We’ve come a long way from the early days of unified communications (UC), but as those technologies have matured and advanced, they have given way to a broad focus on collaboration as the best way for enterprises to get things done. What can we expect as we look to the future of the technology-centric workplace?

From the new Gartner research note, Digital Workplace Employees Need Enterprise Communications to Be More Harmonized Than Unified, we took away that current UC technologies are less relevant to the needs of digital workplace employees as these workers are switching to conversation-based collaboration.

Since this is such a key issue facing enterprises today, you can download a copy of the report at the end of this post.

The digital workplace is both an essential goal and a crucial strategy for engaging and supporting employees as companies transform into digital businesses. Work is increasingly nonroutine and cognitive in nature, which requires employees to engage more with thinking than doing.

This development is influencing changes in how employees engage with each other, including their use of communications and collaboration tools in both physical and virtual workplaces.

The common core of communications

Current UC technology strategy draws together the multiple communications channels used by employees on a common platform with a unified user experience. It focuses on the integration of telephony, IM and presence channels, as well as unified messaging and separate audio, video and web conferencing services.

“But although leading vendors deliver UC platforms,” Gartner says, “in reality the employee environment is anything but unified, with multiple methods of messaging, conferencing, and calling overlapping and involving competing product portfolios. Tools for employee communications and workstream collaboration further diversify how employees collaborate.”

Gartner adds, “We expect digital workplace employees to abandon the IM capabilities of UC platforms in favor of the broader ‘fabric’ of messaging capabilities found in mobile messaging platforms, workstream collaboration tools and employee communications tools.”

As Gartner goes on to point out, “Conversation is effectively becoming the coordination ‘layer’ for group work, especially as more work becomes nonroutine. Workstream collaboration tools, among others, provide the fabric for applications, content and tasks in a coordinated flow of work. The deeper context of persistent messages available within workstream collaboration tools is a key reason why we predict a shift away from traditional IM services from UC platform providers.”

The changing nature of meeting

Does that mean meetings will go away in favor of flowing conversations? Not at all – for better or worse. Meetings will remain key to workplace collaboration, but require a broader set of capabilities than is provided by UC platforms, which largely focus on the in-meeting experience.

“For meetings to play a more successful role in the digital workplace,” Gartner says, “attention must shift to the pre-meeting and post-meeting phases in order to deliver a more engaging experience as part of a work journey.”

Workstream collaboration platforms may include a native ability to set up meetings between users. Application leaders should adopt a portfolio-based or tiered approach to meetings, recognizing that some meetings will be part of persistent conversations managed from within workstream collaboration tools, while others will be more formal, scheduled events in employees’ calendars.

What about voice calls?

Although other forms of communication have risen to the top in today’s organizations, voice calls do, and will, still have their place. UC solutions have always had a strong telephony focus, and while that will prove somewhat useful, it’s worth asking whether feature-rich telephony will have quite as much value in the future digital workplace.

With most digital workplace collaboration originating in messages and meeting solutions, phone calls are increasingly planned activities. Employees message colleagues before calling them, to confirm a convenient time for a conversation.

As a result, Gartner says, “We find that digital workplace employees generally do not require a fully featured UC solution. Instead, a simple dial tone service can suffice, in either a basic UC package or a voice, data and messaging bundle from a mobile operator.”

A trend that will persist

You can be sure that the consumerization of IT and the proliferation of “bring your own” will continue as well.

Employees will put even more pressure on IT organizations to support the collaboration tools that they consider necessary and that they are most comfortable using.

The “freemium” approach to offering collaboration tools with a limited feature set and designs that emphasize ease of use has given rise to communities of interest, which, in turn, have increased enterprise adoption. The simpler user experience enables digital workplace employees to become familiar with these tools with only limited training.

In summary, the best advice to IT appears to be to embrace a consumer-centric approach to new collaboration tools in the digital workplace going forward.

Where we work

One more trend will be a continued evolution in the workplace itself.

Although the past few years have seen a focus on enabling flexible working, facilities managers are also under pressure to create the most appropriate environment for employees in the office — an environment that fosters innovation, attracts top talent and furthers the cultural changes necessary to absorb the disruption of digital business.

The next step is designing offices for activity-based working, creating multiple environments to suit the varying needs of employees.

Employees in this new digital workplace will likely transition from one working environment to another in a typical day. If they’re looking for the opportunity to do some deep work or creative thinking, they’ll want a quiet place, conducive to that kind of work. Then they might move into the more open, cubicle-free workspace to seek out colleagues and catch up with them. While meeting rooms may be needed a little less, they will still be necessary for small group and team get-togethers as well as for larger and more formal meetings, with or without remote participants.

Gartner positions the changes this way: “We predict that, by 2020 25 percent of organizations will have a catalog of smart workspaces maintained by the IT, real-estate and facilities management departments. This catalog will offer employees between three and 10 options designed for specific employee activities that they might perform during the course of a typical workday.”

Follow the link to download your complimentary copy of the Gartner research note: Digital Workplace Employees Need Enterprise Communications to Be More Harmonized Than Unified.

Gartner Digital Workplace Employees Need Enterprise Communications to Be More Harmonized Than Unified, Steve Blood, 23 January 2018.