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Hybrid working is often referred to as part of a new world of working. But it may well be the case that one of the biggest challenges firms will face is that this new world of working actually isn’t that new. Indeed, one of the problems is that most companies still employ the meeting culture of the 1950s.
A basic core task will be to at least minimise what Alexia Cambon, a research director at Gartner, describes as an “epidemic of fatigue”. This assumes that the “bulk of work has to be done in meetings rather than working together but apart, using a drive or email or collaborating separately”. Some of this is a symptom of remote working, but some has also been inadvertently exacerbated by organisations’ strategies, says Cambon says (see box below).
In a hybrid world, Cambon believes there will be four key modes of operating: colocated, distributed, synchronous (people working together at the same time) and asynchronous.
“We believe it’s necessary to employ all four modes equally and to invest in technology accordingly,” she says. “You shouldn’t over-invest in just one or two areas because it won’t be sustainable, but currently much of the investment is in colocated and synchronous ways of working.”
Matthieu Beucher, founder and chief executive of collaboration tools supplier Klaxoon, agrees, noting that using a mix of approaches is vital. “Team productivity and creativity can’t happen through a tunnel of all-day, back-to-back meetings, and each team member must have the ability to work individually on assignments without losing the view of what the rest of the team is up to,” he says.
The limitations of communication and collaboration tools
But according to Craig Roth, a research vice-president at Gartner, it is not just working approaches that are causing problems, but also the limitations of existing communication and collaboration tools. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is that there are simply “so darn many of them”, handling every task imaginable from web conferencing and brainstorming to employee recognition.
“I’m sure each tool in isolation is great and meets a need, but when you put them together, you wind up with the problem of ‘yet another thing to check’,” says Roth. “It’s created fatigue around them, and it doesn’t necessarily help if they come from a single supplier, such as Microsoft or Google, because they are still not integrated, with apps underpinning business processes like CRM [customer relationship management], which means it’s awkward to switch between them.”
But this scenario is not just stressful and time-consuming for the individual. From a business point of view, it also means that important information may end up being buried or simply lost in the noise, which can impair decision-making or dull response times – and this situation is only likely to get worse as hybrid working takes hold.
“Life will become more fractured if people aren’t always working in the same place and at the same time as their colleagues, which makes it harder to notice things if they’re not obvious,” says Roth. “So, hybrid working will only highlight an existing problem.”
Part of this problem has been created by suppliers, which instead of focusing on enhancing the user experience have chosen to overload users with features as they try to outcompete their rivals. But part of it also relates to how IT departments configure the software, which includes alerts and notifications.
This all-too-frequent poor user experience is also not helped by the fact that current devices are designed for productivity rather than collaboration, which makes them challenging to use in today’s context, says Dave Johnson, principal analyst for employee experience at Forrester.
Back to the future?
What may help in future, though, is the advent of new approaches, such as embedding lenses or multiple cameras in screens, making it easier to work with other people remotely. Meetings software is also likely to emerge that can automatically optimise itself for different kinds of session, ranging from one-to-ones and brainstorming events to team get-togethers.
“Many companies are asking about the best technology to track productivity, but that is the wrong question,” says Johnson. “The right question is how to create an environment that is engaging for people, encourages them to contribute in meaningful ways and enables managers to recognise those contributions.”
Roth agrees, but says he is starting to see more supplier attention assigned to the issue of employee experience, an area he believes could have an increasingly important role to play in a hybrid-working world.
“The most visible action is what Microsoft has done with Viva [its new employee experience platform],” he says. “It’s not necessarily the best or only thing out there, but when Microsoft makes a noise, it wakes people up to the fact that employee experience matters, even if there’s not that much there yet.”
Remote working strategies can make fatigue worse
Too many employers are unintentionally having an adverse effect on employee wellbeing because of how they use technology, warns Gartner’s Alexia Cambon. For instance, while many have invested in a raft of tools to boost remote workers’ productivity, they often generate a lot of “digital distractions”, such as instant messages and notifications. These distractions pop up on screen and disrupt people’s focus, thereby often hitting the very productivity that employers are so keen to increase.
A related challenge is virtual overload, the idea being that participating in endless video calls is draining cognitively. But again, organisations often inadvertently make the situation worse by encouraging managers to check in with team members on-screen to compensate for lack of face time, when an audio call might suffice.
A third key driver of fatigue is that many employees are struggling to disconnect because of a lack of clear boundaries between the working day and home life. To make matters worse, many employers are investing in technology to monitor and track employees’ productivity and wellbeing, which “incentivises people to stay always on in an environment they are struggling to disconnect from”, says Cambon.
Given the software supplier’s strong position on the desktop, however, there is a widespread belief that it is trying to position its software suite to become the collaboration platform of choice. Nick Hedderman, modern work and security business group lead at Microsoft UK, says Viva’s aim is to “help employees learn with new experiences, which integrate with the productivity and collaboration capabilities of Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams in order to unify the experience across engagement, wellbeing, learning and knowledge – areas that are continually evolving”.
Forrester’s Johnson suggests that the software is likely to become the de facto platform for collaboration, with room for others to innovate on top of what it offers. “Microsoft has lots of the pieces of this and other companies have pieces too, but there’s not a complete system yet, although Microsoft is probably closest,” he says. “There will be a consolidation of vendors to create a richer and more engaging platform to work with, but right now, things are only about 30% of the way there.”
Robert Rutherford, chief executive of IT services provider Quostar, is even more certain that Microsoft will prevail. “It’ll be Microsoft taking over the desktop again, like it was in the 1990s,” he says. “We’re starting to move back to the centralised computing model of the 1980s and 1990s.”
But Roth is not so sure. “As dominant as Microsoft is, it’s not going to own the desktop,” he says. “People will still buy alternative products to fulfil their needs, too.”
Revolutionising communication and collaboration
What Roth believes will really revolutionise the situation over the next few years is workplace analysis tools employed in combination with cloud applications. This software, which is two to five years away from mainstream adoption, will enable employers to understand everything from how employees work to who they work with and when, how they choose to communicate and what topics they are interested in.
The aim in gathering such information is to optimise the work experience in order to boost productivity and employee engagement, but Roth acknowledges that privacy concerns are currently putting the brake on uptake. The next, possibly overlapping, step will be the adoption of machine learning and artificial intelligence software to help categorise content, making it easier to proactively find what staff are interested in and alerting them to issues they may previously not have been aware of by identifying patterns and trends in big data.
Within the next 10 years, Roth also expects to see the arrival of natural language processing-based bots to act as employees’ personal assistants. Acting as “your interface to everything”, they will be able to proactively search for information, start applications and remind employees of forthcoming meetings.
However, Mick Burns, head of talent and organisation, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Infosys Consulting, believes there are some things that technology, no matter how clever, will ever be able to replace. “We are human and so we need human interaction,” he says. “Communication and collaboration tools are good at the basics, but if you want to get creative, you need to work with people face-to-face and see their non-verbal reactions.”
Quostar’s Rutherford agrees, adding: “It’s easier to hold a culture together if people are face-to-face because otherwise there’s not the same feeling of engagement or togetherness – and I don’t think technology will ever be able to do that because really it’s about relationships.”
Read more about the new normal of work
- Despite the bleak times caused by Covid-19, study finds productivity shrinks but office and remote workers optimistic about new normal, with a silver lining in the form of accelerating digital transformation and technology investment for remote workers.
- Study finds vast majority of workers feel employers are not fully prepared to support the longer-term move to a hybrid workforce, prompting a need for organisations to plan their ‘future workplace’ better.
- Hybrid working a reality but business leaders not yet giving up on the office, with research finding C-suite executives and business leaders will primarily split their workforces between on-site and remote work, and markedly small numbers looking to adopt exclusive on-site or remote working.