Hybrid Work

If the Future of Work is hybrid we will need to find a solution to the hybrid work paradox. We will need to find a way to allow everyone the flexibility to work from home when they want yet still be able to benefit from working collaboratively with their colleagues in the ways that we only know to make possible in office. This will call for rethinking meetings so that it works just as well with a mixture of in-person and dial in participants. We will need to re-think network security to account for people calling in from everywhere and not just from behind the office firewall.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Over the past few weeks, businesses around the world have begun to tentatively think about allowing employees to go back to office. But even as they take these initial first steps, it is becoming clear is that the post-covid workspace will look nothing like the offices we were accustomed to.

According to one organization that surveyed its employees, no more than a quarter of its global workforce intended to resume full-time work. As many as 30% indicated that they were planning to work remotely on a permanent basis, while the rest planned to come in to work for no more than a couple of days in a week.

The Future of Work is clearly going to be hybrid.

Work-From-Home Exception

Before COVID, I was firmly of the belief that, as important as it is to give employees the flexibility to work from home when needed, this had to be an exception and not the rule. To my mind, the office had to be the primary environment within which all work-related events took place. It was where clients expected to find you when they needed you in a hurry, and where your colleagues could rely on you to be, if ever they needed to ask you something.

But I have to admit that the past year has proven my misgivings about working from home to be largely unfounded. Thanks to technology, we’ve adapted well to our new reality—to the point where many of us have actually thrived. After an initial adjustment period, we’ve all grown accustomed to a world in which collaboration is largely asynchronous. I daresay some of us may even have come to the reluctant realisation that interacting with teammates on chat or over a video call is more efficient that doing so in person as part of meetings that never end. And clients, have done their part by being understanding of our circumstances, moderating their expectations enough to forgive our appearance or the odd household disturbance during a conference call.

When I discussed, with my team, whether we should consider making these remote work changes permanent, their enthusiasm was somewhat muted. While they were, unreservedly glad for the flexibility this new way of working gave them, there was genuine concern about the opportunities they would miss if we were all not working in the same physical space. While most formal interactions could be replicated digitally—daily team meetings, online training sessions and even formal debriefs at the end of a transaction, there was so much that could not. They feared that they would miss out on this tacit learning — from the experience of watching colleagues deal with challenging situations and difficult clients, or even just observing how they manage the stresses of the day.

The Hybrid Work Paradox

Microsoft’s chief Satya Nadella calls this the ‘hybrid work paradox’. In a blog post about the future of work, he pointed out that while everyone likes to have the flexibility of being able to work from home, no one wants to miss out on the benefits of working collaboratively in an office with their colleagues. Our focus so far has been on using technology to make it easier to work from home. If we want to make [[hybrid work]] a reality, we must address the other part as well.

One way to think about this is to try and implement a sensible division of work so that the more mundane items of work are done at home when we have to be alone, while the creative ideation is scheduled for a time when we can all be in office.

The only problem with this is that you can’t really schedule a good idea—the best ones materialise at random moments. One of the benefits of working in an office space is that when such an idea strikes you, it is possible to spontaneously jump into a room and brainstorm.

Rethink Meetings

If hybrid work is ever going to become a reality, we will need to fundamentally rethink meetings. We need to redesign our [[work spaces]] so that they function on the assumption that every meeting will comprise some people in the same physical space and others dialling in from a remote location.

We need to make sure our platforms are capable of ensuring that everyone in the meeting—those present in the room as well as those attending it remotely—can interact with everyone else. We need to ensure that if anyone is drawing on a whiteboard, everyone else (including those calling in) can see what they are doing and even add their own two bits to the drawing.

If we do not, we will end up making those who are participating remotely feel like they are second-class attendees who will be denied the benefits afforded to those who have managed to physically make it to office. To ensure wider participation, we will not only have to change the technologies we use, we’ll need a whole new etiquette for meetings.

Internet First Security

We also need to reassess how we think about our digital security. Today, organizations focus narrowly on securing digital assets within their office environment. They implement robust firewalls and complex authentication systems to make it hard for bad actors to crack open a chink in our defences through which they can access our data. Many organizations go so far as to require employees working remotely to log in through virtual applications like Citrix if they want access to files on their own desktop machines at work.

When a good portion of our workforce plans to work from home, such measures create unnecessary friction. Nadella suggests that, we need to adopt an [[internet-first approach]]:

We are moving all employees off corporate networks and taking an internet-first approach. An internet-first approach reduces exposure and gives employees a consistent experience whether they are at home or in the office.

Rather than building better locks for our front doors, we should ensure that the tunnels that we use to do our work are safe. This calls for greater attention to endpoint security and a focus on the tools employees use to work remotely. In practical terms this means requiring employees to use managed mobile devices for client work and ensuring that the corporate IT department is capable of responding to incidents anywhere instead of just within the office.

Hybrid work might be an idea whose time has come. But there is still a lot that needs to be done to get it ready for prime time.