The Digital Modern Workplace

  • July 09, 2021
Man with a tablet

Today, when asked how they’ll improve their employees' working environment, many organizations answer, "modern workplace" or "digital." However, just as each organization is different, so too is its envisioning of a modern workplace. Without doubt, constant and ongoing modernization efforts improves an organization's overall efficiency, which leads to a timely return on investment (ROI) for the stakeholders. But “modern workplace” is also often used to describe an organization's modernization goal without providing any details on how to get there. In essence, this means that many organizations think about an ongoing modernization — even envisioning it — rather creating than a detailed project plan with dedicated milestones that lead to the actual implementation of a modern workplace.

A look back: The drivers for modernization

Organizations are always looking to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Both factors are the main reason why many organizations regularly analyze internal processes. But to understand what organizations mean by modern workplace we need to look at what drove modernization in the past:

  • Standardization: Instead of using a variety of software applications, organizations sought to reduce the number of software tools. Microsoft and others realized this trend early, and Microsoft Office became the de facto standard for most organizations (case in point: do you say spreadsheet or Excel? Is it document or Word file?) Reducing the number of applications an organization uses decreases maintenance costs, license costs and training efforts.
  • Centralization: Instead of maintaining a corporate file share at each location, organizations wanted centralized data repositories. File shares and intranets were often hosted at the headquarters and external offices connected via a leased line. However, some organizations had specific requirements regarding up-to-date status and access speed. Those organizations often spent significant effort on data replication and synchronization.
  • Pooling: Once offices were connected via leased lines or the intranet, teams were no longer limited to a single location. Instead, organizations invested in a technical modernization of meeting room hardware to enable employees to meet with others at different locations and in different time zones. Some of those meeting rooms had a futuristic hardware configuration with large screens and multiple cameras. However, because cloud-based services weren’t common, meeting room hardware was connected to the internal corporate network.

At that time, modernization meant sudden and massive technological advancement. But although employees were using those technological advancements, work still took place in offices, at desks and big computer screens. "Home office" and "mobile devices" were terms used only to describe how office work might look in the future. Technology was also used to reduce the number of context switches for typical office workers by reducing the number of applications an average office worker used. In other words: It was easier for the typical office worker to focus on completing one document because it required fewer tools.

As these technological advancements changed the way employees worked, organizations began to realize that technology could increase employees' efficiency. This, in turn, triggered further technological advancements. And the companies selling those technological improvements realized their technological improvements impacted how organizations updated the work environment of their staff — and so the cycle continues.

The evolution of the new digital

Today, the main drivers for workplace modernization have evolved again, driven by:

  • Integration: Standardization efforts have resulted in fewer applications, but those applications can now import many other file types. Today, the focus is no longer file types and data formats. And because mainstream office applications can handle many different file formats, the number of formats has decreased. Today's technology focuses on integration and linking.
  • Cloud-based services: The time of predominantly installed software products is already gone. Today, we use cloud-based services rather than software. Laptops (like Chromebooks or the upcoming versions of Windows) won’t need to be installed anymore. Instead, we need only a capable browser to consume services (like using Microsoft Word Online to work on a document) and access corporate cloud repositories.
  • Working anywhere: Services come with another advantage: Because they replace locally installed software, there’s no need to have corresponding data saved to corporate on-premises data repositories (like file shares). Today, data is hosted in the cloud, just like the services themselves. The cloud gives employees the freedom to work from almost anywhere, as long as they have a stable internet connection and a suitable device — be it a laptop, tablet or even a mobile phone. In other words, neither software nor data is bound to specific software, devices or networks. Because both are hosted in the cloud an office worker can technically use almost any approved device and theoretically work from anywhere. The global pandemic gave a whole new meaning to the modern workplace, which now also includes "working from home" and "remote work," and related corporate strategies need to answer the question of how employees who work from home/remotely can take advantage of the benefits of a modernized corporate working environment. Cloud-based services around zero trust security have also been released to make working from "any network" safe and secure for workers and the organization that owns the content being worked on.
  • Customization and automation: Once data-related software was turned into services, the same thing happened to customization tools and development environments. Platforms (like Microsoft Power Platform) offer users the option to create customizations (forms or workflows) based on the same service approach that’s already used with services that are data- or document-centric. Because data and documents are cloud-based, they (in general) are accessible by the entire staff, which makes it easier to build customizations that connect to those data and documents. Those customizations can even run on almost any device.
  • Security: Although this might sound surprising, data and documents hosted in a well-protected cloud environment (like Microsoft 365) are better secured than they would be in most corporate networks. The efforts (time and cost) needed to secure a corporate network are immense. It takes highly skilled IT administrators, constant monitoring and auditing, and a lot of additional hardware to protect a corporate network. The way Microsoft secures its 365 cloud offering through zero trust security goes far beyond those efforts. For most organizations, data security increases by utilizing Microsoft 365. However, a few organizations have data security requirements that might prevent moving to the cloud.

How to get there: One approach, not for all but most

Although most (if not all) organizations realize the benefits of a modern workplace, they often struggle to establish a detailed plan to get there. Microsoft 365 and other similar offerings are alluring, and Microsoft Marketing often paints a bright picture of an organization’s path to the cloud. Unfortunately, the reality is different — every organization is different, and so too is its path to a modern workplace.

There’s no doubt that Microsoft 365 is an excellent platform on which organizations can create their modern workplace. But if we think of Microsoft 365 as a bunch of LEGO bricks, it’s easier to see the problem many organizations have: How can we best use these blocks to build our modern workplace? And once it’s conceptualized, how do we get there.

Organizations often evaluate the services (SharePoint, Planner, Power Platform, Teams, Stream, etc.) available in Microsoft 365 to see how they can be used gainfully. Although this approach might work for some organizations, there’s a substantial disadvantage to this approach: internal ways of working are likely to be adjusted to the services' capabilities. Ideally, it should be the other way around. Organizations need to modernize their way of working and examine how offerings like Microsoft 365 can support them. So the LEGO bricks of Microsoft 365 should be used to create a customized modern workplace based on identified requirements, rather than adjusting those requirements to use the bricks.

If an organization identifies the need for a modern workplace, it’s already taken the most important step. If the organization has already looked at solutions like Microsoft 365, even better. But it’s best to push such offerings aside and focus on requirements, optimization and vision. The next phase toward a customized modern workplace should look like this:

  • Requirements analysis focuses on getting answers to the following questions:
    • What is working?
    • What isn’t working?
    • What are the staff’s primary complaints?
    • What are the most suggestions for improvements?
    • Which internal procedures take too long or too much effort or cost too much money?
  • Future envisioning asks how the C-level executives envision the future of the organization:
    • What are the upcoming changes to the organizational structure?
    • What are the upcoming/planned changes to how the staff works?
    • What are the upcoming changes to the products or services of the organization?
    • Are there any upcoming legal changes or regulations?
  • Legal analysis asks if there are any restrictions regarding where corporate data is stored:
    • Are there data/documents that can't be stored in the cloud?
    • Are there data/documents that must not leave the country?
    • Are there any access restrictions or special data protections that must be applied?
    • Who needs to be able to access data and documents? Is it staff only or partners and contractors too?

Once all requirements have been gathered and analyzed, the next step is to prioritize and categorize the remaining requirements.

Planning and modeling processes

Based on the prioritized list of requirements, existing processes and procedures need to be remodeled. Here’s an example: If it takes too long and too many employees are involved in creating an offer for a client, this process is an excellent candidate to be improved. The focus should be clearly set to improvements, rather than utilizing specific services, but improvements can contain technology suggestions. If, for example, corporate teamwork should be improved to make collaboration more efficient, the suggested improvement can include options for technology like SharePoint Online or Microsoft Teams. In other words, if there’s a technology that supports the anticipated process improvements, add the suggestion to the updated process description — but never do it the other way around. At the end of this phase, there should be a reviewed list of updates to the organization's operation mode and potential technology suggestions to support those updates.

Proof of concept

Once the updated processes and procedures (often referred to as business automation) have been modeled and reviewed, it’s time to start internal testing, also called a proof of concept (PoC). The PoC includes all the updated procedures, as well as the transitioning or migration of involved data repositories. Let’s assume, for example, that an organization plans to migrate most of its business to the cloud. In this case, Exchange needs to be migrated to Exchange Online, which significantly impacts employees and the internal IT landscape. Another example is the migration of a corporate file share to SharePoint Online or Microsoft Teams. Organizations are well-advised to perform a detailed PoC on any planned data migration. The PoC also needs to include the new and updated procedures to determine if they can be implemented as planned and if they’re factually more efficient than the existing procedures.

Because a PoC for a modernized workplace can be extensive, it’s best performed in a different environment — like a separate Microsoft 365 tenant used only for the PoC. The outcome of this phase is a detailed and reviewed report on all identified improvements and the related implementation efforts, dependencies, risks, impacts and costs. In other words, the outcome of this phase is a preliminary stage to an extensive project plan.

Milestones: The PoC also identifies milestones for all improvements. While performing the PoC, milestones need to be identified. In most cases, these relate to specific achievements (like “Site Structure created” if a corporate SharePoint is modernized). It’s advisable to create milestones so they can be reused in a project plan. Sometimes, milestones are also used to manage dependencies between different improvements or updates. If we stay with the previous SharePoint example, a Hub-Site structure can be created only after the new site structure is created, which depends on the approval of the new corporate page layout.

Success factors: Another important task of the PoC team is to identify and establish success factors. Usually, success factors are tied to a specific task's outcome and used to determine if that task or a specific milestone is successful. In the previous Exchange Online migration example, a corresponding success factor could be that less than 2% of the migrated accounts require manual adjustments. Realistic success factors are required to enable the project teams to determine if their modernization task is a success. In other words, where milestones describe essential steps toward a specific goal, a success factor describes if a goal or milestone is finished successfully.

Change management

As soon as the PoC starts, the corporate change management team can begin work. Switching to a new (or even updated) work environment requires involving the corporate change management team. That team needs to prepare activities around:

  • Making announcements on all upcoming changes
  • Communicating project progress (once the modernization project starts)
  • Working with the assigned teams to ensure migrations can be performed as smoothly as possible
  • Preparing accompanying measures (e.g., gamification) to support the entire transition
  • Working with the corporate team responsible for training to have training sessions ready
  • Establishing measures to ensure utilization of rolled out improvements is checked for some time after the rollout — for example, using improved SharePoint sites three months after the rollout can be a success factor

A crucial task of the change management team is to answer questions about why the organization is moving to a modern workplace. In particular, the team needs to explain the benefits for the organization and its employees. Also, in each organization, there will be employees who embrace new technology while others are reluctant or timid about any internal changes. The change management team must support both types of employees to ensure the switch to a modern workplace is successful.

Internal training

An essential part of the transition to a new modern workplace is training. Training sessions need to include the following topics:

  • Introduction to new internal procedures
  • Specific training on any new or updated process
  • Introduction to new systems (e.g., Power Apps or Planner)
  • Specific training for any new system (e.g., how to use Microsoft Teams as a collaboration platform)

All training sessions also need to be role-specific, as well as planned, created and delivered in a way that best supports users. This means training sessions for a specific new system (e.g., Microsoft Teams) and all associated roles.

Let’s use Microsoft Teams to understand the concept of role-specific training. In this example, training sessions for specific roles and Teams must include the following:

  • Microsoft Teams for information workers
  • Microsoft S Teams for channel owners
  • Microsoft Teams for team owners
  • Microsoft Teams for admins

Review of PoC outcomes

Once the PoC is finished, its outcomes trigger the subsequent actions and tasks. Technically, the PoC verifies approaches and modernized processes and the efforts needed to implement them. During this review, look at each modernized process and each data migration as a different and detached task (although this isn’t always possible). Each task should be considered a potential project and needs to be evaluated as such. In essence, this means answering the following questions:

  • What is the effort required to implement this, how long does it take, and what resources are needed?
  • Are there any dependencies? Is there a different task depending on this task?
  • What is the benefit of this task when looking at the overall modernization?
  • What are the overall costs? What is the expected ROI?
  • What about risks? Are there any limitations for users during the implementation?

Basically, each task needs to be evaluated and rated. Based on each task’s rating, the first version of the project plan can be created. The plan will still require multiple iterations and reviews until it’s considered a detailed and evaluated project plan. Also during this phase, stakeholders need to decide if a specific task is a valuable part of the overall modernization and if costs justify benefits.

Implementation and roll out

Once the project plan is approved, dedicated teams can begin their work. What started as a modernization initiative now continues as a regular software implementation or service rollout. The only differences are that there will be multiple subprojects and that employees will see multiple updates and improvements over a more extended period. The challenge for organizations is managing the enhanced rollout. The way the entire rollout is managed will significantly impact user acceptance, which is crucial for a customized modern workplace's overall success.


A digital modern workplace is required if today's organizations want to leverage their employees' full potential efficiently. A modern workplace (or modern work environment) is on most employees' wish list when looking for a new (or their first) job. High-tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple list a modern work environment at the top of job postings for good reason. Companies will compete for qualified and well-trained workers in the not-too-distant future, and applicants will choose the company that offers the best and most modern work environment. In times of a global pandemic and working from home, this is even more important.

For organizations looking to build a modern work environment, it’s essential to understand that technology needs to follow or support improvements. Improvements to the way employees work today are the drivers for any technology updates; never vice versa. Today's powerful technology is the perfect platform to support modernization. Building a modern work environment on a specific platform, like Microsoft 365, ensures modernized processes are best supported and ready for the future. On the other hand, rolling out Microsoft 365 and then modeling internal processes to best fit the service offerings would be nothing but an excellent showcase for Microsoft 365. Also, because improvements to internal processes have a considerable impact on the entire staff, careful planning, a comprehensive PoC, and a team of skilled experts and engaged stakeholders are key to success.

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Oliver Wirkus

Oliver is an author and an international speaker on SharePoint, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft technology. As a champion of connecting with others and sharing Oliver contributes to Redmond Magazine and SharePoint User Groups and conferences. In addition, Oliver is a Microsoft MVP (Category: Office Apps and Services) for six consecutive years.

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