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Microsoft modern workplace and digital transformation trends for 2021

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With distributed work expected to continue, full adoption of Microsoft’s modern workplace is no longer a nice-to-have. Learn about this and other key modernization trends for 2021 from our benchmark cloud productivity report.

The “workplace” has long been under disruption. With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the move to distributed work accelerated, making the transformation to Microsoft’s “modern workplace” imperative for IT teams.

As explored in our benchmark cloud productivity report, what is important now—and moving forward—is for organizations and the IT teams that support them to integrate the tools and processes needed for people to connect, collaborate, and create from anywhere. The ecosystem of integrated apps, tools, and services that make up Microsoft 365 were designed to allow this to happen seamlessly… if IT admins and their teams are ready for the move.

Drawing on data-backed insights, industry surveys, and interviews with Microsoft MVPs, ShareGate’s State of Microsoft 365 report highlights the latest Microsoft cloud productivity trends with a focus on migration, modernization, and security in Microsoft 365. To help you understand, and adapt to, the continuing reality of distributed work in 2021, here are three key “modernization” and digital transformation trends from the report.

Microsoft “modernization” and digital transformation trends for 2021:

  1. Necessity of adopting Microsoft’s modern workplace

    Full adoption of Microsoft’s modern workplace is no longer a nice-to-have in 2021.

  2. Acceleration of SharePoint/Microsoft 365 modernization

    Companies are accelerating “modernization” plans to support distributed work.

  3. Increase in IT teams empowering end users

    More IT teams are leveraging self-service features in Microsoft 365.


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Necessity of adopting Microsoft’s modern workplace

Microsoft’s concept of the “modern workplace” has been around for years. To summarize, “the modern workplace operates using the suite of Microsoft 365 technologies and productivity applications that harness the power of the Cloud.”* (*A Modern Workplace with Microsoft, IT Lab) When fully adopted, it ideally results in an “integrated, frictionless ecosystem” that is “intuitive for your user-base, and agile and scalable for your business.”

For IT teams to go “modern,” they must make an architectural shift that includes:

  • Moving from classic to modern SharePoint sites
  • Flattening site architecture and getting rid of subsites
  • Connecting modern team sites to Microsoft 365 groups and Teams

We believe that adopting Microsoft’s modern architecture isn’t just best practice, it’s also a move that opens up capabilities and features in Microsoft 365 that make life easier.

As ShareGate Head of Product and Microsoft MVP Benjamin Niaulin described in a Microsoft 365 webinar: “The modern workplace is a theme—it’s a new way of working that Microsoft believes will empower everyone to achieve more. And with the productivity suite in [Microsoft 365], Microsoft has provided technology that enables your organization to benefit from these new ways of work.”

READ: Benefits to creating a flat site structure in SharePoint Online

For this report, we also interviewed Microsoft MVP and consultant Jasper Oosterveld about “modernization” trends among his clients at InSpark.

Prior to 2020, Oosterveld said, businesses already recognized the benefits of the modern workplace. “Most companies wanted to move to the modern workplace that’s offered by Microsoft 365 because there are a couple benefits. It’s more cost efficient. You’re able to use the latest updates, so you can innovate a lot quicker. And it’s a lot more user friendly.”

Before COVID, a lot of companies were planning to move to the modern workplace, but… it was more like a nice-to-have. The pandemic definitely put more urgency behind it.

Jasper Oosterveld (@jasoosterveld), InSpark consultant and Microsoft MVP Tweet this

While many companies had only adopted pieces of the modern workplace, with the onset of the pandemic, tools like Teams became a daily necessity. Although an organization doesn’t necessarily need a modern SharePoint structure to use Teams, it is necessary to leverage Teams to its full potential and tap into all its capabilities.

Said Oosterveld: Before COVID, “a lot of companies were in transition or planning to move to the modern workplace, but there was less urgency behind it. It was more like a nice-to-have. The pandemic definitely put more urgency behind it.

Distributed work is expected to continue in 2021 and beyond

The difference in 2021 is that Microsoft’s modern workplace is no longer a “nice-to-have.” According to a recent Gartner study, 82% of company leaders plan to allow employees to continue working from home at least part-time, even after offices reopen*. (*Gartner) Combined with Microsoft’s ongoing investment in integrations for “modern workplace” structure and tools, switching to the modern architecture is now imperative.

In a February 2021 survey, we asked members of the IT industry about their plans regarding Microsoft 365 “modernization” and the impacts of COVID-19. Given the events of the past year, it’s not a surprise that 74.0% of respondents said that close to 100% of their workforce has moved to distributed/remote work in the last 12 months.

Graph illustrating that 74.0% of survey respondents say that close to 100% of their workforce has moved to distributed/remote work in the last 12 months.

More importantly, about 70% of respondents expect the majority of their workforce to continue working remotely through 2021.

Graph illustrating that 70% of survey respondents expect the majority of their workforce to continue working remotely through 2021.

Acceleration of SharePoint/Microsoft 365 modernization

With the global shift to distributed teams, Microsoft’s modern workplace became an inescapable reality. Microsoft Teams usage exploded as a result, as has been widely reported, which presented many challenges for IT teams. Ideally, you have a management plan for before, during, and after your Microsoft 365 migration and Teams rollout takes place. In 2020, however, many companies didn’t have the luxury of time.

Illustrated graph showing increase in number of daily active users in Teams.

Microsoft described a common scenario in its case study of the industrial automation company Rockwell Automation, which was in the process of switching to Microsoft 365 in 2019 using a phased roll-out, “when an entirely unpredictable disruption of epic proportions hit in the form of the novel coronavirus.”* Overnight, that plan was upended as “suddenly, Rockwell Automation needed to move as quickly as possible to ensure that it could continue to help its customers through one of the most trying times in recent history.”* (*Microsoft)

In response, Rockwell Automation put the “pedal to the metal” on their Teams implementation. The transition was “easier than expected,” and by June 2020, more than 90 percent of the company’s global workforce had transitioned to Teams.

Said Todd Mazza, Rockwell’s Vice President of Enterprise Architecture and Strategy: “That gave us the confidence to open the floodgates and just let people use it whether they were migrated or not. Teams is [now] the main communication and collaboration hub we use all day long.”* (*Microsoft)

In our own survey, 80.6% of respondents said that prior to COVID-19, their organization already had the necessary tools/infrastructure in place to support fully distributed work. However, that leaves 19.4% who said they were not ready—a significant portion.

Illustrated graph showing that 80.6% of survey respondents already had the necessary tools/infrastructure in place to support distributed work prior to COVID-19.

Companies are going “modern” faster

While surveying, we wanted to know where IT professionals and their organizations fell on the Microsoft 365 “modernization” spectrum pre-pandemic, and whether COVID affected plans to go “modern.”

We asked: How much did COVID-19 accelerate any prior plans your organization had to implement the necessary changes to leverage modern tools (such as Microsoft Teams and group-connected team sites)?

The results:

Illustrated graph showing that 57.1% of survey respondents said COVID-19 accelerated prior modernization plans by 0-90 days.

These numbers indicate that while COVID-19 did not impact long-term modernization plans, it did push plans forward for most in the short-term. In this data, we see IT teams pushing modernization plans ahead of schedule by days, weeks, and months.

In the same survey, when asked whether their current Microsoft 365 architecture is in line with Microsoft’s vision for the modern workplace, 73.0% responded “Yes.”

However, the majority (90.0%) of respondents who said “No” did say they had implemented some aspects of the modern architecture. Only 10.0% had not.

Regarding specific architecture changes, half of respondents who admitted to only implementing some aspects of the “modern infrastructure” said the top change they made was moving from classic to modern SharePoint. This makes sense, given that modern SharePoint is integral for many of the enhanced features IT teams needed to adopt, including Microsoft Teams.

Survey respondents were split on whether they had a fully scoped plan in place to move to “modern” at the beginning of 2020. 49.3% said they did versus 50.7% who did not.

Illustrated graph showing that 49.3% of survey respondents had a fully scoped plan in place to move to "modern" at the start of 2020.

This reflects the pre-pandemic mindset, said Ben Niaulin, “because there wasn’t any urgency at that point. Some IT teams were planning to adopt new ways of work, and some were planning to continue working as they were, without any immediate plan to go to Teams and fully modern sites.”

However, as of February 2021, 43.2% of survey respondents who originally said they didn’t have a plan to move to “modern” pre-COVID 19 said they now have a plan to go modern. Together, these numbers suggest that the pandemic prompted many more IT teams than were planning to go “modern” to make the move.

In terms of moving from classic to modern Microsoft architecture, Jasper Oosterveld confirmed that the pandemic accelerated the process. “Companies did it in three to six months, instead of a year,” he said. “The pandemic put more urgency behind it. It also forced companies to make more resources available to do it.”

Microsoft Teams was the top driver to go modern

Our survey findings also aligned with the global increase in Teams usage in 2020. When we asked members of the IT industry what pushed them to make the move to “modern,” the top motivator by far (44.2%) was the ability to deploy Teams/connect to existing SharePoint team sites.

Illustrated graph showing that 44.2% of survey respondents cited the ability to deploy Teams/connect Teams to existing SharePoint team sites as their top reason to go "modern".

Oosterveld noted: “Our clients basically said, we have to be there now, and my team at InSpark had to help get them there a lot faster than we normally would have. We noticed a huge increase in requests to move to Teams. Customers had been talking about it and planning it, but suddenly, it was necessary to get Teams up and running quickly.” So great was the demand that InSpark created a “Teams in a Day” offering for customers.

Customers had been talking about it and planning it, but suddenly it was necessary to get Teams up and running quickly.

Jasper Oosterveld (@jasoosterveld), Microsoft MVP and Modern Workplace Consultant Tweet this

To leverage Teams and Microsoft 365 Groups, organizations first needed to “modernize.” In the case of InSpark, after getting clients established “with the basic settings of Teams,” Oosterveld then followed up with Teams governance workshops. “Our recommendations were always: Okay, now you’re up and running. But you definitely need to take these next steps.”

In addition to Teams, the survey results highlighted the importance of other applications to enable remote work. At 21.6%, the second top driver for modernization was “seamless/improved integration” with Power Platform apps including Power Apps, Power Automate, and Power Virtual Agents.

People are looking to automate or reinvent their processes now that they’re no longer working in person together.

Benjamin Niaulin (@bniaulin), ShareGate Head of Product and Microsoft MVP Tweet this

What this tells Niaulin is that “people are looking to automate or reinvent their processes now that they’re no longer working in person together. They’re realizing, ‘we’re not here physically, I can’t just drop by somebody’s desk or give them a paper to sign. I need to do all of that automatically and digitally.’”

He added: “We should expect Power Automate to continue rising this year.”

The challenges ahead

In a separate February 2021 study, ShareGate surveyed the wider Microsoft community about Microsoft Teams usage and challenges. As we’ve already noted, preparedness was an issue for IT professionals, with 42.8% of respondents saying they did not have a clear deployment plan in place prior to implementing Teams.

Illustrated graph showing that 42.8% of survey respondents said they did not have a clear deployment plan in place prior to implementing Teams.

When asked about the most challenging aspects of implementing Microsoft Teams, the top responses were:

  1. Preparation and deployment
  2. Adoption (e.g. helping end-users fully use Microsoft Teams capabilities)
  3. Security and governance adjustments

We also looked at six months of Microsoft Teams data from ShareGate Apricot. From September 2020 to February 2021, the average number of groups in tenants grew by 21.5%. During the same period, the proportion of inactive groups (groups with no activity over a period of 90 days) grew by 66.37%.

Illustrated graph showing change in inactive groups from September 2020 to February 2021.

This data suggests that there was an early Teams creation boom at the start of the pandemic, during which a lot of unstructured work happened. That yielded many inactive groups, once more structure was put in place, and the Teams that survived were those that continued serving an ongoing need. Obsolete groups and teams, however, continue to impact organizations by creating a negative user experience, hindering the search experience, and creating general disorganization that IT needs to clean up.

With distributed work expected to continue, IT teams now face the challenge of finding a scalable way to maintain a clean and well-managed Microsoft 365 environment. We believe that the empowerment of end-users—who understand their own groups and content the best—will be key to overcoming these challenges.

Notably in our survey, 43.1% of respondents said they had insufficient time to train employees on new tools/processes in 2020. In today’s remote-first workplace, we expect end-user training to become increasingly important. And this presents yet another extra demand on IT that must be accounted for.

Illustrated graph showing that 43.1% of survey respondents said they had insufficient time to train people on new tools/processes.

Increase in IT teams empowering end users

Microsoft’s modern workplace requires not only an architecture shift, but also a change in mindset toward user empowerment and self-service. As researchers at McKinsey stated in 2018, CIOs should “invest in delivery designs that embed mandatory self-service and co-creation approaches.”* (*McKinsey). This isn’t a new concept, but it’s become more salient for IT teams as Microsoft cited “empowered, self-service collaboration” a central principle of its “reimagined employee experience” in 2020.

Self-service is growing

The self-service model has become more relevant given the explosion in Microsoft teams creation and corresponding administrative challenges. In a modern, distributed workplace, IT teams can quickly become overwhelmed, and an IT-led provisioning model—where users depend on IT to approve the creation of each new group or team—is virtually impossible to manage at scale

According to ShareGate Apricot data, as group creation rose from September 2020 to February 2021, so did the proportion of entrusted groups—a self-serve feature of ShareGate Apricot. From September to February, the proportion of entrusted groups grew by 67.65%.

In ShareGate Apricot, entrusting a group to its owner enables them to make decisions regarding archival, deletion, and external sharing links. It helps IT administrators collaborate with group owners, allowing the owners to be accountable for what they create in Microsoft 365.

Illustrated graph showing increase in entrusted groups from September 2020 to February 2021.

This nearly 68% jump in entrusted groups over six months suggests that the need is growing exponentially for users to take responsibility over their data. In this trend, we also see confirmation that the adoption of self-serve features is popular among IT teams who recognize the benefits of a self-service model.

User empowerment is good for IT

By bringing users into the fold and empowering them to create the resources and tools they need without going through IT, users can make the best decisions for their own content. As a result, IT teams can avoid both the constant cleanup of a fully free system and the gatekeeping requirements of a fully locked down system.

In our February 2021 survey, we asked whether the current self-service functionality that IT admins have enabled in their Microsoft 365 environment ultimately saves time and costs on the part of IT. Significantly, the vast majority (84.1%) said yes.

Illustrated graph showing that 84.1% of survey respondents think the self-service functionality they currently have enabled in Microsoft 365 ultimately saves time/costs on the part of IT"

Respondents were also asked to describe the level of self-service functionality they currently have enabled in their Microsoft 365 environment. The results were telling:

Illustrated graph showing survey results about the level of self-service functionality currently enabled in their Microsoft 365 environment.

Allowing users to create the resources they need is not as scary as it sounds. On the contrary, sometimes we don’t give users enough credit. One thing COVID has demonstrated, said Oosterveld, is that users “are a lot further along than we often think. I think this situation has proven that people are more capable of adopting these new technologies than others would have thought, for sure.”

While Oosterveld admits that form-based provisioning is still an industry standard, he added: “I’m a fan of self-service.” Until Microsoft develops an out-of-the-box solution for Teams, he sees many companies employing a solution that falls somewhere in the middle: a self-service model that also utilizes smart forms and automation to minimize friction while providing flexibility to users whenever possible.

I think this situation has proven that people are more capable of adopting these new technologies than others would have thought.

Jasper Oosterveld (@jasoosterveld), Microsoft MVP and Modern Workplace Consultant Tweet this

Ultimately, IT wants employees and their colleagues to collaborate. “But they also don’t want to be in a situation where they have to approve every request for somebody to collaborate within Teams,” he said. Semi-self-service “definitely empowers the employees, and it also provides some relief for IT, because they don’t get all those requests.”

With the launch of Microsoft Viva, Microsoft’s new employee experience platform, Oosterveld expects to see an increased focus on the employee experience. “Focusing on people’s well-being and health in a distributed workplace, that’s going to be very important this year.”

Viva, as Microsoft described it in their February 2021 news release, “builds on the power of Teams and Microsoft 365 to unify the employee experience across four key areas—Engagement, Wellbeing, Learning and Knowledge—in an integrated experience that empowers people to be their best.”


Read the full report on the State of Microsoft 365

Seventy percent of the IT professionals we surveyed for our cloud computing report expect the majority of their workforce to continue working remotely through 2021. In this new world of work, leveraging Microsoft 365 to support your remote employees—and your business—is more important than ever.

Learn about more Microsoft cloud productivity trends in our full report, State of Microsoft 365: Migration, Modernization, and Security in 2021. Get data-backed insights and expert recommendations to better leverage Microsoft for your business. The report also outlines what makes for a successful, scalable, and secure distributed workplace—now and in the future.

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