Hybrid Work and The Future Workplace

The pandemic has accelerated what was already on the horizon: a hybrid workplace. For those who can work more flexibly and are lucky enough to have full-time employment, here’s a look at what changes long-term.

By Jonny Wood, Dell Technologies

It’s a truism that we tend to overestimate change in the short-term and underestimate it long-term. But Covid-19 is challenging that as a turbo-charging accelerant for what was already on the horizon: a hybrid workplace.

What we know going forward is that employees will all be more “hybrid” – changing place, changing state, changing mode more constantly. For those who can work independently of their workplace, work will not be binary – either entirely at the office or entirely remote – but hybrid across the office, the home, third spaces, and more.

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We explore some of the implications of a more hybrid world of work, focusing on knowledge workers (from accountants to marketeers to engineers) in a primarily corporate context. For those who can work more flexibly and are lucky enough to have full-time employment, what changes long-term?

How we work tomorrow will not be how we worked yesterday

To state the obvious, we are at a major inflection point and disruption moment.

A significant majority of knowledge workers, 83 percent in the US and 90 percent in Singapore for example, hope to work remotely at least some of the time; and 55 percent of US employers believe most of their workers will do so post-COVID. Many companies large and small have already baked this into policy: Twitter has allowed WFH “forever”; Siemens has made “work from wherever you want” permanent; and Dell Technologies anticipates around half its workforce working remotely permanently.

What this hybrid future looks like is still to be shaped and the opportunity exists to ensure it’s a positive one. What’s clear is that the design of solutions must be inclusive in new ways, predicated on the assumption of distribution of a team or workforce.

The new norms of hybrid work

Hybrid work is in many ways a new medium or format.

And just like the transition to any new content medium or format, legacy habits are naturally recreated at first, but over time new behaviors and ways of working emerge. When workforces moved en masse to remote work due to COVID, the old habits and defaults of the office were recreated virtually – the mass shift to Zoom video calls at the start of lockdown was office skeuomorphism (i.e. we must do meetings because we’ve always done meetings).

Over time these behaviors will evolve and a new “taxonomy” of meeting types will emerge, starting from the default expectation of remote, but recognizing which types of meetings have key value in being face-to-face – i.e. the mindset is digital-first, physical-maybe for specific circumstances. New hybrid work norms will standardize along with a more nuanced understanding of the value of video conferencing, of face-to-face meetings, of the role of the office, and of the importance of asynchronous communications.

Historically work has always been defined by location. Literally, the office is the “workplace” and the place where work happens, but that relationship is now breaking. Out go (finally) any ideas of face time at the office and replacing this (hopefully) comes a new appreciation of work and impact delivered. Not where or when, but what.

And likewise, as “work” and “place” separate, many companies are or will be questioning why they have the floor space they do. In New York, the average annual cost per employee for real estate is $17,000, and even in Japan, the spiritual home of the office-centric, some employers like Fujitsu are embracing remote work long-term and slashing real estate.

What the office is for then requires definition: if it is no longer the workplace, or at least that is not the primary function, then what is it for? It takes on a more nuanced role and becomes the place where face-to-face collaboration moments happen – from simple socializing with teammates through to key creative sessions.

A changing relationship between employers and employees

Now that the myth of significant WFH productivity decline has been debunked, the interests and incentives of employer and employee fully align to embrace a hybrid future of work.

Employers can drive more flexible arrangements to cut real estate costs and access more broadly distributed and diverse talent bases. Employees can enjoy both the autonomy to work where and how they want, and a greater choice of employers now that geography is less of a constraint. Employee experience becomes redefined – from free coffee and yoga classes at the office to being the most hybrid-centric employer to attract and retain the best talent.

The boundaries between work and life, business and play, commercial and consumer, work device and personal device will become ever more blurred. The expectation of work and the technology around you will be for flexibility, autonomy, transferability, across time (when work/life happen), location (where they happen), and device (on what they happen).

Lockdown has driven an instant expansion of the remits of corporate functions into our own homes. Your IT department now worries about which internet company you use; HR cares about how you’re sitting in your spare bedroom; and managers need to know both what and how you’re doing.

And of course, our working days show this too – with 15 percent longer days (so much for time saved commuting…), recurring meetings up 25 percent, and interruptions up 25 percent too. Microsoft noticed a new nightshift emerging where the share of IMs sent between 6 p.m. and midnight increased 52 percent. The end of the 9-to-5 can bring great benefits but balancing that flexibility with an always-on culture is clearly still a work in progress.

The ripple effects of hybrid work

In a world of hybrid work, the unit of work itself becomes potentially smaller, more distributed, more asynchronous, more automated, more fungible – the knock-on consequences of hybrid work are fascinating, for example:

  • On-demand and gig work will increase hugely as employers adopt more flexible and lower-risk ways to rebuild workforces.
  • The next generation of asynchronous communication platforms will help drive the distribution of both work and workforce.
  • The talent exchanges set up by some corporations mid-COVID literally emphasize the interchangeability of people.
  • An increased use of the collaboration metadata from our work activities will not only build the visibility of distributed teams, but also raise the question of what is the right level of data-driven HR and management?
  • Talent bases broaden when not defined by office proximity, with immediate effects – estate agents from San Francisco to London report spiking demand for rural homes; a “work-from-here-please” trend sees countries and cities compete with each to be the best for remote work.

Proactively managing the slow-burning issues

The default assumption of the distribution of a workforce and the need for inclusion creates or accentuates several critical but slow-burning issues that companies must proactively manage.

Wellbeing climbs the priority list:

  • From physical and emotional health to ergonomics and sociability, the employer’s duty of care extends far beyond the office
  • Balancing hybrid work’s flexibility and autonomy with the risks of “always-on” culture

Culture needs more conscious maintenance:

  • Managing a more-distributed culture in the longer-term requires thoughtful and active upkeep
  • Building team EQ, the emotional intelligence and understanding of each other, the soft links and weak ties between teammates, when face-to-face interactions come at a premium

Promoting collaboration and avoiding unintentional bias:

  • Replicating the unstructured impromptu collaboration of the office, each team/workforce must find what works for their culture
  • Avoiding accidental silos forming where intense collaboration may happen with a few colleagues, but others are lost from sight
  • Creating visibility for manager and teammates (and avoiding unconscious bias) and delivering inclusivity via new managerial norms

Knowledge management gets even tougher:

  • As teams fracture and disperse, how they and organizations as a whole transfer knowledge, onboard new members, and build cohesive units

And many more…

Meeting these emerging needs will keep both managers and HBR article writers busy for the next few years. And these issues will fuel intense innovation – be that the new technology forms, features and platforms that can solve for them; the emerging new category of work-like home things and home-like work things; and already the world of HR tech is evolving dramatically to meet a whole range of very new needs.

Designing better, healthier solutions for a world of hybrid work

So what sticks, after so much flux? This hybrid future is still to be shaped and formalized as new habits and behaviors evolve and crystallize. Nothing is set in stone.

Above all, it requires a new approach: an inflection point for culture, process, management, design, and strategy to embrace the inclusivity, flexibility and assumption of distribution that will become a new default for work.

We can take advantage of this inflection point to build better, more productive, healthier ways of working – to embrace the good parts and minimize the not-so-good parts – and define this future and this new medium of hybrid work as a positive one.

Interested to talk more about how we build that positive future, or partner with us to do it? Email us at: sg.innovation@dell.com