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Supporting a hybrid workforce

The now permanent shift to cloud services and the necessity of dealing with a hybrid workforce have changed modern IT

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Shaping the modern workplace

Almost four years since the biggest disruption to business life since the Second World War, the concept of hybrid working is now firmly established for knowledge workers in companies of all sizes.

Yet while it is clear that firms are showing a strong inclination to back a digital-ready workplace and hybrid work environment, what is not so apparent is what form this working arena will take, what fundamental technologies will emerge, and which of those currently used may fade away.

Modern workplace

To look at the prospects for the new hybrid working space, there is perhaps no better place to start than Zoom Video Communications. Since becoming the breakout collaboration technology platform during the pandemic, the firm has evolved, just as firms in general have, reflecting the new demands and dynamics in the true modern workplace.

In summer 2023, the company caused a stir when it announced that despite working to build a reputation as a virtual technology lynchpin, it was pivoting to a strategy where staff need to spend more time in an office to be productive.

Included in this mandate to mark a new era of modern work is the London Engagement Hub, an office designed to support the changing nature of the employee experience and spearhead what Zoom says is a noticeable shift from traditional office spaces to experiential working hubs.

Indeed, the move to the 15,000ft2 hub was intended to provide optimal working spaces for colleagues who live close to the office to collaborate in person on designated team days. In practice, the hub offers a collaborative space where Zoom’s more than 200 UK employees can share ideas and strategies, while fostering a sense of community across the company’s global network.

“The world of modern work has changed,” said Phil Perry, head of UK and Ireland at Zoom, at the time of the opening of the London hub.

“Both employers and employees have experienced the benefits of a more flexible approach to work and want to use technologies like Zoom to maintain them. This means more and more communication will take place across more channels, and collaboration across oceans. The organisations that best adapt to these changes and optimise the benefits of technology and flexible working, while maximising the time teams spend face-to-face, will be those that succeed commercially in the race for the best talent. And it’s no different here at Zoom.”

But this shift is not without its challenges – and Zoom would be quick to acknowledge this. Indeed, in November 2023, the company’s chief product officer, Smita Hashim, stressed that a fundamental aspect of its approach going forward would be to address the issue that a lot of hybrid workers don’t feel the technologies they rely on really work for them. That is, while it is possible to get everyone, everywhere to be in the room, for those participating virtually, how much does it feel that they are actually there?

In this regard, Zoom’s rival Cisco, owner of the Webex suite of collaboration and conferencing solutions, believes technology needs to improve to make hybrid work better as the current experience for many workers is still less than ideal.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in August 2023, Jeetu Patel, executive vice-president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, said that with most meetings having at least one remote participant, spaces will need to be configured not only for people in a physical meeting room, but also for those joining via technology.

“Today, if you have four people in a conference room and three people who are not in the room, the experience for the three people is not that great because what happens is someone invariably gets up and starts drawing on a whiteboard,” said Patel.

Digital experiences

Research bears this out. A study from NTT, the results of which are presented in its 2023 global employee experience trends report, found that while 90% of businesses see the enablement of hybrid and remote work as having a positive impact on their bottom line, less than half believe their employees have access to the technology they need to work well both at home and in the office. It also revealed that 56% of hybrid workers spend half the working week at the office.

Yet with hybrid work models still favourable, and recognised by the majority of business leaders as fundamental to a positive employee experience (EX), businesses need to ensure they are providing employees with the technologies they need to work effectively, regardless of location.

Research reveals that while 90% of businesses see the enablement of hybrid and remote work as having a positive impact on their bottom line, less than half believe their employees have access to the technology they need to work well both at home and in the office

Showing how the EX narrative has evolved over the past few years, the IT infrastructure and services company adds it is a business-wide priority to proactively ensure employees are empowered and have the right technologies in place to feel connected and drive efficiency. It additionally notes how current hybrid workplace trends are influencing strategies and the correlation between EX and business performance. High among these is the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI).

In its How productivity platforms can power business impact research report, leading IT provider Slack discovered that while the vast majority of IT leaders say they are investing to improve their business’s digital experience, UK employees perceive management failures in improving hybrid work, from inefficiencies caused by too many meetings to a lack of meaningful connection between colleagues.

Slack found less than nine hours a week is spent on deep work by the average employee – the equivalent of just one working day out of five. Instead, time is being spent trying to navigate silos and sitting in unnecessary meetings.

Moreover, while the majority (87%) of leaders say they are investing in improving the hybrid experience for their organisation, only half of workers (50%) believe it goes far enough. A third of workers are concerned that their firm’s current approach to hybrid work has created greater silos and fragmentation of knowledge.

Three in five workers flag too many or unnecessary meetings as a significant time drain. In the UK, employees typically spend on average a whole working day each week (7 hours and 42 minutes) on meetings – either on video calls, face-to-face or coordinating them.

The survey showed this situation has become worse for many since firms started to head back to the office, with 36% of employees reporting they spend more time on video calls now than 12 months ago. Slack suggests this may explain why just over a third of workers believe cutting down on meetings would boost productivity by giving them more time to focus on completing the work they were hired to do.

Many businesses say they are still struggling to create meaningful connections among employees. Almost a quarter reported fewer ad hoc conversations taking place, underlining the challenge businesses face in creating spontaneous opportunities for insights and knowledge to be shared across teams and the upskilling of more junior colleagues that used to take place as desk-side conversations before the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Slack’s study highlighted IT decision-makers identifying technology as playing an important part in helping foster connectivity and overcoming these productivity killers. More than a quarter (27%) say moving away from “the blunt instrument” of 30-minute video meetings and replacing them with shorter audio-only meetings would make them more productive.

Using AI

Cisco’s Patel says the company has been working on productivity enhancements by solving the workplace equity issue – that is making sure hybrid work arrangements will give everyone in a meeting, whether they are participating virtually or in person, a seat at the table – for the past 18 months. This is being done through the company’s AI capabilities that work behind the scenes to remove background noise and zoom in on everyone in the room, in addition to digital whiteboards that meeting participants can use to jot down or edit content during a meeting.

“We want to make sure our AI capabilities can take the experience to the next level,” he remarks. “We started with predictive AI. And now, with generative AI, it gets even better. If you missed a meeting, we could tell you what you missed based on the permissions you had on the meetings you could have attended but chose not to.”

Zoom has invested significantly in new AI technologies to address the needs of the new hybrid workplace

Zoom has invested significantly in new AI technologies to address the needs of the new hybrid workplace. Yet for Helen Hawthorn, the company’s EMEA head of solution engineering, when talking about the workplace in the future, you need to look at how people want to work and then fit the technology around that. This includes AI, which she notes has always been built into Zoom solutions, be that through blocking out background sounds or getting a video camera to behave in a certain way.

“As we’ve evolved as a company, and as the technologies evolve, we then started going deeper and deeper into everything,” she says. “We will always [support] hybrid. [And then it] was really onto equity or meeting accuracy. I think different people survive in different environments and it brings out different things in them.”

As the use of generative AI increases significantly, Hawthorn pinpoints a key technological challenge ahead for developers and users alike: managing large volumes of data. This could be critical for businesses of all sizes, as even though innovation will come from exploring new possibilities and capabilities and removing repetition from unwieldy processes, things may come down to the cost of managing the data explosion.

Hawthorn says this means you’re not just pushing out feature enhancements for the sake of it. Looking at something beyond the tools that are used currently in meetings, she points to immersive technologies. In particular, she mentions the ability to participate in rich, immersive experiences without the need for headsets.

While the exact shape of the new world of hybrid work is yet to be defined, it seems certain that in the short term at least, the key will be AI-based technologies that enrich meetings wherever they take place. After people have spent years working from home, it will be highly important to give them a reason to come back to the office to collaborate effectively. In addition to more AI, this return could well mean rethinking audio-visual solutions in general, opening up the possibility of opportunities for systems integrators to take collaborative spaces to another level.

Slack’s research concludes by stating that it is clear that many firms are still navigating the transition to hybrid, but that there are significant opportunities to improve alignment, efficiency and productivity across their teams no matter where or when they work. There’s an opportunity for the technology industry to transform the hybrid working experience. And those using such solutions expect as much.

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