By Gloria Lombardi

Microsoft continues to release a steady stream of updates to Office 365. The most recent changes, primarily around collaboration, have an enormous impact on the employee experience.

Salvo Profita, Product Manager of the SharePoint intranet in-a-box, EasySharePoint, recognises a prominent “philosophical shift in the way people work”. The shift he describes helps professionals maximise their productivity, and boost their overall performance.

Where might the evolution of Office 365 be heading? How should businesses integrate the many existing tools to build a connected digital workplace? What can people expect in the near future? Profita laid out his thoughts for MARGINALIA.

Gloria Lombardi: Looking at the evolution of Office 365, can Microsoft deliver a connected digital workplace?

Salvo Profita: Office has evolved from a personal productivity suite to a collaborative working environment; Office 365, in the cloud, provides much more than Word and PowerPoint. It’s the intranet evolved – a space for corporate communications, reference material, project management, and team collaboration.

The evolution of Office 365 is a philosophical shift from Microsoft, because the new tools empower employees. People can create sites, they can collaborate, they can form teams to work together and share documents. And it’s done in an unstructured way. The word ‘unstructured’ does not have a negative connotation. Rather, it means project leaders (however small the project) don’t have to ask the IT department to provide the necessary resources. It’s bottom up; people can be trusted to work together as they need. A little governance will help, but employees need to be empowered to get on with things. That’s a big shift from how on-premises SharePoint is traditionally managed – structured, controlled, and permission based.

This evolution can be seen as a reaction to what’s going on in the wider world. Many of the newer Microsoft’s tools are equivalent to other company’s popular online apps, that have been available and working well for quite a long time. If we look at Planner, it’s a very good tool for organising and managing team and individuals’ tasks. But it’s really a copy of Trello, which many organisations were already using. If we look at Flow, it’s a very good workflow tool, especially for personal workflow, but again it’s a sort of reaction to online tools such as If This Then That. While Microsoft Teams is a fantastic route into SharePoint and team chat, some might prefer Slack.

Essentially, the evolution of Office 365 is very much a reaction to digital innovations from across the world. Microsoft means to provide the tools that people need and expect, to work with teammates, content, and data – all within the bounds of Office 365, rather than going outside where there’s less control.

GL: Considering the shift from centralised IT control to empowering employees, what’s the impact on employee experience?

SP: In the past, when project teams or colleagues needed to collaborate on SharePoint or whatever, they would have to requisition resources from the IT department. They’d have to plan what they needed, fill in the forms, and wait for a team space or project site to be given to them – created in the correct way, in the correct ‘place’, with the correct permissions to allow the right people in. It was all process driven, usually for good reasons, for sure, but it was all about information architecture and control.

What was the employee experience around all that? Considering the administrative burden and the underwhelming document library that was invariably dumped upon the requester without training, you can see why people would revert to email and shared drives.

But with SharePoint Online, through Office 365, it’s easier to enable people to create the sites and workspaces they need without worrying about the size and shape of your SharePoint environment. It’s a philosophical shift towards agile working. Teams are no longer permanent structures, but arise when the work requires them. Anyone can now create a set of team tools and invite the right colleagues to collaborate.

GL: Is there still a role to play for the traditional intranet within a modern, connected digital workplace?

SP: Yes, organisations still need structure and control around corporate communications and reference material.

Think of a company’s official resources and information; these need to be controlled and supervised. Think about the legal, compliance, HR, and health, safety, and environmental materials that a company must make available to all employees. Such materials, policies, and procedures, need creating and reviewing by the right people, by qualified people. The intranet should help facilitate creation and review, and offer the necessary controls. Then there’s the official news and announcements that need to be easy to see and trusted.

GL: What does modern SharePoint offer organisations that older versions did not?

SP: Microsoft has modernised the user interface and simplified functionality; literally called ‘Modern’, these new SharePoint sites have done away with the clunkiness of old ‘Classic’ SharePoint. Modern SharePoint resembles consumer-grade websites and apps, offering drag and drop, and pleasant, intuitive, interfaces.

It’s still possible to build rich, easy-to-use intranets with ‘Classic’ SharePoint, especially with an intranet in-a-box solution like EasySharePoint. Without such add-ons, you’ll find the content editing experience to fall below your needs and expectations.

Modern SharePoint can still be a bit of a ‘thin’ experience. I mean that it doesn’t have all the features that even an older, traditional, corporate intranet would have. It doesn’t have all the web parts or widgets that Classic SharePoint offers.

So, many organisations are caught between the need for rich functionality and ease of use. Many people are waiting to see how Modern SharePoint matures, and how Microsoft develops Communication Sites and Hub Sites. But an organisation should not let their intranet fall behind business needs while they simply wait to see what Microsoft does. That’s not a strategic answer to the challenges of communication, employee engagement, and productivity.

It is still worth building a corporate intranet using classic SharePoint, if the organisation needs something fairly soon. Classic SharePoint can provide a very capable intranet.

I can’t say how long it could take to build a rich, capable intranet with Modern SharePoint. I recommend moderation; avoid doing too much too soon. You should expect to iterate, to redo things, to some extent, in a couple of years as and when Microsoft improves Modern Sites.

GL: Where is this evolution all heading? What does it mean for employees? Will it change behaviours?

SP: In some ways, this evolution of the digital workplace is a continuation and refinement of what’s been happening for years. For example, people have found ways to work remotely for decades, and there are plenty of apps and services that have helped people collaborate and work remotely, such as Slack and Skype. But now that organisations are shifting to Office 365 en masse, providing a great number of connected tools, there will be an upsurge in flexible and remote working. And certainly, it’s never been easier to be a freelance knowledge worker.

Thinking about people though, we should be aware of the dark side of all this connectivity – technology does not always evolve in the direction society, or we as individuals, want. How people use tools can be unpredictable, leading to innovation or unforeseen consequences. Just as there’s push-back against overuse of social networks – the abuse, the trolling, the fake news, the lack of trust – we have to be aware of how the digital workplace and flexible, anytime-anywhere working, can impact our lives.

We don’t want a social intranet to be dominated by only a few voices – or just the loud ones. We don’t want our collaboration spaces filled with misinformation from inexperienced, or ignorant, colleagues. We still want some rigour, we still need to be able to trust information. We want to be able to find real expertise and talent.

GL: Can you tell me how the Office Graph supports Office 365?

SP: Now named Microsoft Graph, it’s about all the information that’s collected and known about employees’ behaviours within Office 365 – every visit, every site, every document touched, and every interaction with colleagues.

The Graph reveals insights from the organisation’s own data. For example, it might be assumed that a certain department is working with the marketing departments on a particular project. The Graph would be able to reveal the actual individual interactions between people, to show who is directly collaborating. It could show which department is doing most of the work, or even uncover individuals who spend their time interacting with different people on a completely different project. This is useful to the business, to management, as it shows how departments, teams, and projects should be structured to reflect the realities of work, and better support people’s needs.

The Graph offers analytics for the workplace. It shows how people work and what they really do. On the small-scale, it also powers the little personalised experiences within Office 365 – like when Delve shows you that your manager is working on your draft presentation, or when your teammate creates a new report.

GL: What is next for the digital workplace and the future of work?

SP: The evolution will continue; today, it’s all about communication and collaboration, but it’s still not about lines of business – the revenue generating, customer and market-focused business units that extol the purpose of the organisation. The digital workplace does not yet truly support the employees that do the actual job that the organisation is paid to do. For example, solicitors are paid to practice law; retailers are paid to provide products and services; manufacturers are paid to – well you get my point. The digital workplace needs to better support what many people call ‘real work’.

I think this will happen; I think organisations will use the enterprise and professional tools available to build internal processes that directly support their core business. I think Microsoft knows this, and is going in that direction. When all internal systems share the same technology ecosystem, teams and departments can share data and processes more easily, and they don’t have to worry about managing incompatible tools and information silos so much.

Microsoft Hololens may seem futuristic, but I think augmented reality and shared virtual experiences can support innovative engineering work. At the moment, online collaboration usually means documents, chat, and maybe some video calls. With Hololens, teammates get to physically share a virtual experience in real-time, and show their work. When you’re collaborating on a 1000 part engine, for instance, it would be useful to be able to ‘handle’ a 3D model together as a team.

GL: How should organisations approach Office 365?

SP: Organisations should be very cautious when rolling out Office 365 and the many tools it brings.

People have been collaborating forever, and their ways of working may well be effective just as they are. They’ll certainly be well embedded at least – entrenched behaviour, so to speak.

Before rolling out new tools, or indeed, a new platform, you need to fully understand how people are currently collaborating – how the organisation is getting business results. Is new tech really needed? Many organisations still hold on to their outdated, under-performing tools and ways of working – perhaps out of fear of disruption. When performance suffers, changes must be made. But there are so many organisations that provide new tools without guidance or direction. Employees find they have too much choice, or only learn of a new tool from a colleague a year later. If they can’t immediately see how and when to use a new tool, they’ll likely revert to email. Tech will fail to provide return on investment if investment is not made in people.

It’s a good idea to work with an agency that is already familiar with the new tools. I suggest organisations start small. Present the tools and benefits of Office 365 to some key staff across the business. As the agency comes to understand how your organisation works, you can start thinking about which tools would be useful in which business scenarios.

You’ll want to consider what training might be needed. If people are comfortable with Dropbox, Slack, and Trello, it might be that everyone will easily adopt OneDrive, Teams, and Planner. But some cultures and some people will need guidance or hands-on training.

I accept that a great intranet can enable employee engagement, but I must say that engagement starts with the intent of senior managers. Senior management must want to listen to what’s going on and talk with employees. They should be prepared to act on what they learn. The intranet or digital workplace can be a medium for management’s intent and engagement activities, but a new intranet alone is not going to create engagement. That’s wishful thinking. Engagement is about intent.