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Nine critical digital workplace priorities for 2021

2020 was a pivotal year for the digital workplace. Communication and collaboration tools provided the backbone of business continuity for many organisations navigating the challenges of the pandemic. By dramatically scaling up remote working, COVID-19 acted as a catalyst in accelerating digital workplace trends that were already in motion. Our recent survey on digital workplace strategy reveals the true extent of the impact of COVID-19, indicating a strong influence on strategy, adoption levels, digital workplace maturity and even organisational culture.

As we welcome a new year, many digital workplace teams are considering their plans for 2021. The continuing threat and impact of COVID-19, the associated fragile global economy and the increase in digital workplace maturity we saw in 2020 will all strongly influence plans for the new year.

Heres our view of some of the key priorities that digital workplace and intranet teams should consider for 2021.

Priorities for 2021

1 Optimise the digital workplace for hybrid working patterns

Our recent survey on digital workplace strategy shows that the pandemic has changed  digital workplace plans for 64% of organisations, mostly around enabling greater support for the remote working required during lockdown. This was reflected in other survey results such as the 61% of organisations who reported a significant increase in the adoption of real-time communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

A common observation is that going forward, higher levels of remote work will continue and workforces which are predominantly office-based will now fall into a pattern of hybrid work with most employees working both remotely and in an office. A 2021 priority for digital workplace teams is therefore to optimise the digital workplace for hybrid work, with not only a short- to medium-term view, but also one for the longer term.

Above and beyond the scaling-up of remote work that was  characteristic of 2020, we see 2021 bringing  opportunities to better support hybrid work through a process of optimisation employing various approaches including:

  • Aligning digital workplace practices with new HR policies on remote working
  • Adding a layer of governance to collaboration platforms to ensure better usage and findability
  • Adding more advanced online collaboration capabilities, such as whiteboarding
  • Harmonising digital and physical workplaces
  • Implementing targeted training and support to drive more sophisticated usage and substantiate specific business processes.

2 Make it as safe as possible to return to the physical office

Most of us are glad to see the back of 2020, and while the situation with the pandemic remains fraught, volatile and highly challenging, we hope that a vaccination programme  will spell a partial return to some kind of normality in the latter half of the year.

If and when this happens, we think digital workplace teams can play a significant role in helping employees make a safe return to the physical office using a variety of tools, channels and approaches. When we say a safe return, we envisage there still being the need for some forms of social distancing, probably with fewer people coming into an office at any one time to reflect ongoing hybrid working patterns.

Digital workplace teams can play a significant role in helping employees return safely and confidently to the office by:

  • Providing reliable and up-to-date safety and procedural information about returning to the office through digital communication channels
  • Providing access to desk-booking and scheduling systems to allow people to book coordinate their visits with  colleagues
  • Providing check-in and check-out services to help any track-and-trace practices
  • Supporting online collaboration and communication tools so employees in the office can work seamlessly with colleagues who are working at home
  • Working with Real Estate functions to optimise buildings with more touchless solutions where possible.

3 Build on new styles of empathetic communications and dialogue

Our recent survey shows that COVID-19 has changed organisational culture, with 64% telling us their organisation has become more empathetic and human-centred as a result of the years challenges. Over the past few months, we have observed this cultural shift reflected in internal communications, content and practices. Leadership communications now tend to be more informal, personal and less corporate; communication formats also include an emphasis on dialogue and listening, taking on board employee feedback and  using it to influence decision-making.

In 2021, we believe there is a real opportunity for digital comms professionals to build upon this culture shift and strengthen digital capabilities and communication channels that make it easier for leaders to communicate informally, enable dialogue and feedback loops, open up communication to a wider audience and present more compelling and impactful messaging. Intranets, live events, video platforms, social networks and mobile apps all have the potential to be optimised to better reflect a more empathetic culture.

4 Get better ROI with Microsoft 365 by exploring further capabilities

COVID-19 has hit businesses hard – in our recent survey, nearly half (47%) of all respondents reported a negative impact on business. Although other responses show that many digital workplace teams have not been impacted as much as may have been thought in terms of budget and headcount, when respondents were asked to choose their top three biggest challenges for 2021, the top answer (51%) was constrained budgets.

Inevitably, difficult market conditions will have an impact on the scope of digital workplace projects in 2021. However, the good news is that organisations which have already invested in Microsoft 365 have enormous potential to explore the capabilities within the platform they are paying for, arguably achieving better ROI and delivering solutions with a relatively modest outlay.

Our survey indicates that there are a variety of capabilities such as video (Stream), automation (Power Platform) and data visualisation (Power BI) where adoption and maturity still have room to grow. If investment opportunities are limited,  exploring and leveraging the powerful capabilities of the full range of Microsoft 365 tools can achieve significant results without breaking the bank.

5 Move forward with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robot Process Automation

Sometimes, the hype that comes with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its reputation as a technology of the future can act as a distraction to its real value; actually, Artificial Intelligence and Robot Process Automation are technologies that can deliver results today. In 2021, digital workplace teams should consider how they can use and support AI and automation to deliver apps, solutions and bots that will drive real value.

Many digital workplace teams agree with us. Our survey suggests that Digitisation and automation is regarded as the second most important digital workplace priority for 2021, with 60% considering it  Very Important.

Microsoft Power Platform

We think the Microsoft 365 Power Platform, which is currently under-used, presents exceptional potential to improve efficiencies and drive innovation in organisations, both of which would be  welcome in the post-pandemic climate. In particular, Power Virtual Agents significantly lowers the barriers for organisations to create, launch and manage enterprise-level chatbots, and may help 2021  be the year AI and automation truly go mainstream.

6 Nurture your citizen developers

Increasingly, AI and automation are being delivered by no-code and low-code solutions, including Power Virtual Agents and Power Automate within Microsoft 365. This is now providing previously unattainable opportunities for citizen developers and power-uses across different enterprise functions to build specific solutions, apps and workflows that can transform and automate local process and tasks with less involvement from IT professionals.

As part of an effort to move forward with AI and automation, IT and digital workplace teams should seize the opportunity to nurture this potential army of citizen developers by providing some structure and cohesion to their activity, offering training, support,  governance and community management to seize these opportunities and, to a lesser extent, minimise some of the risks associated with citizen developers.

7 Extend the digital employee experience of deskless and frontline workers

One of the significant leaps forward during 2020 was the extension of the digital workplace and digital communication channels to deskless and frontline workers primarily through mobile-friendly apps, sometimes for the very first time. This was a welcome step given that the digital workplace experience of frontline workers formerly tended to lag behind that of knowledge workers.

We see a digital workplace priority for 2021 being to  build on this and extend the value of these apps and channels, primarily by increasing capabilities.  Here, there are many options such as enabling HR self-service, providing access to more operational information, supporting health and wellbeing, providing mobile-friendly learning and  extending collaboration tools.

8 Ensure learning is at the centre of the digital workplace

Learning and development is a key part of employee experience, yet it has not always been at the centre of the digital workplace experience. Too many organisations have a Learning Management System (LMS) that has a poor or dated user experience, is not available through Single Sign-On and sits outside the main flow of work. This has impacted adoption and undermines a good digital employee experience.

In the past eighteen months, weve seen a flood of organisations interested in bringing learning right into the heart of the digital workplace. There are a number of reasons for this: as more organisations develop a Microsoft 365 digital workplace, integrating learning into it makes  sense, and there are now Learning Platforms such as LMS365 that provide that seamless integration.


The pandemic has  heightened the need for learning how to adopt new ways of working. The subsequent increased access to digital services for the whole workforce  creates the potential to provide access to learning for all.  In 2021, we think a key priority for digital workplace teams will be to bring learning into the centre of the digital workplace.

9 Support innovation for business survival

We think that innovation will be a significant theme for 2021. The pandemic has seen many organisations show great adaptability, flexibility and imagination in pivoting to new digital service delivery models.  The continuing emphasis on new ways of working, economic pressure, and a more adaptable mindset makes the conditions right for organisations to innovate.

Digital workplace teams can play their part, supporting teams with  digital workplace tools that can be used to carry out processes in more productive ways and drive new solutions. More specifically, collaboration, ideation and social tools can help everybody contribute great ideas, while digital workplace teams can set an example by innovating themselves.

Heres to 2021

2021 isnt going to be easy, but were sure we can get through the difficult times ahead and make it a better year than the last one. We think digital workplace teams have  a significant role to play yet again.  If youd like to discuss digital workplace plans and strategies for 2021, then get in touch!

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