. We need to continually review and adapt.”

“HR needs to become more digitally savvy and upskill themselves first, in order to drive Digital Workplace change. It’s a mindshift.” (- Nicola Blair, Interaction attendee)

The final session of the day saw all guest speakers step up as experts to host the open floor discussion panel, taking questions from attendees around challenges facing digital workplace change.

challenges of the digital workplace interaction panel

(The Interaction panel, hosted by Interact’s Nigel Williams, saw all speakers take questions from the floor around specific challenges to the digital workplace.)

Questions were varied and diverse, reflecting the broad nature of the topic. We opened with a query around optimizing the digital workplace for mobile devices – with Sam Marshall arguing in response that “we have become so preoccupied with optimizing for mobile, we’ve sacrificed the user experience for larger screens”.

“We need to think about the complete experience.”

The next challenge raised proved the most debated, and was posed to the audience alongside the expert panel. Many of the gains from digital workplace strategy discussed during the day were company-wide: however, some faced difficulties getting senior management buy-in from those in HR. How do we get HR onboard?

Answers included:

“HR needs to think like – and work with – marketeers to familiarize themselves with digital workplace tools, before they can become champions.”

“We need to ensure we’re answering the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question for HR: address their painpoints and specific KPIs before demonstrating how the digital workplace can solve these. If we communicate how technology can contribute towards challenges such as employee engagement or retention, we’ll get HR onboard.”

“Demonstrate and sell the benefits: the digital workplace isn’t going to change or threaten their jobs. It can support HR in doing what they’ve always done – taking care of our employees – but in a digital world.”

“It comes down to the structure of the organization. If HR and internal communications are aligned, the digital workplace will thrive.”

The panel also discussed how to ensure inclusive digital workplaces that catered to multi generation workforces, from the tech-savvy Millennial through to some more reluctant Gen Xers.

The day concluded with a great summary statement from Mike Ryan, capturing where the focus of the digital workplace needs to lie:

“We need to stop chasing the next new piece of technology – what I call the ‘shiny shiny effect’ – and simply focus on the challenges we need to solve.”

Technology has a vital role to play in shaping the future of the workplace – but only if it serves a tangible business purpose. Technology for technology’s sake will hinder progress, rather than drive it.

A huge thank you to all our expert speakers, our exhibition partners Stagecoach and NSPCC, our attendees and the staff who helped to make for a fantastic, informative and engaging event.

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