As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and we look ahead to the fall, many business leaders are anticipating getting back to “business as usual.” And by that, they envision employees coming into the office every day, working in their cubicles, attending meetings in on-site conference rooms, and having their daily comings-and-goings tightly supervised.
Reality check: that’s not going to happen.
Employees have gotten used to working from home, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. The new reality for 2021 and beyond is hybrid work, which means supporting a workforce that includes both in-house and remote workers. Today’s workers are demanding hybrid work choices, and if they don’t get them, they’ll go work for a company that provides them.
Creating a hybrid work environment isn’t simply a matter of giving employees permission to work from home a few days a week. That’s just slapping a new policy or two onto an old system that was designed for in-house employees, with remote workers as an afterthought. Shifting to hybrid work is an opportunity for a strategic business realignment that will keep companies relevant and competitive as the relationship between employers and employees continues to be redefined.
In this article, you’ll discover seven trends in hybrid work. You’ve probably experienced at least some of these in your company already; keep an eye out for the others in the near future.
#1 Equal Participation Regardless of Location
Have you ever been the only remote participant in a meeting where everyone else was around the same physical conference table? It’s awkward. You can’t always see the visual aids being shown, and you definitely can’t pick up the subtle social cues like people’s facial expressions. The people at the table have an advantage.
With more and more workers attending meetings remotely these days—and better video conferencing technologies available in the last few years—companies are now looking for ways to level the playing field between in-house and remote meeting attendees.
Microsoft has created an innovative system called Microsoft Teams Rooms that provides a new operating model for online meetings by remodeling physical meeting rooms with remote users in mind. In a Microsoft Teams Room, large monitors enable in-person attendees to see the faces of all remote attendees clearly throughout the meeting, and multiple high-quality cameras and microphone systems capture everything that is happening in the room. A digital whiteboard system enables all attendees to participate in live collaboration. It’s a really fascinating concept; read more about it and see some photos of Microsoft Teams Rooms here.
TIP: If you’re not ready to redecorate your conference room(s), another option is to have all in-person meeting participants bring their laptops and have everyone join the online meeting with video on so remote participants feel more included.
#2 Flexible Work Policies
Who can work remotely, and who can’t? How many days in the office per week should be expected of people with split schedules? What are the accountability requirements for remote workers? Every decision-maker in the organization must be on board with the same general policies and principles. For example, top executives and HR might jointly decide that most mid-level managers should be in the office every day so that they will be available to the workers they supervise who are in the office on a certain day, but that non-managerial worker may work from home up to 50% of the time.
At the same time, flexibility is essential. Companies with successful hybrid work programs give as many people as possible a choice in how, when, and where they work. Strict across-the-board rules like “all employees must be in the office at least 3 days a week” may create unnecessary friction and employee turnover.
To retain the best and brightest employees in today’s world, companies are becoming more competitive not only in salary and benefits but also in schedule flexibility. Companies are discovering that the employer/employee relationship is about more than just getting today’s work done. It’s about maintaining a long-term relationship of mutual respect where obstacles are removed that prevent each employee from achieving their full potential.
#3 Avoiding Digital Exhaustion
Have you ever had a day where you attended multiple video meetings in a row, with not much break between them? It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Experts call this digital exhaustion. Simply put, people wear out faster in video meetings than in on-site ones because they feel like they have to be “on” the whole time. They see themselves on video and are constantly trying to adjust their demeanor to make a good impression. There’s no zoning out and hoping nobody is looking at you.
To combat digital exhaustion, many companies are recommending (or even insisting) that employees make time for breaks. One way to do that is to not schedule back-to-back online meetings, or schedule meetings to be shorter than the usual one-hour block (for example, having 45-minute meetings instead of 60-minute) so people can take breaks to refresh themselves. To help with this, Microsoft recently added a feature in Outlook that can automatically add a break of set number of minutes before or after each meeting.
#4 Making Remote Sales Calls
You’ve seen them at the airport—or maybe you’ve been one of them. Those road-warrior salespeople who constantly travel, making sales calls all over the world. Hardly anyone likes it—the salespeople, the customers they visit, or the person in charge of the company budget who pays all those travel expenses.
During the pandemic, many companies shifted to remote video sales calls and were pleasantly surprised at how well they worked. Salespeople could stay home with their families. Customers could cut down on the amount of time they devoted to listening to sales pitches. And the budget office was thrilled with the cost savings. This trend has turned out to be a win-win for all involved, and the outside sales world has probably changed for good. Microsoft reports that Microsoft Store associates using Teams as a virtual showroom to demo products are generating a roughly 10% increase in customer satisfaction and higher sales conversion, for example.
While not all sales calls will be made remotely in the future, you’ll likely see fewer weary business travelers in airports and at rental car desks going forward.
#5 Cloud-Based Access is the Norm
In the not-so-recent past, most corporate IT was centered around an on-site data center that controlled and managed all in-house employee IT activity. Remote workers had to connect via a VPN in order to get through the security perimeter—but that was fine because there weren’t all that many remote workers.
Obviously, that model is outdated now, because there are so many more remote workers. VPN connections can be temperamental, and if half your workforce needs off-site access, it’s just not workable to ask them all to use VPN. So instead, many companies are moving the majority of their IT systems to the cloud, where everyone has the same access, no matter where they are.
#6 Zero-Trust Security from Cloud to Edge
This trend is a follow-up to the last one. In traditional IT, complex firewall systems protected the in-house data center from outside intruders; it was pretty difficult to hack into a system from the outside. On the other hand, someone already on the inside—someone at a trusted computer inside the building, for example—had a much higher level of baseline trust and could get unauthorized access to resources much more easily. Trust was based on location.
As the distinction between in-house and remote access to company resources dissolves, so does the need to differentiate between the level of security needed for on-site vs. off-site access. In today’s IT systems, everyone has the same level of trust: none.
None? Yes, none. Each asset and account starts with a baseline of zero trust, and has to prove itself with each access. No account, no device, no connection gets any kind of security pass by default. This zero-trust mindset eliminates the need for IT staff to manage different levels of security and keeps systems overall more secure.
#7 Increased Digital Collaboration
In a traditional work model, even though most people were located in the same building, they spent a lot of time in their own offices or cubicles, head down, doing solo work. Ironically enough, when people work remotely, they actually end up communicating more freely and collaboratively with others. That’s mainly because of the team-based collaboration software that companies are deploying, like Microsoft Teams. Platforms like Microsoft Teams offer a variety of ways to communicate, including group and individual text chats, video calls, file sharing, and shared scheduling. And to boost this communication, Microsoft components like Fluid are adding even more capabilities to Teams and Outlook, such as a whiteboard for creating live, collaborative experiences and enhanced chat tools.
Hybrid work is here to stay, and companies are having to make deep structural changes in the way they operate to stay competitive in attracting and keeping the best talent in a hybrid environment. This article has explored some of the major trends we’ve been observing in the last few years. There are many more that we didn’t have space to cover here, too.