The way we approach the workplace is changing; employers and employees have new needs and new technology creates new opportunities. As a result, more organisations are shifting towards increasingly flexible work schedules and behaviour and a big part of this involves a shift from traditional physical offices to utilising digital workplaces.
Digital workplaces have been described as ‘a virtual equivalent to the physical workplace’ (Marshall, 2014) in that they include a mixture of technology (both hardware and software) which is often utilised as part of one big network by employees to do their jobs.
These digital tools may include:
- static or portable hardware, such as desktops, laptops or smartphones
- digital software for individuals to use like word processors or company-specific applications
- collaborative software such as instant messaging or cloud file sharing
However, even programs which traditionally have only been for personal use are becoming increasingly collaborative as the latest versions of Microsoft Office and Google Docs allow for any number of users to simultaneously edit the same document.
5 Types of Technology
The technology that makes up a digital workplace can be roughly sorted into 5 broad categories based on the functions they fulfil.
- Communication and Connectivity
- e.g. Email, IM, Blogging, Social Media
- Productivity & Bussiness Applications
- e.g. Word Processors, Spreadsheets, Presentation Software
- Knowledge Work
- e.g. Surveying Software, Internal Wikis
- e.g. Video Conferencing, File Sharing
- Flexibility & Mobility
- e.g. Smartphones, Laptops, Tablets, Cloud Networks
However, it is important to note that some tools may fit into more than one category.
For example, cloud-based file-sharing applications may encourage flexibility in that they allow employees to access work files from anywhere with an internet connection, while it also allows collaboration by allowing several users to access and edit the same files simultaneously.
Why The Shift Towards Digital Workplaces?
While recognising this shift is important, it is also essential to consider when and why this change happened.
Butler (2003) argues the shift began back in the 80s with the introduction and increase in electronic data exchanges, local-area networks and mobile computing. This then developed with the emergence of intranets around 1995.
In 2004, the focus shifted more towards fulfilling user needs; intranets became a real, useful tool to ‘support employees’ day-by-day operations, knowledge management, collaboration and communication processes’.
Since then, advances in technology have increased rapidly especially in terms of personal technology and so organisations have to catch up to meet employee’s expectations. As Harper et al (2008) suggest, ‘computing now underpins almost every aspect of our lives’ (p.34), a phenomenon they describe as the ‘growth of techno-dependency’, therefore, as workers are used to using technology regularly as part of their personal and social lives, it is only logical that it would also become such a fundamental part of the workplace as well.
Our Needs Are Changing Too
It is not just our expectations changing with technology; as our needs shift technology has to adapt alongside them. It’s a cyclical process which has resulted in the shift towards the digital workplace without much conscious planning.
For example, with the increased use and reliance on texting, emails, instant messaging and social media, we have a previously impossible level of interaction… where dialogues with many different people can be maintained all at once’ (ibid, p.24), This blurs the boundaries between work and our personal lives. We’re more likely to use social media or message friends whilst at work because of our constant need to feel like we’re staying connected. But similarly, we’re also more likely answer work emails from home or out of office hours as we now have the ability to receive them on our phones or other personal devices 24 hours a day (Harper et al, 2008, Herrera et al, 2012).
This blurring of boundaries and the reason for the shift towards a digital workplace is summed up nicely by Steljes (2012): ‘work becomes the activity they undertake, and not the place they do it’ (p.1).
Work is no longer about going to an office between set hours, but it’s about completing tasks and technology both enables and encourages this; the need for increased collaboration, more flexible working hours, and to be able to work from anywhere in the world transforms the workplace from a physical space to a digital one.