What tools businesses can use for hybrid work and how can “presence” materialize in the hybrid office? And how can each company find the ideal hybrid work model for their business?
The term "hybrid work" covers a range of work models with very different degrees of flexibility in terms of place and time. In this section the different models are presented and discussed; on this basis, we go into more detail about the concept or idea of "presence", which is a kind of target variable of the models. As there is no hybrid work without technology, we'll have a look at tools supporting (the different types of) hybrid work and last but not least, we'll give some practical advice on how to develop an individual hybrid work model for your organization.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, many companies were caught off guard by the sudden need for remote workplaces. They had to "knit" together tools and methods to keep the business running. Some switched to almost exclusively asynchronous models while others perfected their dealing with video conferencing systems and worked off daily agendas stuffed with online meetings. After 18 months of Warp-speed learning on remote work and the pandemic gradually moving to a more manageable state, the future scenario starts shaping. Hybrid workplaces, where some employees work remotely, others are in the office all week, and still others shuttle back and forth depending on the day of the week. Even though vast numbers of companies are "switching to hybrid" the work models (to be) implemented under this term vary significantly. We can distinguish at least 5 different concepts of hybrid work.
The challenges of hybrid work are complex and range from leadership topics to legal issues (company agreements, data protection, etc.) to core HR topics such as employer branding and recruiting. Each of the hybrid work models above requires specific approaches in the mentioned management areas and with respect to technological support. The bad news is: there's no one-size-fits-all off-the-shelf solution an organization can implement. The good news is, that the idea of hybrid work can be adapted to almost any business context. A crucial aspect of hybrid work models concerns the way employees communicate and exchange in professional collaboration situations as well as informally. An important part of the debate circles around the role of physical presence: Do we need physical presence for certain collaboration situations, or can the concept of presence be "detached" from its physical side? Or, in other words, is physical presence needed to run a successful business and if so, how much physical presence do we really need?
The following quote from an online study carried out by howspace outlines an interesting problem: "The nature of my work does not allow automatic collaboration - I would need to book a lot of extra meetings in order to stay in touch with colleagues or know what is happening in the organization. Previously this happened automatically at the office during lunch, when getting coffee etc." Very understandable, hence the question has to be asked: is it really necessary to be together in an office to stay in touch with colleagues and know what's happening?
The growing number of virtual offices offering "permanent presence" allow for interactions very similar to the ones in the office or - at least - creating the same results (emotions) than being in the same office. These systems create the feeling of being in an office with colleagues, where getting a hold of someone is as easy as in a normal office - and works just the same way: bumping into someone at the water-cooler, knocking the door or asking someone to quickly come to your office once she or he "finds a minute". These virtual offices are capable of doing so because they create an intuitive awareness of a colleague's context: being able to see if someone is in a 1:1 with someone or at the water-cooler or put himself on "busy" allows to assess approachability just as in the "real" office. The long-term objective of this group of products is to provide an environment, in which employees collaborate so intuitively and seamlessly that they wouldn't be able to recall whether at a specific meeting, someone has taken part in person, from home or remotely from a tropical island.
With increasingly improved permanent presence virtual offices the question about the necessity, size and distribution of physical office gets pressing. Today, one can read rather "defensive" positions highlighting benefits such as "taking breaks" and "walking around." Physical offices won't disappear. But if they're not needed any longer to create a feeling of presence, every company will need to justify to their shareholders the purpose of the office space they invest in. Deloitte U.S. CEO Joe Ucuzoglu pointed out nicely the true "nature" of the discussion going on: This is a fundamental reshaping of the way that society goes about work and integrating that into life.
Technology is more important than ever in a hybrid work environment. Most companies are currently retrofitting a set of onboard tools to build "their" own hybrid work model. Especially during the pandemic, teams were given a lot of freedom to try out and test tools with the result of an uncontrolled proliferation of tools. "We're using Tool A for asynchronous collaboration, tool B for chats, tool C for synchronous meetings and tool D for content collaboration, whereas tasks are managed with yet another tool." 43% of people report spending too much time switching between different applications, and losing up to an hour a day in the process. Context switching drains cognitive function. Human brains are not wired for a working day of glancing among your inbox, documents, slide decks and everything else that has become core to the world of work.
Collaboration tools: If we're looking at collaboration applications for specific purposes such as text, presentations, design and more, a new “multiplayer”-style generation of tools starts attacking the top dogs like Office or Adobe. The multiplayer tools allow for superior live collaboration compared to the systems we have been working with for ages. Working with Figma for instance allows all collaborators to see the changes that are applied in real-time, Miro and Mural do the same for whiteboards. These new generation of tools is ideally positioned to support hybrid work.
Hybrid or Online Office systems: Presence-based virtual offices focus on the communication and interaction portion of hybrid work, irrespective of what content of the collaboration. As described above, these systems create a collaboration environment in which it doesn't matter where a collaborator is physically located. These systems allow for practically all hybrid work models described above. Even in an "office first" or "office" setting, such system can be useful- either in case of international or global organizations with matrix structure and project work or in case of physical distances between office buildings, which keep employees from "real office interactions". The differences between the available products are rather in visual approaches (floor plans versus rooms as organizing principle), then in how well they tackle specific "hybrid challenges" such as hybrid meetings or the size of the organization that can be meaningfully integrated into the systems. (An overview on available products and their functionality can be found here: Download link to comparison table). Of course, most hybrid office systems support screen-sharing, so "traditional" collaboration tools can be used in this mode. However, the new generation of multiplayer tools integrates way better into the hybrid office approach. A potentially interesting next step in hybrid offices will be VR-based systems, offering an enhanced perception of presence in a room. Despite considerable progress, VR-based systems are still in their early stages. For VR-based systems to be used broadly and to get competitive with today's presence-based systems their technical setup needs to be simplified and sufficiently fast internet needs to be available more widely than is the case today.
Conference room systems: A lot of effort is currently invested in making conference rooms "hybrid ready" in order to ensure better hybrid meetings. The challenge is to create equality between in-room and remote participants. Basically, all big technology providers have developed their offers and certified them to be "Zoom- or MS Teams-ready". One way of creating this equity is having every participant in a meeting room appear in individual boxes on screens similar to their remote teammates. The question is whether this demanding (and often expensive) solutions really are the best means to achieve this. Having every meeting participant bring his own device and simply manage the acoustic feedback problem (which many hybrid office systems already do today) tends to work fine and is way more flexible with respect to application scenarios. The question is whether equality in on-screen appearance is the only "issue" that needs to be solved in order to ensure good hybrid meetings. There are also more subtle mechanisms to improve hybrid meetings: Nudges about individual speaking time for instance can remind participants to make every participant's voice heard during the meeting.
Much depends on the individual circumstances and organizational culture. A combination of meetings room technology, behavioral rules and nudges will most likely work better than relying exclusively on high-tech meeting rooms.
There is of course no blueprint for an ideal off-the-shelf hybrid working model. Each company has to make it's own decision in regard to its individual situation (e.g. remote-readiness of tasks / roles, digital transformation aspiration level) and the expected environment (e.g., risk of external shocks, competition on recruiting market). It will be important to understand the tradeoffs between different degrees and types of flexibility of the given hybrid work model and the objectives to be achieved in the transformation process:
A structured approach to developing an individual hybrid work model could look like this:
Soliciting employees early in the process is key to success. Defining objectives and discussing tradeoffs together with employees will create a more informed decision and a workforce that better understands why a specific hybrid work model has been selected. Finally, employees should be part of Implementation planning which includes:
Whether it's a big bang introduction or an agile "fail fast" model is again depending on the individual company culture.
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