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Q&A with a digital workplace consultant

The digital workplace has evolved a lot in the last few years spurring a renewed interest in intranet software. If you are looking for guidance on where it's going in 2021, check out our interview with ClearBox Consulting owner Sam Marshall.

8 minute read
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What does the future hold for the digital workplace? And how will the new hybrid workplace impact us in 2021? 

We recently spoke with Sam Marshall, owner of ClearBox Consulting, a specialist independent consultancy that believes in making the workplace a better and more productive experience. Sam shared his insight for the future of digital transformation, and provided guidance on how organizations can connect and engage their workforce in 2021. 

How has the digital workplace evolved in the last year? 

It’s accelerated massively, but I don’t think its trajectory has necessarily improved. What I mean is that in most cases, companies were already part-way along a digital workplace roadmap. When COVID came they pressed the accelerator hard to go farther along that roadmap rather than asking if it was the right one. Mostly, the focus was on places where they were missing the technology components that were necessary for people to work from home.

What has been a huge plus is that it has got many people over the initial learning hump.  Often when people have tried things like virtual workshops in the past, they have never persisted to work through the initial pain points. For example, the first few meetings usually suffer from people struggling with logins, poor audio, lack of video camera etc. When this happened in the past people would throw up their arms and revert to face to face meetings. With that option taken away this year they persevered and now most people will have forgotten those teething troubles entirely and just get on with it.

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Do you think the majority of workplaces were unprepared in 2020? 

I hear a real mix of stories. I think most companies had some capability for hybrid working – and it was already more prevalent in Europe than, say, the USA. The ones that were caught out were the ones that had procrastinated for many years, getting hung up on security concerns (real, but they can be worked through) and management worries (real, but the only way to resolve them is to try). They were suddenly forced to act, and tended to focus on physical barriers such as VPN capacity. For them the hard work is just beginning as they now have to figure out the people side that is essential for a healthy digital workplace. 

Has the role of intranets changed in the last year? 

Organizations found a new appreciation for their intranets. In times of uncertainty, employees look for regular updates, and some of them want lots of information. Intranets became the place that people would seek out for authoritative updates and a source they could trust. Social channels too, took on renewed importance. With the isolation some felt from working from home, these virtual hangouts gave some sense of connectedness that would ordinarily come from being in the same workplace.

I see some of that continuing for intranets, but we should also acknowledge that Zoom and particularly MS Teams have risen to prominence. This has shaken up the mix of channels for internal communications. People will be expecting more use of video, more immediacy and live streamed events that intranets are not well suited for. Teams too, provides a two-way channel that may compete with an intranet so it needs proper planning and positioning. 

Who do you feel is leading the charge of digital transformation right now?

In many cases it has been coming direct from people in CXO roles recently. As we revert to normal, I expect it will pass back to HR and IT, with plenty of input from internal comms. Some are asking if there should be a ‘Head of remote working’ role? If you want to improve fast on that then I think it makes sense, as supporting remote work straddles many traditional functions.

At ClearBox, we’re also seeing a rapid rise in steps to digitally engage with frontline workers. This is often being driven by the head of specific divisions, such as logistics, manufacturing or retail.

Do you see the future of work as a hybrid environment? Do you think it will evolve? 

Yes. In particular, companies are seeing benefits such as the ability to recruit talent from a much wider pool. I expect they will try to lock in some of those benefits while returning to the in-person elements that people miss.

 Do you think hybrid workplaces will be challenging to manage?

What I think is really interesting is that people have preferences for work styles that match their personalities. The extroverts really miss the informal contact from in-person working. The introverts relish the quiet time. If hybrid workplaces are unmanaged, then employees will naturally gravitate to different work modes. That isn’t necessarily the best for producing outcomes: you need the introverts in meetings asking the questions that come from deep reflection and attention to detail. You need the extroverts gathering customer feedback and amplifying enthusiasm so that the introverts don’t dive too deep on the wrong issues.

 What intranet trends do you expect us to see in 2021?

We’ll continue to see organizations wrestle with “what is the intranet for?” – not because it lacks value, but because it’s purpose is evolving as other channels are introduced. I really hope that intranets play a strong role in helping employees navigate their organization. In particular, things like remote onboarding, career management and access to employee services will grow in importance in a hybrid workplace.

I’d love to see more focus on digital literacy too, and intranets can play a valuable role in supporting that.

What advice would you give to organizations looking to connect and engage their workforce? 

The solution will necessarily be multi-faceted and the key functions need strong dialogue to create a good employee experience. Take an agile approach that balances employee pain-points with organization priorities. Do lots of pilots, gather feedback, and keep adapting.

Sam Marshall of ClearBox Consulting

About Sam Marshall

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 19 years, working with companies such as GSK, Vodafone, TUI Travel, Sony and Unilever. His current activities focus on intranet and digital workplace strategy, and the business side of Office 365.

Sam is a regular keynote speaker at international conferences and has been named a ‘Contributor of the year’ for his CMSWire column five years in a row. In 2015 Sam was given the Intranet Now award for ‘remarkable contribution to the intranet community. For more information, you can contact Sam directly at or @sammmarshall.