5 Things to Consider for Hybrid Working After Covid 19

May 18, 2022 Posted By Rick Stock Read time: 8 minutes

Those that expect business as usual to resume post pandemic may find that wider market changes place them at a significant disadvantage over time. From our conversations with clients and others working in digital industries we offer some pointers for what to consider when planning for the immediate future of work.

future of work hybrid working

When Jacob Rees-Mogg left notes on desks to absent employees across UK Government it unleashed a storm of invective from commentators on all sides of the debate around working from home. Now Boris Johnson has weighed in by doubting the ability of UK workers to resist regular breaks for cheese. Stirring up a social media hornet’s nest is of course what politicians love to do in our polarised times, so it’s worth looking past the initial provocations, tied up as they are with the UK’s rumbling culture wars, and the inevitable “remote is best/worst and here’s the stats that prove it” twitter threads that have since proliferated.

Whether a role is hybrid, remote or resolutely on-site is now crystallising into a clear part of most job listings, but in terms of wider trends things look less certain with many organisations still working through where the great undocking from the office will leave them.

What we seem to be seeing is a stratification of approaches. These are often driven by individual market conditions for particular roles and industries, by organisation specific factors like their exposure to real estate, and the actual circumstances of employees themselves.

Some definite pointers for what the immediate future of work could look like are now starting to emerge: –

1. Those who were already ahead have a big advantage

As with many transitional moments the elements to make a change possible have been gathering for some time. In particular the technology enablers to allow remote working: cloud-based office productivity tools, collaborative platforms, video and audio conferencing, have been at a mature point for some years.

However, the three main blockers for mass adoption of remote and hybrid working: capacity, security and culture, had acted as a dam to change for many employees looking for a more flexible working environment. It was a dam that was rapidly breached though when the “adapt to survive” imperative caused by the first Covid lockdowns in early 2020 came into effect.

Most organisations spoken to in the recent CDPS landscape review told of a rapid acceleration of remote working capability, often delivering full cloud-based working for the whole organisation in days or weeks, a transformation which would have previously been a multi-month or even multi-year roll-out. More widely, organisations speak of how capacity blockers, whether that was hardware, software or connectivity, were rapidly overcome during a period of intensive working from IT departments.

At the moment of lock-down security concerns were in many cases temporarily swept to one side in the rush to maintain operation. Decisions to accept short-term risk, or at least compromised solutions,  were deemed acceptable when weighed against the alternative of nothing getting done for an indefinite period. Many organisations are working feverishly to address these concerns retrospectively now that the storm has to an extent passed.

Perhaps the main achievement here was how much many organisations continued to operate, after a period of stuttering adjustment. The smashing of the remaining cultural barriers to remote working were done by necessity as there was simply no alternative – you worked at home or you didn’t work.

With all of these blockers though, the big winners were those who had already made significant progress into digital transformation. Those who had a full or partial shift to productivity suites like Office 365 or Google G Suite had the majority of the building blocks in place. Those who’d already embraced the security and other challenges of “Bring Your Own Device” or had deployed hardware to allow the majority of their workforce to work from home had an even shorter journey to flexible working than others, who were left battling to source scarce laptops or expand limited VPN capacity. Those who had incorporated some form of even limited flexible working already into their employee proposition were nearly all of the way there.

Our conversations suggest that these more advanced organisations can now more easily focus on the big strategic choices ahead, rather than still worrying about the foundational aspects of remote or hybrid working.

2. Agility demands a flexible space – both physical and virtual

Agile working practices, which are a key part of digital transformation pre-lockdown, had led to an increased advocacy for flexible office space to reflect the realities of how teams in organisations were now developing. Walls to draw on, flexibly configurable break-out spaces for impromptu meetings, fixed desk areas for focussed work, hot desks to support drop-in and hybrid working were already emerging as a ready recipe for agile collaboration.

Lockdown then led to an attempt to recreate these working patterns using cloud-based software tools. Interactive white-boarding tools like Mural and Miro have seen a surge in usage and these complemented other tools that had underpinned collaboration for some time, allowing agile teams to continue to function even when fully remote. Based on experience across a range of clients over the last 24 months a default set of productivity tooling has started to emerge: –

  • Virtual white-boarding tools replaced the physical board on the wall for ad-hoc planning, note-taking and even presentational uses previously dominated by tools like Powerpoint, Google Slides or Keynote.
  • Instant messaging like Slack or MS Teams becomes the majority flow of ad-hoc communication. Email often declines, although often remains as either a parallel stream of comms, or as a mechanism for formal emphasis, summary or record.
  • Allowing full remote access to centralised cloud storage systems like Google Drive, or the plethora of Microsoft products (Sharepoint, Teams or OneDrive) is now largely ubiquitous.
  • Video calling and meetings become MS Teams, Zoom, Google Meeting or many others.
  • People finally start to use the collaborative features of existing tools like Powerpoint, Word, making greater use of asynchronous commenting, chat and task assignments.

As noted in the first bullet often the usage of these tools starts to overlap, and challenges remain. For example, effectively managing permissions and access to various Slack channels, Sharepoint drives or Miro boards is still often both a communication, efficiency and security muddle.

Still unresolved also is what happens when teams using these kind of tools are asked to return to the office, fully or partially. If the focus of the conversations has moved online, how does the resurgence of physical interaction get effectively disseminated back into the virtual world? The answer seems to be a move away from physical artefacts like walls and whiteboards, and an adoption of a “virtual first” way of working so as to not exclude those who happen to be out of the office at a particular time.

3. Data and analytics increasingly provide insight

Like face-to-face contact, long-term economic drivers have again have been fuelling the shift to flexible and hybrid working for some time. The irony of Rees-Mogg’s call to return to desks for civil servants was not lost on those who knew perfectly well that some Whitehall departments had been actively looking to move civil servants back to home-working to minimise office space and cost for many years.

Both in the public and private sector the rise of more in-depth analysis of office usage, and using workplace analytics as a measure of office efficiency has seen the understanding of how much office space is really needed by many organisations improve in recent years. The data-enablement of facilities management has led to a deeper understanding of the realities of office work, and had already led to fresh thinking about the best possible use of available space. These moved on from the rather one dimensional shifts from open plan offices and back to divided spaces that characterised the start of the century.

Combining these kinds of insights with corresponding analysis of the use of virtual tools will prove essential to understanding the success or otherwise of any potential return to the office, and allow the”try, see and learn” cycles so central to agile working to be applied to the problem.

The potential to overstep the mark here though is already well established, with intrusive monitoring and employee surveillance already raising painful questions around how much analysis is fair or ethical. If organisations fail to show any trust in their employees, this almost certainly points to deeper problems with recruitment, management and culture. Nonetheless, done with consideration and thought, understanding patterns of usage physically and virtually is key to the value realisation of any change.

4. Understanding your workforce is essential

Essential though understanding the data is, understanding the underlying reasons for patterns of behaviour can be complex.

On the one hand employees are often familiar with the benefits of flexible working and they see this as an important part of an organisation’s Employee Value Proposition. Many surveys find that employees consider flexible working a possible way to address the continued challenges of work-life balance that effect employees with families or other non-work responsibilities value this in particular.

Others though find home-working a far harder proposition. For those who share living spaces with families or house-mates, and perhaps do not have the requisite office in a spare room to tuck away to for video calls or meetings, working at home is far from Johnson’s relaxed idyll of trips to the fridge and back. This can vary a lot also for those at different stages of their career path, or  and so what works well for managers and senior staff, may work differently for more junior team members.

Different roles also clearly have different requirements and some roles have clearly different requirements to be either co-located or co-ordinated with others. Professor Lynda Gratton talks about how it can be useful to consider how different roles are constrained by either time or place when considering how hybrid working will impact. Co-location can effectively enable interpersonal exchanges to feed the pace of innovation for product development type roles for example, whereas managerial roles may place greater importance on coordination and communication with others which requires time synchronisation but is possible to achieve remotely.

What people want and need then can vary a lot – and as with all such matters the only way to understand the answer is to understand your employees. Which means employee consultation is essential, and ideally only one part of a comprehensive  approach which includes staff in the process of establishing new working models. Critically, this must be an ongoing process, for example as families grow and circumstances change, or as attitudes shift as people become more familiar with hybrid working, keeping abreast of the current situation is key to understanding how sentiment changes over time, and over the duration of a change.

5. At some point this all comes down to money

During lockdown of course many people did not work; many industries that relied on face-to-face interaction like catering, retail and the performing arts, largely ground to a halt. As Covid lockdowns eased, an intense period of change kicked in, particularly with the adoption of automation. Again this was a trend that was already in place, but the drive to fully or partially replace human employees has been only accelerated, this time often as a means of survival, or at the least profit retention. In the UK in particular this has also helped to offset labour shortages that were already present but exacerbated by the long-tail of post-peak covid absences.

Those who worked from home of course are not immune from economics either, and institutional concerns will always be as big a factor as individual human factors in an organisation’s choices around working patterns. Automation is likely to shrink the size of office work too, and the shrinkage in some roles in areas like law, sales and accountancy may provide an additional impetus to reconsider current accommodation strategies.

A lot of this will depend on individual organisational circumstances. For some companies, perhaps those at the right point in lease cycles, or at an earlier point in their growth cycle, they will retain an amount of flexibility to experiment and make changes. For others these decisions are longer-term plays linked perhaps to minimising real estate costs and leveraging existing investments in hybrid working enabling technologies.

Which direction they jump will take time to really become visible in the wider market, but could have far-reaching effects on the fabric of many communities. Already growth regions for remote working are emerging with areas with attractive house-pricing, local amenities and strong broadband connectivity emerging as “Zoom hotspots” as this recent survey from Indeed shows.

Conclusion

The follow-on effects of the Covid 19 pandemic are likely to have a fundamental effect on the world of work, but exactly how this will all play out is by no means certain, significant strategic questions remain and approaches to merging virtual and physical working practices still have challenges. However, all of the above points brought together point to a simple truth – each organisation must formulate its own strategy based on the characteristics of its institutional concerns, its operating model and the individual nature of its employees. Those organisations that failed to embrace digital transformation found themselves at a distinct disadvantage going into the pandemic, and those that expect business as usual to resume post pandemic may find that wider market changes place them at a significant disadvantage over time.

future of work hybrid working