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Right tools for the job: tech and the hybrid workplace

[June 30, 2021] BY Worker's Resort Editorial Team

The hybrid workplace is here to stay

If we’ve realized anything about workplace innovation in the first half of 2021, it is that the newly-developed hybrid workplace is here to stay. This transition to an adaptive environment, designed to support a diffused workforce of on-site and remote workers, will continue to be sustained by the technology we have developed in response to the pandemic. 

The Professional Services Workplace Virtual Conference, held by WORKTECH on April 21, 2021, was a virtual forum of experts and innovators from various industries, with a collective focus on the future of hybrid working.

As indicated in the forum, it is a given that organizations across the board are now focusing on safety. Protecting employees from COVID will eventually become less of a priority, but the solutions generated at the beginning of the pandemic will continue to influence the way that we think about work in general. Organizations are beginning to focus beyond reentry into the physical work environment. The real shift – distinguishing successful, forward-minded organizations – will be their focus on staying on the current track towards hybridization. An important factor in this progress will be how we continue to develop and evolve the practical skills we have acquired through remote work.

Data-driven hybridization

There is a stark contrast between corporations that want to see a full return to the office and those that want to see their employees continuing to work remotely into the foreseeable future. However, the real focus going forward will be on the hybrid working model. The challenge, of course, has been that pre-pandemic there was no serious dialogue surrounding the strategic, structural, and operational concerns of the hybrid workplace. We have had to reevaluate our strategies mid-turn on most of these issues. 

The upside of this particular challenge is that it has caused us to reconsider how we collect and process data, which has always been vital to business and corporate management. However, the particularities of the pandemic have caused us to reimagine how we interpret and interact with this data.

For example, by monitoring employee output, as opposed to the number of hours worked, the focus becomes productivity. This has afforded workers flexibility in their schedule and work environment. The office will primarily become the locale for certain social activities, such as planned team meetings, networking, conferences, etc. Team introductions, learning, and training – tasks we thought up until now had to be done in-person – may become remote due to advancements in technology. 

Takeaways from the workforce

Let’s examine data on what the workforce thinks. Data from the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey determined that roughly 90 percent of employees desire flexibility in when and where they work. A little over half of survey respondents replied that they would leave their current jobs if they were not offered that flexibility. Likewise, a January 2021 survey conducted by the National Association for Business Economics found that only about one out of ten organizations expect all staff to return to pre-pandemic working arrangements. The data indicates that not only the workforce, but also management, is anticipating a departure from pre-pandemic working patterns.

This push for hybrid workplaces can be seen in the aforementioned EY 2021 survey. Roughly three-quarters of management-level survey respondents answered positively to the application of hybridization principles in the four categories: real estate footprint, learning, remote work strategy, digital tools and technology. 

In response to this shift towards hybridization, business leaders are changing many aspects of their businesses. This includes redesigning offices and shared workspaces, enhancing virtual learning, investing in training for remote facilitation, reevaluating policies around scheduling and communication, and expanding the implementation of technology (i.e. business communication platforms and cloud-based services). 

We know from the statistics that workers are confident in their ability to do their jobs in a remote environment. This does not mean, however, that most workers expect or even want to work fully remotely. Further findings from the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey show that most employees expect to work from home on average two to three days a week. Nevertheless, only a fifth of employees expect to work fully in the office. This raises the question: If only a minority of workers want to be entirely on-site, why don’t most workers want to work entirely off-site?

The argument for hybridization

We’ve learned from our experience of working remotely during the pandemic that there are certain downsides to working off-site entirely. These are primarily around social interaction. The majority of us can attest to feeling less connectivity amongst our teams, with remote working affecting our ability to brainstorm or communicate seamlessly. 

Despite this, employees agree that a mix of on-site and remote working will improve their productivity and creativity. Referring again to the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee survey, 65 percent of employees have connected hybrid working with improvement in both categories: productivity and creativity. The same percentage of employees also believe that their managers are still effective in a hybrid setting regardless of whether they are on-site or remote. 

Taking a step back from the office has allowed us to realize that it is a space for connection. We’re not meant to sit at rows of desks all day. Tasks that don’t require a team can be done remotely, and we can go to the office specifically for collaborative work. The hybrid workplace encourages us to be particular with the kind of communication we’re seeking when we’re in the office. A kind of communication that contrasts with remote communication – something more emotional and immediate. 

We understand now that there are certain tasks that can be asynchronous – i.e. individual tasks or staggered communication like email correspondence. Other tasks, however, will continue to require a level of spontaneity that can only be accomplished in person. That means a departure from the classic desk setup and a greater focus on a variety of multipurpose rooms. It’s all about effective space utilization and management. 

Redesigning the workplace will begin with the proper analysis and understanding of the different types of work, or “workplace archetypes.” A certain segment of the workforce that shares a living space with family or friends may require an office for focused work. Another segment of the workforce might require an office space to complete social-oriented tasks, while another segment of the workforce might require an office space to manage and guide teams. 

One of the primary difficulties of hybridization is managing and responding to the needs of these workplace “personas.” In addition, orchestrating increasingly complex scheduling due to individual schedules proves to be complicated. As research from George Washington University shows, if employees only work 2 days a week in the office, instantly there is only a 29 percent chance that employee A and B will both be in the office on the same day.

So, now that we’ve defined that there is a certain tension between on-site and off-site working, how do we navigate these different spaces? As findings in the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey indicate, 64 percent of workers want better technology to support their hybrid workplaces. Technology appears to be the key to effectively enabling the new working dynamic.

How is technology enabling hybrid working?

Scheduling is not as simple as saying “I want to work from home.” Many work-from-home requests, especially those that cross state or country lines, will bring up difficulties in areas such as payroll. Organizations will need the technology to support the management and review of these requests. We’ve already witnessed a massive increase in the user base of business communication platforms like Microsoft Teams, which will only become more essential as we move forward with hybridization. So will digital workspaces like Mural, as team collaboration and client communication make the move towards a virtual work environment.

Mural’s digital workspace

Likewise, we will continue to see a big push towards cloud-based services as the need for remote access to documents (financial, learning, timesheets, etc.) becomes greater. Businesses will need reliable access to not only cloud-based services, but also cloud technology combined with collaboration tools. The ability to work on the same document and communicate simultaneously is an essential step in hybridization, as split teams (on-site/remote) collaborating on proposals for clients will need to be able maintain one version of these documents. 

We will also likely see more organizations relying on cloud computing platforms like ServiceNow to help manage their digital workflows. As organizations seek to optimize IT, employee, and client workflows, we will even start to see onboarding and other processes being done virtually. Cybersecurity and data protection will also continue to become more significant in a workplace with an increasing percentage of workers off-site at least part of the time.

We will still need desk areas for solo tasks and focus work, as well as already existing typologies for social tasks, like presentations and pitches. We will see some new typologies, such as collaborative media tables or collaborative spaces, that facilitate split teams, or hybrid work areas. There will also be increased use of integrated audio-visual spaces for digital collaboration and smart screens, with conference capabilities like Microsoft Surface or Google Jamboard. However, we will not necessarily see a fountain of these new typologies, but rather a redistribution of floor space to allow for more collaborative work. The real test will be how organizations implement creative solutions that allow for the redistribution of space. 

Perhaps the most exciting development related to hybridization is the development of workplace sensors coupled with workspace booking applications. This technology allows employees to check the noise level, density, etc. of spaces in real-time before they book them for collaboration work for their teams. It allows workers to engage with their workspaces and gives them more control, while simultaneously increasing productivity. 

Similarly, we are witnessing a rise in human-centric analytic technology. Tools like Qualtrics XM and MillionYou.com ensure that humans stay at the center of workspace design. They encourage organizations to go past simple, more quantitative surveys by allowing them to engage in qualitative conversations with diverse groups of workers. This includes quick polls, virtual focus groups for ideation, and workspace concept validation sessions. This technology helps gather the insights needed to make the best decisions possible for productive hybrid working.

Available, affordable, adopted, and adapted

The technology to enable a productive hybrid workplace is not only available, but is becoming affordable and is already being adopted and adapted by organizations. These four A’s are a signal of this exciting turning point in workplace design.

Giving people the power to dictate their schedules has had a positive impact not only on employee health, but also overall on productivity and creativity. We’re realizing more and more the importance of the psychological aspect and the way that space management is tied to this. Autonomy is actually positively correlated with the success of the collective.

Some of the design principles of Industry 4.0 are going to come into play in the hybrid workplace moving forward. Interconnection between devices and people; technologically-facilitated  connections between people; information transparency; information availability; decentralization – these will all continue to be key concepts in workplace design, even in the post-pandemic office environment. Organizations’ decisions to start shifting their investments from concrete to tech will push us towards the goals set by these design principles. 

This does not mean having completely digital organizations. It means taking the knowledge that we work well from home along with the practical solutions we have developed, and applying this to the previous model.