It will be quite a year in 2020 for digital workplace and employee experience, as a number of important emerging trends shift the landscape. Some long-standing issues will also reach a tipping point for many organizations. In my discussions with CIOs, CHROs, heads of digital workplace, and IT solution owners over the last year, it's clear that it's currently a difficult time right now for those in charge of digitally enabling work in our organizations.

I recently laid out the reasons for this in considerable detail. These issues are now consistently a significant challenge for many organizations to deliver well on either digital workplace or employee experience, two closely related concepts. While these issues can't entirely be overcome this year for most organizations, it's safe to say that understanding them and tackling them proactively will produce the better result.

Underscoring the importance and urgency of progress is the significant gap today between delivery and expectation in employee experience. A recent in-depth study by Deloitte reported that while 80% of executives say employee experience is important, only 22% of employee report it's done well. What's more, 59% or organizations say they're not really ready to address it. This means there's a lot to do for those responsible for this area, not just in driving improvements on the ground, but managing stakeholder expectations overall.

Key Aspects of Modern Employee Experience and Digital Workplace

That's not to say it isn't a very exciting time to be in the practice. It very much is. The technology options, transformation techniques, and design/delivery methods have never been richer or more mature. Techniques like design thinking, technologies such as talent analytics, new transformation techniques that scale well, and employment trends like gig economy for the enterprise are all offering new possibilities for breaking through the challenges that many are facing in closing the gap between what organizations are able to deliver and not only what their workers want, but would actually benefit from.

Related Research: Experience-Driven Organizations

Fourteen Trends in the Future of Work

Here are twelve leading trends that we see meaningful movement in when it comes to developing and improving the employee experience:

  • Employee experience will see more concerted leadership attention and increased levels of investment in 2020. Although employee experience is best when it's delivered completely and effectively through joint partnership between IT and HR, efforts will nevertheless attempt improvement with or without the partnership. Those that do it together, however, will see the most significant committment of budget, as each purview can contribute investment. It will also be seen as more significant and credible by other executives and the board. As employee experience gains awareness, credibility, and urgency as a construct -- and more success stories emerge -- investments will grow in general in 2020 and beyond.
  • An increase in committed attemps by IT and HR to come together in partnership to create a genuine and more effective employee experience vision, strategy, and operations. More CIOs will join with CHROs in 2020, largely because of the growing understanding of the infeasibility of changing just the technology or just the way that people are trained, managed, and work in isolation. It has to be done together. As a better understanding emerges of what it takes to embark on the digital transformation of work to reinvent the three aspects of employee experience together (physical, digital, and cultural), we'll see a steady increase in more teaming and collaboration within the C-Suite this year. I also expect to see more Centers of Excellence around employee experience, as a way of accelerating the efforts in high value areas to boost acquisition and retention of workers in particular.
  • Automation of tactical work will substantially increase, as remaining roles will become steadily more strategic, while AI gains spotty traction that's far removed from creating large scale unemployment. AI isn't replacing humans yet, and good thing, because such capabilities will need to be overseen by workers with a high vantage point within the organization for the foreseeable future. What we'll see is easy-to-use automation tools like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) being used to augment or replace more and more rote jobs. Best-in-class employers will use new educational capabilities that have emerged to reskill and cross skill those workers, many of which, as I've predicted for a while, will have a harder time becoming the developers or managers of AI-based automation deployments. 
  • Fragmented and disjointed digital workplaces will be recast by best-in-class employers into more integrated, organized, and streamlined experiences aimed at highest value use cases. The workplace as it is made up today requires ever more time spend in applications and digital channels. As apps continue to proliferate and there is a strong shift away from one-size fits all to more local choice in the systems used to get work done, we're seeing broad interest and demand for ways to develop a "center of gravity" for employee experience or what I sometimes call a digital workplace hub. One example of this is Citrix Workspace, with the addition of Sapho's capabilities. We see some of this showing up in the emerging the digital canvas category, as well as products that either aim at integrated employee experience to next-gen intranet products that integrate apps, data, and people into more seamless, end-to-end functionality. We'll see more trials and experimentation in a big way in 2020 to drive productivity improvements, improve onboarding speed, and reduce cognitive overload, among other benefits.
  • Capabilities to constructively manage and shape Shadow IT, now a major and unpredictable factor in the workplace today, will see improved early adoption. It's clear that unsanctioned workforce applications are here to stay as part of the digital workplace. I've argued that they actually provide a practical form of free R&D and innovation to improve the digital workplace, but that we'd need capabilities to provide operational guardrails to make it sustainable. These types of capabilities are now available. Solutions from Expanse, Perforce, ClusterSeven, and Ntiva are not only designed to find and control Shadow IT but allow workers, whenever it makes sense, to continue using the best tools for their jobs in a more maneable and protected way. Shadow IT is a major force in organizations today, often making up more than half of IT being used (though usually not mission critical systems.) Employee experience leaders can now offer choice, flexibility, and the best tools for tasks at hand in their digital workplaces/employee experiences.
  • Work will become even more flexible, dynamic, and unconnected to location, as workers become less attached to the companies they work for and more connected to their peers, careers, and communities. Expectations and desires around work itself have been steadily changing. Jobs are steadily becoming more transient, remote, and virtual. People want meaningful connection in their work, and they are getting it more from their colleagues, long term career narrative, and the groups of people they attach themselves to, such as professional assocations and online communities related to their work. Employee experiences will adapt to this by helping workers to better make these connections using everything from enterprise social networks and alumni communities to online employment platforms and corporate social responsibility networks (as examples.)
  • New sourcing models for talent, such as gig economy for the enterprise, will continue to take marketshare, enabling better personalization of work/life while giving organizations powerful new options for hiring. Employment is shifting in a significant way to platforms that can provide long term opportunity for an entire career, as opposed to an individual job. The gig economy has matured and is making significant inroads into the enterprise, offering far more flexible employement on both sides of the equation. See my recent exploration of how on-demand digital hiring has become a leading source of innovation in employment in important new ways in my discussion with the CEO of Gigster.
  • For the first time, strategic design and updates of the employee experience will tend to cater most to the needs of Generation Z, while most other changes won't be aimed at any particular generation. Now that Gen Z has become the largest percentage of the workforce, at about 40% this year, it will drive many of the largest policy and strategy decisions when it comes to key elements of employee experience. Gen Z's top driver, for the first time in employment history, is not salary but control over work/life balance. There are other factors too that are only now being understood. Employee experience in particular will be dramatically impacted in 2020 by companies that want to be preferred employers for this leading talent cohort. Offering customization, choice, flexibility, and adaptability to need is therefore key to the future of work. I'm having more hiring and IT managers come to me than ever saying they are getting unusual requests from new hire prospects, including requesting the ability to split time between two companies or only working three days a week, for example.
  • Pressure to rethink and digitally transform HR will get the most serious consideration yet, but actual movement will be slow except in certain high value and/or easy-to-implement areas. HR has been one of the departments most resistent to digitially transforming itself and I don't expect that will change much this year, mostly due to the simple fact that the digital world is not typically a core competency of the HR function in general. However, where there is ready opportunity to improve employment screening, automate rote HR tasks, analyze in-house talent using digial tools (thereby rethinking performance reviews, for instance), or otherwise rethink portions of HR in a targeted fashion, I believe we'll see it happen more in 2020 than ever before. But important advances evident from the digital world that are obvious to everyone (i.e. online learning) will put the onus on HR to have a bigger rethink sooner rather than later, especially as automation and AI continues to make major inroads. Thus, the groundwork for this may be laid in many organizations this year, with insiders expecting more "flip the script" than ever within the function.
  • Education and skillbuilding will continue to evolve, with informal learning, social learning, microlearning and other forms of on-demand, personalized, and co-created education to help workers stay abreast of and effective in a fast-changing world. The ways that technology has reimagined corporate education in the last five years has been dramatic. Everything from freely available and high quality online courses to internal employee crowdsourcing of learning has made it possible for workers to learn much more quickly and just-in-time. Enterprises now have the tools to upskill and crosskill workers being affected by automation, as well as offering a vital means of retention for those organizations will to assemble best-of-breed onboarding and retraining programs using today's digital art of the possible.
  • The ongoing fierce competition between top digital workplace vendors in certain major categories will result in most offerings more clearly defining their corner and staying in it, as sharp differentiation continues to be required to stand out. This competition is perhaps best represented by the ongoing face-off with the great Slack and Microsoft Teams competition, with others like Dropbox and Box, and Office 365 and Google Suite rounding out the platforms I'm most asked about in pairs currently.
  • The rise of design thinking and data-driven optimization of the workplace will simultaneously raise the quality and businss impact of the employee experience. We now have the capabilities to create personalized, end-to-end employee experiences for our workers using the latest digital workplace tools. We can also use powerful new analytics solutions -- well exemplified by Microsoft's impressive Workplace Analytics --  to help workers function better, with fewer errors, and less wasted time on all sides. Design thinking in particular offers a way to get the heart of what workers need today to be effective and engaged. Talent and workplace analytics is giving us a way to find out what's actually happening and then proactively improve or optimize it, uncovered new opportunities along the way. I expect a broad uptake of both practices, though the management processes to deliver on it well are still being figured out within most organizations.
  • An exciting new set of categories for digital workplace applications and solutions will gain more interested new adherents. While there's no question that technology is advancing more quickly than most organizations can absorb it, that doesn't mean enterprises shouldn't increase their metabolism and explore what's truly possible today. Again, best-in-class employers will tend to do this more than others. Some of these new categories are exciting areas that have been in early adoption phase for several years, including work coordination platforms, augmented meeting services, and digital adoption platforms like WalkMe. All of these, and others, should be given serious consideration now to improve the employee experience and broader business impact and worker effectiveness.
  • Recent industry regulations and an increased focus on corporate responsibility will complicate the employee experience and digital workplace, while providing some notable and worthwhile protections. Well beyond GDPR, which has had a dramatic global impact to how business systems operate, new digital regulations will continue to arrive including the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) as well as the new gig economy law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5). All of these will have a host of unintended consequences (see this example with AB 5 here) and will thus make creating employee experiences more complicated, although they will have clear and targeted benefits in some cases. Practitioners should be prepared to adapt to these and be steeped in the details of digital regulation in 2020.

A New Future of Work Is Upon Us

There are other trends too, but these are the key ones that will be either most interesting or most impactful for those responsible for digital workplace and employee experience in 2020. It's clear that creating an effective workplace takes both big picture thinking as well as the ability to harness and actually tap into digital complexity, which is one of the hallmarks of effective digital transformation today.

I do expect that the confluence of factors facing organizations today will take the next several years to sort through and find the most workable methods to capitalize on the above trends. This issue is that considerable control continues to be lost as both technology and the nature of employment itself shifts dramatically towards new models that offer greater value and therefore opportunity, both for workers and enterprises. The future of work continues to be a brave and exciting new world for sure, for those that choose to adopt and live in it, and are willing to acquire a new mindset.

Update: This post started with twelve predictions, but I subsequently added two more.

Additional Reading 

How to Achieve Minimum Viable Digital Experience for Employees

Creating the Modern Digital Workplace and Employee Experience