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Google prepares for hybrid return to office work

As the economy reopens, people are set to return to office work. But some are likely to want the flexibility to work from home

Google is betting on a hybrid work pattern when offices reopen, adding a number of features to its Workspace product to link front line and remote staff with office workers.

Workplace, which replaces G Suite and Google Hangouts, comprises Google’s office productivity suite, along with cloud-based storage, video conferencing, collaboration tools, and endpoint security and management controls. 

In a blog post outlining the new functionality, Javier Soltero, vice-president and general manager of Google Workspace, wrote: “Since we launched Google Workspace last October, we’ve heard from many of our customers – from global enterprises to small businesses – about the new ways they’re connecting, creating and collaborating, often across living rooms, time zones and continents. This response propels us on our mission to build for the future with a solution that’s flexible, helpful and inspires innovation.” 

The tech industry is gearing up to a return to work that will likely be very different to work prior to the pandemic. A recent Gartner survey reported that 90% of respondents plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time even after the Covid-19 vaccine is widely adopted. This is reflected in Deloitte’s Tech trends 2021 report, which suggests the work environment will be mixed, where people may work from home some of the time.

Retailer Toolstation switched over to Google in February 2020, just before the first coronavirus lockdown. When the UK-wide lockdown was announced, it closed for just one day to reconfigure operations from being 80% in-store sales to 100% online click and collect.

“We have quite a small management team, and were able to turn the business model to 100% ecommerce in a day,” said Stuart McGrogan, lead architect at Toolstation. “This was made possible using Google Hangouts to communicate with people.”

In McGrogan’s experience, the switch to Google was relatively easy, as the head office in Bridgwater, Somerset had deployed MacBooks, which meant there were no “WinTel hangovers”, such as the complexity of having to migrate from Microsoft Active Directory. The company previously had 120 Office 365 licenses, but this has now been trimmed down to 20, which are used only in finance. Everyone else uses the Google products for office productivity.

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McGrogan said that using Google for collaboration has also allowed Toolstation to change how it recruits staff. “We are no longer limited to recruiting from a 15-mile radius from the office, which opens up the talent pool.”

The company aims to expand the roll-out of Google Workspace to cover 5,000 staff.

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is another Google customer using remote working functionality. “Airbus has spent the past year thinking about what it actually means to return to work, and we’re looking to support greater flexibility with Google Workspace in a leading role.

In 2020, we held 5.6 million Google Meet sessions and now have more than 70,000 shared Drives where people collaborate. Google Workspace has changed the way people work at Airbus and that will continue as the solution empowers the hybrid work reality,” said Andrew Plunkett, Airbus vice-president for digital workplace.

Discussing how this hybrid work pattern is being used at Google, Soltero said: “We’re especially interested in what we call collaboration equity, or the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language and device preference. We’ve been experimenting with ways to bridge the gap between the in-person and the ‘somewhere else’ by pushing our technology and the physical spaces of our campuses to be more inclusive. We’re looking for ways to maximise participation everywhere we can – from personal desk space to conference rooms to group collaboration areas.”

Among the new features is Google Workspace Frontline, which will open up communication and collaboration channels between frontline workers and corporate teams in a way that is safe and secure. It includes Google’s communication and collaboration apps Gmail, Chat, Docs and Drive, as well as business-grade support and endpoint security management.

Google has also made its voice assistant technology available in Workspace. Soltero said: “You can ask Google what’s next on your work calendar to quickly join meetings or send a message. Google Assistant is currently available for Google Workspace on supported mobile devices and is in beta for smart speakers and smart displays, such as Nest Hub Max.”

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