It seems strange to think it is barely three years since almost everything changed. That is to say, the point at which the response to Covid-19 changed the way all companies with knowledge workers went about their business.
And, as articulated regularly over those three years, the changes brought about by the almost overnight pivot to remote working not only affect how and where we work, but also the way in which work itself is managed. More specifically, the establishment of hybrid working as the de-facto norm.
The shift has not only seen a drastic increase in the amount and use of collaboration and conferencing solutions, it has also driven an evolution in the roles and responsibilities of employees and managers in how they engage and run the new distributed enterprises.
Studies suggest that the unpredictability of hybrid working is making it harder for companies to maintain the traditional managerial focus on resource allocation and to ensure people do the work required to meet strategic goals. In addition, there is a commensurate rise in the need for employees to be empowered to take responsibility for outcomes themselves, which means having a clear idea of what they need to achieve and how best to achieve it.
But this is only possible if employees are empowered not only with technology that enables them to do their jobs, but also with technology that enables them to feel part and parcel of this new way of working.
For technology firm Cisco, hybrid working has evolved a lot from the early days of 2020 when it seemed that all companies needed to do was to ensure employees could collaborate through video conferencing sessions. Hybrid work, the company suggests, is both different and harder than before. Moreover, it is now a challenge on several counts, not least as regards innovation.
“During Covid, we were able to execute and companies were able to execute incredibly well. But there were a couple of casualties. One of the casualties during Covid was around innovation. How do you get innovation if you schedule that you’re going to be innovative on Fridays between 10 and 11? That’s not trying,” argues Snorre Kjesbu, senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco Webex Devices.
“If we look back at the times before Covid, people used to come into the office, and they did that most days. During Covid, everybody was at home, and it almost democratised meetings in the sense that we all had our little square. And we were able to execute much better than we expected,” says Kjesbu.
“Now, we are sort of back to a hybrid world where some of us work in the office some days, other people work remotely all the time, but there is a mix, and that is a challenge. How do you avoid building barriers between people working remotely and people in the office? How can you make sure people are included, regardless of where they are? And not least, how can you use technology to overcome those barriers?”
Home as an extension of the office
Cisco believes there are certain pillars of the new work environment. First of all, prior to Covid, the office was a place where people came to work. In the post-Covid environment, the office is now seen as a place where people come to meet and collaborate.
Working at home was an exception; now it’s an extension of the corporate office. Digital collaboration was a luxury resource; it is now a requirement. This means company culture is now simply a question of how firms keep their best people. How do firms make sure longer-working employees don’t burn out? How do firms make sure they don’t force people back to the office, but ensure they want to come in?
This means having to ask how often it is necessary to enter the office and ensure that people can work in teams, collaborate and share new ideas effectively, wherever they are. A vital element in ensuring that that the innovation and collaboration can take place effectively is for the realisation that home is now a true extension of the office, and that home working is not an exception but a choice.
And if it’s an extension of the corporate office, how can businesses make sure remote workers have the same security, safety, management and general capability as those in the office? This becomes a case of building culture within collaboration, using the technology to evolve to offer more than point gains and make sure there are no barriers between those working remotely and those in the office.
A key point in case comes in digital collaboration and the ability to whiteboard an idea effectively even when people are remote. Not long ago, that was a luxury resource; now, it’s a requirement. And the technical extent has changed. Cisco data reveals that 98% of meetings going forward will have at least one remote participant – this will completely change the dynamic, not only of every meeting, but also of how to create a productive office space. Are networks ready for so many remote users turning on their cameras and running meetings in HD resolution video?
Accommodating remote workers
This means that to be truly hybrid there are now a number of key requirements for businesses to consider to accommodate remote participants, not least of which is how to ensure all people are on the same level when they enter a meeting so that those who are remote are not at a disadvantage and that they feel an intrinsic part of proceedings.
Snorre Kjesbu, Cisco Webex Devices
Kjesbu points to Cisco technology designed to overcome issues and pick up individuals to make sure everyone gets the same presence. “We use machine learning algorithms to detect faces to make sure we can make you the same presence. [All participants] will be at eye level so they all carry the same weight and the same presence in the meeting,” he explains.
“You need to reimagine hybrid working in the way it works; you must be able to collaborate in any location. How do you make the meeting inclusive? This is part tech, part culture – how you work with your facilities. Hybrid work has to be open and interoperable. You also must be able to join any meeting through any platform. The technology should always be the supporting actor, not the main act. That’s very, very key.
“[Another] of the things that we have spent a lot of effort on is using machine learning and artificial intelligence to learn people’s voices and filter out [extraneous] noise,” adds Kjesbu.
Rethinking office space
Cisco also envisages a widespread reimagining of office spaces with collaboration technology. In addition to finding that remote participants will be present in most meetings in future, Cisco found that just 6.2% of meeting rooms and classrooms globally are currently video-enabled.
In addition, at the end of 2021, when Cisco asked 3,800 of its largest customers how many meeting platforms they use, it found that 85% of organisations deploy two or more meeting platforms, and some of these four or five, while only 14.8% use just one.
In a case of eating its own lunch, Cisco has embarked on a programme to reconfigure its office space. In its New York office, Cisco’s estate used to comprise 75% individual spaces and 25% meeting rooms and collaboration spaces. That has been flipped. The configuration is now 75% huddle spaces, meeting rooms and creative spaces, and 25% individual desks.
The dynamic is that even if the office footprint is shrinking, the technology has to facilitate what firms want to be able to do and make real or virtual desks personal for users, no matter where they are or for how long. The key is to make sure people can take their meetings from that desk like it was their own.
Despite its advantages, hybrid working fundamentally complicates manageability. Given that firms cannot fix what they cannot see, visibility and observability will be critical, and they are going to have to cope with increasing network demand as the new enhanced experiences result in additional infrastructure loads. Firms will also have to optimise workspaces for productivity, safety, employee density and sustainability.
All of this may seem fanciful, and small businesses in particular may baulk at the cost of engaging with these new requirements, but the direction of travel is clear. Hybrid work is here to stay – and the cutting edge of business will be found by those adopting and adapting to the cutting edge of technology.