Article

Digital transformation can be a rough employee experience—but it doesn’t have to be

By Susan Lahey

Published January 14, 2020
Last updated November 18, 2020

Our brains are designed to create and foster habits. Brains burn a lot of calories, and when we learn a task, or face a new situation, they are required to burn even more calories. Habits are the brain’s way of reducing energy consumption by reducing the amount of thinking we have to do. When we fail to comply with our habits, it creates stress in the brain. That’s why it’s so hard to break habits; our own brains thwart our efforts.

Enter the ever-evolving technological age, specifically Digital Transformation (DX). Gartner analysts spent a good bit of 2019 studying employee experience and digital transformation. One of their reports, on the digital workplace, noted: “Digital transformation is, by definition, dynamic, constantly responding and adapting to internal and external changes, thereby disrupting work processes, subjecting employees to strain and undermining productivity.”

DX turns everything in a company upside-down and wreaks havoc on the habits most employees have learned in mastering their jobs. To implement the most efficient and convenient digital solutions for customers and employees, roles, titles, and tasks may all be overturned. New systems and processes replace the known ones, not once a decade, or even once every few years, but perpetually. The stress of that, on habit-making human brains, is one reason many digital transformation efforts fail.

New systems and processes replace the known ones, not once a decade, or even once every few years, but perpetually. The stress of that, on habit-making human brains, is one reason many digital transformation efforts fail.

Another reason is that many companies lack a solid handle on how to manage an effective DX. The Gartner report goes on to say: “The stream of new collaboration tools, plus emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), can pose as much threat as promise, sewing confusion, duplication, inefficiency and unintended consequences into working practices.”

And yet, as fraught as it is, DX is still essential. Having employees enthusiastically participate and push through the tough bits is imperative. So,

[Related read: Embarking on a digital transformation? Here’s how to bring your employees along]

Get buy-in from the frontline from the beginning

DX is not about technology; it’s about the fact that technology has made it possible for both customers and employees to get done what they want to get done faster, easier, at their own convenience, and more intuitively. If the tech isn’t fulfilling that requirement, it’s the wrong tech. The important thing is that companies understand why they’re implementing a technology before anything is changed.

“It’s hard for people to get easy with DX,” said Melissa Henley, director of customer experience at Laserfiche, an enterprise software company. Henley writes frequently about creating an optimal DX. “You’re thinking about how you need to implement this software, and what gets lost in the shuffle is the actual people. One of the things I like to look at is, ‘What are you changing, why are you changing, who needs to change?”

The C-suite, of course, has to know the answers to those questions. But many of the answers must be sought from the frontline staff. Grassroots change, Henley said, “is really a lot more sticky. The more you are including frontline employees, letting them share their ideas, that helps to make the change stick.” After all, employees are the ones dealing with the tools and processes, and often connecting with the customer.

Asking employees about their pain points, what hinders their production, and what tasks are boring and could be done more efficiently by technology should be one of the first steps. This includes looking at what opportunities the change presents for more autonomy or creative thinking in the employees’ roles.

Asking employees about their pain points, what hinders their production, and what tasks are boring and could be done more efficiently by technology should be one of the first steps.

“Many employee work routines are chained to decades-old personal and team productivity tools that are inadequate for modern workplace needs,” the Gartner report noted. New SaaS productivity tools are a more flexible, scaleable, solution. But too often, the report said, IT groups focus all their decision making on “operational fitness such as uptime, security, and governance, rather than on how employees get work done.”

From the beginning, employees should be involved in reimagining how they might operate on a daily basis, given the choice of ever-changing, multivendor, SaaS-based personal and team productivity applications.

[Related read: Digital transformation: hard, expensive, and worth it]

The domino effect of implementing change

Once you begin changing things, though, it works like dominos; leaders need to at least explore changes throughout the workplace structure. Would the new way of serving customers or producing the product or service work better in a different physical space, or with a different configuration? Do employees need to be in the office at all, or can they work remotely if they want? Is the culture designed around the old tech and tools, and old paradigms? If so, what needs to evolve to match the new tool and paradigm?

Daunting as that may sound, if employees find that the DX creates more freedom and flexibility for them, it will likely make the transition a lot easier.

Henley said it’s crucial for leadership to communicate early and often about the benefits and goals of the DX. She also recommended companies find champions among employees to keep enthusiasm high. Not everyone balks at the changes from DX. In fact, research shows that a lot of senior management won’t stay at a company that’s not pursuing digital transformation. Other research shows Millennials won’t stay at a company with substandard technology, underscoring the importance of digital transformation in remaining competitive in the job market.

Some companies assign beta teams as early adopters of developments pushed out of the sandbox. Ideally, these teams comprise people who understand that they’re helping to find glitches, and won’t be frustrated at points of failure in early iterations Beta team members can also help champion the upcoming changes

Once you begin changing things, though, it works like dominos; leaders need to at least explore changes throughout the workplace structure.

However, Henley said, not everyone will be convinced. “There are latitudes of acceptance,” Henley said. “Everyone has zones of what is comfortable to them. You’re not going to move people too far out of their zones, no matter how good a change agent you are.”

In order to reduce friction, Gartner and other experts suggest that everything should be phased in slowly, like an exercise program. This might create anxiety in companies that have waited to get on the DX bandwagon, but nobody can go straight from the couch to cross fit. Employees need to know what’s coming and how it will be rolled out; what processes will change, in what order; how these changes will affect or evolve their roles; and how they’re going to be trained.

“You need to ask ‘Who do we really need to move and how far do we really need to move them?’” Henley said. “Maybe you don’t need to get them to where they think this is the best thing since sliced bread, you just get them to stop telling everyone that this is awful.”

[Related read: The future employee experience is personalized]

Emotions are powerful roadblocks to change

The fact of the matter is, Henley said, for many people DX is like grieving a death. Things employees worked toward, skills they were proud of, roles they had finally attained, might be eliminated or changed. People have to move through the stages of grief. And to do that completely and successfully means managers have to have the emotional intelligence to help them get through it. Unfortunately, she said, in many industries emotional intelligence is not a skill most companies hire for.

Employees need to know what's coming and how it will be rolled out; what processes will change, in what order; how these changes will affect or evolve their roles; and how they're going to be trained.

Customer service may be ahead of most industries when it comes to understanding that angry emotion often masks fear or uncertainty. When it comes to managing a DX project, Henley said, “You need someone in the organization that has the vision, is able to step up and lead the change…has a forceful personality but also has the empathy to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and say ‘Yes, this person is yelling at me but they’re not yelling AT me. They’re scared.”

It’s challenging to bridge the gap between people who embrace changes and those who fear change, as well as those whose jobs will be substantially improved, and those who are impacted in a less positive way. It helps to remind employees that if disruption doesn’t come from within, it may come from outside, or a competitor. Yet in the end, success lies in putting the experience of employees above even the technology or the future goals. “If you don’t deal with the emotions consistently throughout the organization, you’re going to be in trouble,” Henley said.