‘What do workers want in the workforce when they return to the office?’ That’s a pretty fundamental question. During last week’s Enterprise Connect 2021
, I hoped to get some answers. There was no shortage of demos and updates at the event showcasing how state-of-the-art UCaaS platforms have become. Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) is also gaining currency to make communications more seamless and help personalize our interactions.
Most vendors now have an end-to-end suite of applications that support work from anywhere (WFA) – so, the tools are there. Add to that the ever-expanding role of AI to enable intelligent collaboration at scale, and workers now lack for nothing to be productive, efficient, and engaged. But are they happy? Is this what they really want?
Questions like these aren’t the domain of the companies on tap at Enterprise Connect, but they’re well aware of these challenges, and that’s reflected in their messaging. Aside from hearing about all the latest features to enhance collaboration, we also heard about how these technologies support equity and inclusion. That’s a very different focus from the nuts and bolts of multichannel communication, screen sharing, whiteboarding, etc., but it’s entirely on-brand for 2021.
UCaaS platforms are borrowing pages from the worlds of gaming, social media, and entertainment, where many of the new features seemed more about creating an experience for workers rather than getting real work done. With virtual work becoming video-centric and these platforms becoming feature-rich, there’s more of a performative element to work now, where workers must be camera-ready and competent at presenting to audiences of one or even thousands, all from the comforts of home.
While these are a few examples of how the world of work is evolving, they are technology-driven, and it’s not clear if this is what workers want or even need. To be fair, that’s always been the case with technology, where workers (end users)–take what they can get, where IT is making the buying decision. For the most part, vendors will produce and sell what the market will buy, but during a pandemic, the center of gravity shifts. We’re in uncharted waters, and nobody truly has the answers.
The Role of Technology During COVID
Technology plays a critical role in this milieu, and the new hybrid work model is very much a product of cloud-based platforms like UCaaS. As good as these technologies have become, and as much as they can enable workers and teams more than ever, enterprises must contend with bigger forces at play. As the pendulum swings from the 2020 push to work from home (WFH) to the return to office in 2021, the state of equilibrium remains unclear between employers and employees.
Collaboration technologies can help get to that steady state of hybrid work – but they are secondary considerations to the forces currently shaping the world of work.
Vendors are providing solutions that are great for their intended purpose, but struggle to be on the same page as employers when it comes to addressing what employees want – IT leaders must view this in a broader context. Consider the two different realities seen at the moment, between them, and the challenges enterprises face to keep workers happy – not just for coming back to the office but simply keeping them in the fold.
Reality Check for Employees - The Great Resignation
The Great Resignation (a higher-than-normal quit rate) is the trend-du-jour in enterprise circles—at least for knowledge workers—and collaboration vendors have primarily focused on this audience. Frontline workers are deservedly getting more shade from the vendors—but they face a different reality from knowledge workers, at least those in service jobs like hospitality, and contact centers.
The contrast is quite stark, where service jobs are going unfilled, and knowledge workers seem to be exiting their jobs. Of course, these are broad trends, and reasons behind them merit a separate analysis, but in the U.S., the pandemic has given rise to this bizarre dynamic in the labor force.
For many knowledge workers, the comforts of working from home having given pause to going back to the office and all the stresses that have gone away the past two years. Within that cohort, many have given an even bigger pause about their jobs and all the stresses around career, work-life balance, etc. The upshot is this “great resignation,” where many are re-thinking their priorities and pivoting altogether away from their jobs.
Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the pressures to support an urban lifestyle could make this a passing phase. But this trend could also lead to a resurgence in entrepreneurship and more sustainable models of economic survival. Lots of unknowns here, but this trend is happening, and it’s likely a major concern for employers.
Collaboration technology may benefit for workers who want or need to be in their jobs, but it’s not a silver bullet for those who make other choices. There’s a darker, more existential issue around the pervasiveness of technology in our lives and how it creates more anxiety than happiness, but let’s leave that aside for now.
Reality Check for Employers - The Great Wait
As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, employers have their own pandemic-driven realities they must handle. The Great Wait (in-office return) is another broad trend of the times, and we experienced it first-hand last week at Enterprise Connect. The fact that the event was entirely virtual was due to many Tier 1 vendors deeming it unsafe for their employees to travel, which has a domino effect on everyone else.
Just as these companies aren’t traveling, they’re also keeping their workers at home. Most all of us expected or hoped the pandemic would have run its course by now, but it’s persisting for so long that it’s having a real structural impact on our economy. We know that most workers – and employers – favor a hybrid model, where there’s a happy medium of working at home and in the office. Collaboration vendors are all-in for supporting hybrid work, and from what I saw at Enterprise Connect, no other messaging from them was louder.
Fair enough, but the hybrid model doesn’t work if there’s no office in which to return. In recent months, there’s been regular reporting about Tier 1 companies extending their WFH policies or even making it permanent, including several Enterprise Connect mainstays. When the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook, aren’t bringing workers back to the office any time soon, the Great Wait isn’t good news for the hybrid work model.
Corporations, as we know, are rational entities and do everything for a reason. As the pandemic begins to take on a semi-permanent form, there are practical considerations. Office lease renewals need to be re-thought. Corporations must also consider additional costs associated with making workplaces safe, as well as liability concerns if outbreaks occur when workers return. The health and well-being of workers are paramount, and there are no guarantees of protection in the office.
Presuming you can get past all this, who’s to say that workers will be motivated, engaged, productive, happy, etc., back in the office? There are indications that WFH habits (i.e., sitting in front of a screen all day) have become so hard-wired that those behaviors persist in the office. What’s the point of coming to the office if you’re not engaging with co-workers’ face to face?
It’s easy to see why employers might feel there’s too much risk here, and maybe they’re better off just having workers stay home. That’s a pretty bleak outlook, but there’s enough reality around this to explain why the Great Wait is part of the workplace landscape now.
Takeaway for IT Leaders
To answer the question, “what do employees want,” – IT leaders face significant challenges. One of the most significant changes to emerge from this extended period of WFH is people's increased sense of agency over their work and personal lives. Those who have successfully adapted to WFH have control over where they work, how they work, when they work, and even why they work.
Hybrid work can work for employers, employees, and vendors, but only if there’s enough flexibility to satisfy this newfound agency. If the Great Resignation has legs, that would indicate their agency isn’t supported, which can be problematic for employers.
Technology isn’t the silver bullet here, but the collaboration vendors can be part of the solution. First, we must acknowledge that the two realities outlined above are bigger than technology and that the ongoing pandemic is leading to meta-level changes for both employers and employees.
Lastly, we must focus our attention on where and how collaboration technology truly provides business value. The feature set of these platforms is never-ending, but that’s not where the value lies. Better to focus on what employees want – agency – and frame the benefits of collaboration technology there. Otherwise, the Great Resignation will only continue, the hybrid model will stall, and that won’t be good for any of us.
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.