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The Hybrid Workplace: New Opportunities for Collaboration

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As IT decision-makers adopt hybrid as the most manageable model for migrating from on-premise to cloud, businesses are now taking the same approach with the workplace. For many businesses, there was an extreme pendulum shift in 2020 from office to home, and while that was a welcome change for some workers, it won’t be sustainable for everyone. As with the cloud, the hybrid model is a more balanced approach to provide workers with the best of both worlds in terms of workplace environments.
 
2021 offers great promise for getting the pandemic under control, but no one is expecting we’ll just flip the switch and go back to our pre-COVID-19 world. The workforce has become more diverse, especially with a mix of digital immigrants and digital natives, and it’s challenging to strike a balance to keep employees engaged both at the office and in their homes. Each environment presents challenges for enterprises to manage, but also opportunities for collaboration vendors. In part one of “The Hybrid Workplace: New Opportunities for Collaboration,” I examined the return to the office (RTO) side of the hybrid model. Here, I’ll explore the work from home (WFH) setting along with three key themes, challenges, and opportunities it presents.
 
WFH Theme 1 – WFH: It Works for Business
Until recently, WFH was less a question of “can we” and more a question of “should we.” WFH has long been the exception, not the rule, mainly due to trust. Of course, we’re only referencing scenarios where remote work is possible, so our focus here doesn’t reflect the entire workforce. But even as technology now provides the tools to work effectively from home, many employers feel that productivity will suffer, and workers have less commitment to their jobs.
 
A lot of that has changed with the advent of always-on digital culture. Even though the lines between home and work-life have blurred, workers have shown they can be very productive in remote settings – they’re just not doing it in the conventional nine-to-five office-based model. This concept has created growing momentum for remote work, but the pandemic added a new wrinkle altogether. Now the WFH questions shift from “can” to “must,” and from “should” to “how.” Rather than being concerned about trusting employees to work effectively from home, the trust issue shifts to technology. Can the technology keep productivity levels high the way they do in-office?
 
Businesses shifted workers to home on an unprecedented scale in 2020 and found that this experiment worked out pretty well, probably better than expected – both for office workers and contact center agents. This scenario was probably the cloud’s biggest challenge to date, and there should be little doubt going forward that cloud-based platforms can support WFH at scale. If the pandemic had come along five years ago, we wouldn’t have had the technology to support WFH, and operations would most certainly have been scaled back. Today, however, not only do a lot of people want to work from home but with the cloud and collaboration platforms, they can work this way.
 
For 2021, businesses must be careful what they wish for. We’re largely past the issue of trusting employees to work remotely, and there’s been enough validation by now for trusting the technology. With these natural setbacks out of the way, WFH preferences will only get stronger — at least for certain segments of the workforce. Some never want to go back to the office at this point, but others still will. However, the more comfortable they become with WFH, the harder it becomes to get them into the office as part of the broader hybrid workplace model. Also noted in part one, enterprises will have to up their game to make RTO a better experience and get workers out of their homes.
 
WFH Theme 2 – Adjust Productivity Expectations
Here’s where collaboration platforms earn their keep, as they can provide office workers with the same tools at home as in the office, and this is a big driver for theme one. The big difference, however, is that employees are working in their home, and not your office. This gives workers more agency in how they work, and that cuts both ways. They may have to work till late at night to get their work done – along with all the demands of home life – but it does get done. If teams are productive, it’s hard for employers to expect much more.
 
The nine-to-five model of getting work done during office hours might not be ideal for WFH, but it also doesn’t apply much to office work anymore either. To this extent, the thought persists, but businesses must move on, and assess productivity on how the work gets done – along with the outputs – instead of where or when it gets done.
 
As a sidebar in this category, the big elephant in the room is labor law which surrounds a whole other – and important – discussion around 24/7 work culture, and how far you can expect home-based workers to go without additional compensation. Collaboration technologies are a major enabler of all this, but there are messy issues around who has control over a worker’s time with WFH.
 
The reset on productivity expectations is also important because many workers can work more effectively from home, especially digital natives, as they don’t carry any baggage from the analog workplace. This doesn’t apply to all workers, but some find it is easier to manage their WFH environment than their personal lives while working in the office. We’re long past the time where these worlds could be kept separate, and enterprises must accept that some workers will be more productive being home-based.
 
As such, there will be a spectrum with WFH, and the hybrid model needs to be flexible. Just as some workers want – or need – to be completely office-based, others will be the opposite and thrive with WFH. The majority will likely want a mix, and this is where hybrid comes into play. All these scenarios will need to be supported, and it’s not realistic to impose a common set of expectations across the board.
 
For vendors, this presents opportunities, and some are already being executed in Q1 as they introduce offerings catering to WFH needs. One on-trend example being touted by many collaboration vendors is noise suppression, which is a lifesaver for workers in crowded, noisy home spaces. Another would be lighting peripherals – bars or rings – to enhance their video appearance, especially for home settings where lighting is poor. Another would be background blur and virtual settings for video calls, which can mask the messy chaos of everyday home life. No doubt we’ll be seeing more vendor offerings to make WFH easier – not only for the workplace environment but also for managing workflows – and ultimately will help these workers be more productive.
 
WFH Theme 3 – Be Mindful of Employee Wellness
If left unchecked, WFH productivity expectations can go too far, into a realm where work never ends. Work has become a 24/7 activity in today’s digital, globalized economy, but layering on the isolation of being housebound all the time creates stresses that detract from all the benefits we get from cloud-based technology. Not only does WFH make it difficult for workers to bond with colleagues and build culture, but in crowded households, there’s the negative effect of having endless interruptions and demands on your time. WFH isn’t for everyone, and the RTO counterpoint of a hybrid workplace will provide essential balance for many employees.
 
That said, for the time employees will be working remotely, employers must be mindful of how the demands of work will impact overall wellness. During pandemic times, it’s much harder to be social and to stay fit. Spending extended periods in front of a screen working creates mental health strains. When video was still a novelty in early 2020, we couldn’t get enough of it, but now video fatigue is a thing, and for some, it ruins the WFH experience.
 
The pervasiveness of video calls, web chat, and mobile messaging can be overwhelming for workers contending with home-life challenges like kids who aren’t in the classroom, partners unemployed at home, noisy neighbors, subpar broadband, and not to mention the dreariness of being shut-in during winter. This is the flip side of the ‘be careful what you wish for’ reference earlier, as WFH can become a worst-case scenario for some.
 
Conclusion
Collaboration vendors have a significant role to play in this space, especially when it comes to using artificial intelligence to provide early warning indicators for workers to stay productive as the day wears on. Applications that detect drowsiness based on eye movement or speech patterns or simple timer-based alerts to prompt workers to get up and stretch or take a screen break would be beneficial, and potentially lifesaving. Intelligent video platforms can optimize lighting and screen brightness as local conditions change – especially when seated near windows – to minimize eye strain. Wearable tech like smartwatches can also help those with medical conditions like diabetes to be mindful of their treatment regimes, especially when immersed in long collaboration sessions.
 
Collaboration platforms can also be used for virtual socializing to offset the mental stresses of being isolated. There’s no end to the possibilities to keep workers connected, such as karaoke, dancing, trivia games, storytelling, live music, group workouts, meditation, yoga, etc. The main idea here is to extend collaboration tools beyond work and apply them to activities that don’t directly drive productivity but address wellness concerns that will certainly pay dividends for WFH as part of a broader hybrid workplace strategy.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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