What does 2022 have in store for hybrid working?

The Omicron coronavirus variant has brought a return of working restrictions. Can we be optimistic about the resilience of organisations as they try to get the best out of their workforce?

Looking into the future isn’t easy. While booster jabs bring hope that the new Covid wave can be managed, business and public sector leaders will understandably be looking ahead with some uncertainty. What is certain is that ways of working will evolve, bringing both opportunities and challenges. And these will be the most important developments in 2022.

Yet we’ve been here before. We’ve adapted, survived and stabilised in the face of unprecedented pressure and achieved three years of digital progress within just 18 months, according to Virgin Media O2’s study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Reimagining space, prioritising investment

As restrictions are eventually lifted, most organisations will shift back towards a form of hybrid working, involving employees operating from homes, offices and even public places – and this shift will drive physical and technological change.

Many organisations will rethink their office presence. Some will downsize to reflect the fact that fewer employees are in the workspace at one time. We may see physical spaces reimagined as “working hubs”, where workers are free to drop in to get together to discuss ideas. Traditional workstations could be replaced by enclosed booths for video conferences and hybrid spaces designed for breakouts and informal catchups.

At a technological level, leaders will recognise that they face increased security threats. Almost 50% of IT leaders say their organisation’s cyber security isn’t good enough for remote working, according to a recent study in Business Leader. This is a worrying statistic given that the National Cyber Security Centre has reported an increase in all kinds of cyber attack since the pandemic began.

So, there will be growing interest in applications and services providing end-to-end encryption and multi-factor user authentication. SD-WAN, a cloud-ready connectivity solution, will grow in importance because of its ability to provide this type of security without jeopardising organisational scalability or flexibility.  

SD-WAN will also become popular because of its inherent compatibility with the cloud. Some 50% of IT leaders say their organisations prefer investing in off-premise technologies, according to the 2022 TechTarget/Computer Weekly IT priorities survey. This will only increase as more business and public sector leaders recognise its importance to flexible and secure employee collaboration.

But 2022 won’t just bring physical and technological evolution. It will also involve cultural change, which will require leaders to take new steps to ensure unity.

Managing different personas

Over the last two years, people have developed different working preferences, and 2022 will see a solidifying of these various workplace personas. According to our study, early in the first lockdown, about 10% of employees were “office cravers”, wanting to work in the office permanently, and 16% were “home dwellers”, who wanted to work from home for ever to fit their professional life around hobbies, mental health or family and friends. But most workers – 74% – fell into the “mixer” category, preferring a balance of office-based and home working.

In 2022, we’ll see businesses step up their efforts to bring these different personas together. This will be crucial to avoid another wave of “the great resignation” that is already hindering businesses in their efforts to recover and rebound. Indeed, our study also found that many workers are already not happy with how their workplace plans to return to “normal” life.

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Nearly a quarter (22%) of people have already applied for a new job in the last three months. And the top reason for people leaving, behind pay and promotion (33%), was that their employer can’t or won’t adapt to their changing and future lifestyle needs (26%).

Businesses and public sector organisations will need to take active steps to prevent division in the workplace. It will be vital for decision-makers to train managers to counteract any office-based bias and make sure the voices of those continuing to work remotely are heard. They will also need to review inclusion policies in 2022, ensuring that diversity of working arrangements is respected and even promoted throughout their organisation.

Rethinking inclusivity

In 2022, we also expect to see leaders recognise the positive benefits that flexible working can bring for groups historically disadvantaged by the nine-to-five, full-time office-based model.

Our study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that hybrid working has the potential to bring 3.8 million parents, carers and disabled people into the workforce who were previously locked out by traditional ways of working.

Organisations will need to ensure that once they are brought into the workforce, these people have the necessary support to flourish. If it is not implemented correctly, remote working could actually create problems for carers and parents by blurring the lines between professional and personal lives and interfering with caring schedules – which, in turn, can create stress and anxiety and jeopardise performance.

Businesses and public sector organisations must establish clear boundaries to prevent that. This could include training managers to avoid overstepping the mark when it comes to chasing on outstanding tasks or setting clear company policies on communication outside of working hours.

Then there are younger workers to consider. Some 22% are worried about their career progression due to not being in the office, while 23% say they need personal interactions with colleagues to perform well at work. In 2022, organisations need to think about empowering these younger workers – perhaps through face-to-face engagement, as well as support, training, coaching and even socialising.

The future is hybrid

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about hybrid working in 2022. It has the potential to drive greater productivity, strengthen corporate culture and bring talented people into employment, ensuring that organisations benefit from their creativity and willingness to succeed.

Employers should resist the temptation to turn back the clock. Instead, there is now an opportunity to take bold and decisive action to reimagine space, bolster cyber security and the cloud, cater for different personas and enhance diversity and inclusion policies. That way, they can ensure that 2022 is the year when every employee fulfils his or her potential.

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