For a brief moment, picture the perfect workplace.
You head there early to exercise in the free gym, then stay late to unwind in the lounge. A wall of windows is the only thing between you and the beach outside. There’s an open office plan for when you want to collaborate, but also a private office for when you don’t. Above all, everything you need to do your best work—whether it’s a whiteboard, or a 3D printer, or a can of LaCroix—is right there at your fingertips.
For years, the world’s most iconic companies pursued this perfect workplace in order to connect their employees, build their brands, and inspire their innovations. From Apple Park to Googleplex, they invested billions of dollars to create unique headquarters, designed to anticipate anything people might want at work.
But in 2021, predictions around “the future of work” are filled with uncertainty. At Moveworks, the AI chatbot company where I am CEO, we’ve hired employees based far from our headquarters during this era of remote collaboration. And although we’re planning to return to offices around the globe, given the benefits of being together in person, we still can’t predict what obstacles await us.
If one thing is certain, it’s that our conception of the perfect workplace must change to reflect a murky future. Some companies will go permanently remote, others will open new satellite offices to support distributed teams, and perhaps most will embrace hybrid work. So here’s the question: Can we make a digital headquarters—a workplace built to support any kind of collaboration—just as connected, just as unique, and just as inspiring as the physical office?
I think so. And in some ways, we can make it even better.
A flawed foundation
Before constructing a digital HQ, we need a rock-solid foundation. Let’s start by defining terms: The digital HQ is a single jumping-off point for everything employees do at work, from holding meetings to sharing files to requesting support. A digital tool, on the other hand, is a system designed for a particular task, such as Zoom for video conferencing and PowerPoint for making presentations.
Here’s the litmus test for whether you’ve got a digital HQ versus just a collection of digital tools. Where do you go to download the latest sales presentation? To read the updated travel guidelines? To troubleshoot a Wi-Fi issue? To provide input on the new website? To search your conversation history with your boss? If I asked these five questions to almost any employee, I’d get back five different answers. It’s no wonder remote workers are more stressed and anxious than their on-site peers. Simply put, they’re lost.
I’ve observed hundreds of industry-leading companies this year. Across the board, the best foundation I’ve seen for a digital HQ is an enterprise collaboration hub, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. Collaboration hubs integrate with many digital tools, while also enabling real-time communication across distributed teams. Yet stopping here (implementing Teams or Slack and then calling it a day) is what so many businesses get wrong, akin to investing in a beautiful office building without any appliances or furniture inside.
The one-stop shop
This is the situation facing most companies. They’ve got a collaboration hub in place, but their employees still rely on a combination of texts, emails, intranets, portals, file-sharing services, and in-person meetings—without one digital HQ for everything.
Creating that HQ takes three steps. Step one is to organize your collaboration hub, using channels that are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). Found a typo on the company website? Message the Website channel. Just landed the big account? Celebrate on the Sales channel. The goal is to eliminate overlap until there’s zero ambiguity about what goes where. Step two is the hard part: no more texts, no more emails, and no more meetings that aren’t recorded in the appropriate channel on the collaboration hub. This habit won’t happen overnight; it requires repeated reminders for long-time employees and rigorous onboarding for new ones. But the benefit is business-critical for hybrid work. Either there’s a single source of truth, or employees will get lost.
Once you’ve brought everyone onto the collaboration hub, step three is to build frictionless integrations between your digital HQ and every digital tool. Having a true headquarters means employees shouldn’t need to leave it to get work done, whether they want to start a video call, get tech support, or find a colleague’s phone number. And when evaluating new tools, this standard for the employee experience should be nonnegotiable.
An engineered employee experience
After accomplishing the steps—bringing each employee, individual conversation, and tool onto the digital HQ—you’ve established an online office with all the right appliances and furniture. Yet you can’t help but think that something’s missing.
Most likely, this something is a unique employee experience, or what separates your digital HQ from 10,000 other companies all using identical tools. Although this final step is as much an art as a science, it begins with data. By funneling all communication through the digital HQ, you can anonymously aggregate data about employees’ favorite channels, their frequently asked HR questions, and so on. That visibility into what’s working and what’s not enables a more quantitative approach to employee experience.
It’s through the process of optimization that your unique company culture reveals itself. Noticing a lot of conversation within a specific chat thread focused on sharing recipes? Try a biweekly cook-off. Need a theme for your sales kickoff? Start a conversation on the Sales Slack channel to collect ideas. Most importantly, all of these social events and brainstorming sessions should be accessible on the collaboration hub—wherever employees are located.
The uncertain future of work presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is can feel disconnected from our companies and colleagues when there isn’t one shared, physical office. However, there is opportunity to win this reinvention period. By doubling down on the digital workplace, we can become more efficient than ever. We can unite employees around the world and we can build an HQ that is truly innovative.
Bhavin Shah is the CEO of Moveworks, a chatbot company.