The rise of the digital workplace and the new future of work: Experts weigh in


The ways workers are getting their jobs done continues to evolve in parallel with technology and company culture. Read some insights from industry experts as to what to expect and how to prepare for the future.

Image: Vlada84 / Getty Images

I’ve been a fan of all things digital along with full remote work capabilities for years now. In fact, I’ve been something of an evangelist on these topics, always making sure that when home or traveling I have all the tools, data, and access needed to perform my role as a system administrator for a large financial company.

Unfortunately, some organizations did not share my enthusiasm, remaining mired in the past, grounded in an archaic mentality that remote workers are less effective or reliable than on-premises employees. I’ve led a crusade to try to preach the word to bring these companies into the 21st century and promote a remote workforce.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

I didn’t expect a global pandemic to become an unexpected ally in supporting my views (and I wish they had been promoted under more fortunate circumstances) but the necessity of remote work has made 2020 a banner year for the digital workplace. It is now truly becoming a powerful and benevolent force for employees and companies as proven results drive more efficient business operations.

I chatted with Michael O’Malley, VP of Strategy at security solutions/application provider Radware, and Ian Wong, co-founder and CTO of Opendoor, an online real estate transaction provider, to get their views on the topic.

Scott Matteson: What is the digital workplace?


Michael O’Malley: The digital workplace is the new space where work gets done. It is where we now communicate and collaborate. As the current pandemic has shown with very few exceptions, numerous jobs can be efficiently done with no traditional physical workplace. Use of email, messaging apps, collaboration, and social tools have enabled work independent of physical presence.


Ian Wong: Opendoor employees, like many workers across the U.S., have been fully remote as a result of COVID-19. We have swapped in-person meetings for virtual meetings, hallway conversations for Slack messages, and are embracing new ways of working together to be as collaborative and productive as possible. 

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (TechRepublic)


Because of the connectivity and technology available to us, the digital workplace is largely a reflection of the conventional one. We’re obviously operating in different circumstances, but we’re still operating and finding ways to become even more effective as a team. Companies like ours have had to learn to be agile and adapt to new environments and–most importantly–ensure employees feel safe, supported, and motivated to do their work. 


Scott Matteson: What are the advantages it offers to employees?


Michael O’Malley: It offers numerous benefits to workers including an overall improved quality of life by eliminating commutes, childcare, and office or location restrictions. This greatly increased freedom leads to happier, more productive employees, which in turn lowers employee churn.


Ian Wong: Remote work is not a novel concept. It’s been in practice for years, and the advantages have always been more flexibility for employees, including no commuting, being close to family, and the ability to live where you want. COVID-19 has emphasized how remote workforces also allow for employees to keep working without compromising their safety.  


Even before COVID-19, there was a strong signal in favor of more remote work. In surveys last year, 80 percent of U.S. workers said they would turn down a job that didn’t offer flexible working options, and 90 percent of employees said flexible work arrangements increase employee morale and could lead to lower operation costs. 


Scott Matteson: What are the advantages it offers to companies?


Michael O’Malley: Companies benefit as well from improved employee productivity, lower physical footprint costs, reduced employee churn, a greater pool of eligible employees to recruit from for hiring, and more. The digital workplace can also help support corporate sustainability.


Ian Wong: If remote work or flexible work options benefit employees, then, in turn, it benefits the company. Engaged employees translate to productive employees. Each company is unique, and it’s important to understand what works for your team. While the majority of workers may love remote or work-from-home options, others may prefer coming into the office. Companies should find ways to accommodate as best as possible employees on both sides. 


Another major benefit is the ability to hire more top talent across the U.S. I believe the best ideas come from anyone, anywhere. And for our business, especially, we’re transforming an industry that transcends every corner of the country, so we need employees who bring diverse skill sets and unique perspectives.


With less need for office space and amenities to serve their employees, companies can also save on real estate and facilities costs. Companies can divert those savings elsewhere. 


Scott Matteson: What dependencies are involved?


Michael O’Malley: Digital workplaces are entirely dependent on the network and applications that employees interact with. The employee digital experience becomes paramount in ensuring employee productivity and fostering the corporate culture.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)


Ian Wong: In order for a digital workplace to be successful, technology needs to be at the heart of the company. Employees need the proper tools and equipment to be productive and successful in their jobs. This includes hardware (reliable Wi-Fi and monitors for laptops, for example) and collaboration tools.


A remote workforce also cannot exist at the expense of workplace culture. It’s important to establish initiatives to promote a healthy work-life balance and inclusive culture. From virtual happy hours and hangouts with members outside of your team to online yoga and meditation sessions, there are ways companies can encourage employees to stay connected on a personal level. 


Scott Matteson: What challenges are involved?


Michael O’Malley: Companies must prioritize the security and availability of the customer digital experience. Since communication and collaboration applications become the lifeline of the employee to every other employee, these must be available 24/7 and secure from hackers. This is extremely difficult when the new attack surface is much more complex with potentially thousands of employees trying to access applications across many clouds globally.


Ian Wong: One challenge remote work can bring—especially during a pandemic—is enabling teams to collaborate and innovate like they do every day when they are in the office. The best companies are constantly looking to reinvent themselves to better serve their customers. In these times, we have to be much more intentional about how we work, which has led us to invest in stronger written communication. Writing well has the additional benefit of being a force-multiplier—the writer has to clarify their thinking, and the reader can respond to more cogent arguments.


Scott Matteson: How does the future of work look?


Michael O’Malley: In the future when little to no work is done inside physical workplaces, greater focus will be put on authenticating the digital identity of employees to weed out bad actors also trying to get into these networks and steal intellectual property or ransom data. Simultaneously, traditional corporate data centers will become a collection of distributed applications running on multiple public and private clouds which must secure the infrastructure and applications from North-South attacks into the cloud as well as East-West attacks from within the cloud.


Ian Wong: The future of work is looking flexible. Right now, the majority of tech employees are working remotely, but I see a future where employees have options. As companies consider more permanent options, it’s important for employees to be communicative with their managers about what’s working and what’s not. Leaders should also be mindful of the needs of their employees. Maybe the future workplace means coming into an office one to two days a week, maybe it’s meeting as a team once a month, or maybe employees are fully remote There are a lot of unknowns right now, but I don’t predict work will go back exactly to how it was pre-COVID-19. There will be changes. 


Scott Matteson: How are vendors helping to engineer this?


Michael O’Malley: Vendors are helping by providing solutions to protect both the network infrastructure (clouds, VPNs, Wi-Fi) and applications (web, Slack, email, SaaS CRM), and also by staffing managed security personnel to act as the security experts to operate the security framework flawlessly.


Ian Wong: Video conferencing and communication tools are proving to be essential for team collaboration. At Opendoor, a big part of our culture is building openness. We stay connected virtually and remain in close contact on all projects and updates. For example, we host a “Show & Tell” on an bi-weekly basis where different members of our engineering team can showcase both finished and in-progress work. We use this time to celebrate wins, share knowledge and create a venue for feedback. 


SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)


I also host a weekly “Pricing Tea Time” via video conferencing, which acts as a forum to hang out and discuss any top-of-mind topics with my team members. It’s completely optional, but there for anyone who wants to talk or has questions. 


Scott Matteson: How will things look down the road?


Michael O’Malley: To better cater to increasingly digital workplaces, companies will move the majority of applications to public/private clouds, and employees will be able to access them securely anywhere in the world.


Scott Matteson: What should companies be doing to prepare for the future?


Michael O’Malley:


1. Prepare your digital experience roadmap. What are the applications needed for an enterprise to deliver the employee digital experience they want to appeal to the finest people in their field?


2.  Identify the access networks (Wi-Fi, 5G) and clouds (Azure, AWS, private) needed to deliver this experience.


3.  Partner with security experts to either build and operate the security framework for this new world or select best-in-class offerings and build your own enterprise competencies in security.

Ian Wong: Listen to your employees. Do they want a fully remote office? Do they want flexible options? Surveying workers is a great way to get a sense of the company sentiment. And it’s important to take note of the shift that’s happening. Proper technology is essential for a thriving digital workplace, and companies should start investing now to not get left behind in the future. Lastly, promote written communication. Great writing scales—and not just when everyone is remote.

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COVID-19: Workplace app gets an update to help get you back to the office


Two companies came together to create a better app for helping organizations get employees back to work after the coronavirus.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Jonathan Erwin, CEO of Redeapp, and Stacy Griggs, CEO of El Toro, two companies based in Louisville, KY, about their workplace contact tracing app. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Karen Roby: You guys have partnered here to launch a return-to-work app that goes beyond contact tracing. This is something we’ve been talking and hearing a lot about, and there’s obviously lots of security and privacy concerns. Jonathan, let me start here with you. Just tell us how this app works and really what audience you’re serving.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Jonathan Erwin: Redeapp is essentially a mobile workforce performance platform. We’ve been around since 2011, researching, developing tools for large organizations in industrial, healthcare, construction, mining, hospitality, and retail. Really what Redeapp is, is a way to engage employees on their mobile devices, and HealthePassport is a way to create both a health safety… . Not just, “Hey, here is your self health declaration for a day,” but “Hey, here is a view of all of your employees across your entire organization, of the current health status of that organization.” But also providing education and awareness to each employee.

We kind of feel like a lot of the COVID-19 apps that are being driven by employers to employees is very one dimensional and what we are really basing a lot of the feature set inside of HealthePassport today is based on using technology, but also using really strong communication and educational and daily awareness of what’s changed in the business for those employees.

Karen Roby: One of the things of course is as I mentioned there at the top, Stacy, is that when people hear about contact tracing, which is something that many hadn’t even, even though contact tracing has been around for a long time, they really hadn’t thought about it, until COVID-19. So when they feel like they’re being tracked or followed, especially from their employer, that can seem a little daunting. So talk a little bit about the privacy and security concerns and how you address those.

Stacy Griggs: The first thing to remember is 100% of what we’re doing is opt-in. Users, so the employees, are opting in to be able to use this, and if they don’t want to opt-in to use it, then they don’t have to. However, if they opt-in, I believe they’ll be able to return to work sooner and safer. We’ve seen a huge demand from employers who realize that states and governments simply aren’t going to solve this problem. If they want to be able to get their workforces back to work and make sure that those workforces are safe and meet requirements to places like OSHA, they’re going to have to do something to be able to figure out who interacted with whom, and be able to use this data in a very limited fashion.

SEE: Apple iOS 14: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

That’s the other main component of what we’re doing from a security standpoint is the data we collect is only being collected while you’re at work. And the data is never being shared as far as precise location with your employer. All we’re doing is using it to figure out who you might’ve interacted with only in situations where somebody reports that they have COVID-19 and then that’s verified by the employer.

Karen Roby: Just give me a one-minute overview of what the app actually looks like for the employee, when they open it up, what it looks like to them.

Stacy Griggs: It looks like awesomeness on your screen, but I’ll let Jonathan define that.

Jonathan Erwin: It is awesomeness. So it’s also simplistic. I think what we’ve really tried to provide employees is a very easy way to get involved, engaged quickly. And we’ve tried to position it together so that when they get in the app, it’s a download from the Android or Apple stores, app stores, and they get into Redeapp and Passport is available to agree and to opt in, as Stacy mentioned.

It’s really simplistic to give you color coded ways to maybe skip a line by getting back to work. I have uploaded a self health declaration that might be mandated by that employer that day, and/or I have a test or I’m staying at home today, and I’d like to upload that test to share with my employer. And all of that can then be translated into a red, yellow, or green type of Passport for that worker to go back to work. And then the administrative folks, the employer, will have an opportunity to then see what has happened in that day in real time, and perform contact tracing if needed across that company, if those folks are staying home and take actions to educate other folks or other employees related to the risk.

Karen Roby: When we talk about these employees specifically, this is really going to be focused a lot toward those that are highly mobile, as you mentioned, those that aren’t sitting at a desk, those that might be out in the field. Talk a little bit about that.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same–here’s what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Stacy Griggs: I actually think it’s going to be focused on all employees. One of the things, when we were putting this together… El Toro’s got a long history in mobile location data science, Redeapp had this fantastic app for connecting unconnected workers. And as we started talking about what can we do to apply our mobile data science to help solve COVID-19, we realized we needed an app platform and to get a highly secure, HIPAA-compliant, audited app platform, it would take a year, it would take 12-plus months to build just the basics. Redeapp already had all of that. They had this app that was perfect for helping do contact tracing with COVID-19, if you just add mobile in the data science, and that’s where we came in. It gives us the scenario where the two of us together were able to do something that one of us wouldn’t have been able to do individually.

Karen Roby: Talk a little bit about the tech behind the tech, and you both touched on that a little bit, but expand for our audience, if you could, on that facet.

Jonathan Erwin: Stacy talked a bit about being an expert in mobile data location sciences, and so that’s very powerful. Redeapp is an enterprise mobile platform that is hosted inside of AWS. Now we serve large healthcare entities, large construction corporations, and in Santiago, Chile, in nuclear power plants. And we’re in the Tesla factory with Panasonic in Sparks, Nevada. And so we have had to be, and maintain, both data and security compliance insurances for all of our businesses across all of these industries that are, where they have a lot of disparate, geographically dispersed employees.

The app for us, and as Stacy mentioned, was tremendous because what we, as being a workforce performance platform, we certainly understand how to touch employees and, and provide business results to businesses. And because it is a platform and because it is scalable and because it is portable, when Stacy and El Toro came to us and we decided to collaborate on this idea, we literally were able to turn this around in three and a half weeks, Karen.

The ability to say from the ground up, as Stacy mentioned, we put almost 10 years into building a scalable platform that goes across the world. That’s available in 16 different languages, and being used in healthcare and hurricane preparedness in Florida and for emergency management in lots of different types of industries, but to combine it with a data sciences piece of El Toro was just… . Really, I said this in a recent interview where it’s, we were tailor-made for crisis and together it’s been a great combination.

Stacy Griggs: It’s interesting to me that, when I look at how all this has played out and how quickly it’s played out, most people that are out there pitching contact tracing apps for companies and universities, they have a PowerPoint, they have a press release, they actually don’t have an app. If you go to the app store and try to download their app, they’re working on it. We have an app that you can download and start using today. You know, we’ve got the ability to spin up clients in a matter of days. We took this for El Toro, as soon as it was ready, our staff downloaded it and started using it. And as part of our return-to-work strategy, this is what our staff are using to automate their daily health self-checks to find out if somebody… Fortunately we haven’t had anybody diagnosed with COVID-19, but if we did, we’d be able to figure out who we need to get tested and who we need to self-isolate and, and it’s ready and works today. Unlike just about every other app we’ve seen, which will be potentially ready and works at some point in the future.

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The creators of Redeapp talk with TechRepublic’s Karen Roby about TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Jonathan Erwin, CEO of Redeapp, and Stacy Griggs, CEO of El Toro, two companies based in Louisville, KY, about their workplace contact tracing app.

Image: Redeapp