Hybrid working – too late to stop it now
- After a brief verbal scuffle, the home-working naysayers, including the UK prime minister, have been rebuffed
- Now, after a slow start, vendors and software engineers are seriously thinking about how they should support hybrid working
- So what are the technology demands and how should the drawbacks of hybrid working be overcome?
The working-from-home (WFH) ‘movement’ – at least in the UK – is still gathering pace, despite the efforts of politicians and others to put it into remission (see our previous WFH coverage). In a sure sign that many in the industry now believe the desire for hybrid working (a mix of home and office work) is not going away, and that employees may quit if it’s not introduced, vendors and service providers are beginning to invest in support for hybrid working with their products and services. In many cases, though, that’s just a matter of pointing to the library of corporate applications or gadgets they already have and suggesting how these might be tied together to support a hybrid-work strategy.
Flexibility is key
Amanda Mountain, global vice president for SAP Digital Commerce, writing for Toolbox, presses home a point, voiced by many, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for hybrid work and there isn’t even broad agreement on what hybrid work is and what it might demand from both employees and employers. We’re all making it up as we go along.
“The mass exodus from the physical office to a virtual one made digital transformation concrete and essential, requiring that companies and their employees get on board with technology – and fast,” she writes.
And there’s no hybrid-work killer application waiting in the wings to solve the hybrid-work design problem. As a result, she writes: “To resolve the biggest challenges that they face today, companies need technology that is easy to deploy, easy to use, and effective.”
What about the company culture?
The inability to interact face-to-face (in real time) with colleagues is almost universally cited by both managers and employees as one reason to be wary of working from home. Resistance to home working often hinges on a perceived collaboration deficit problem. While the existing network technology appears to have overcome the tyranny of distance, applications to take the next step to assist with social relationships (social capital) that many company leaders believe is crucial, have yet to arrive. Influential tech companie, such as Apple and Alphabet/Google, credit their carefully curated working environments and the collaboration they believe it fosters as part of their secret sauce as statements by Apple chief Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai CEO make clear. (See Covid released the hybrid-working genie – now it won’t get back in the bottle.)
So important is maintaining this collaborative spirit that both companies, while more or less open to the idea of some working from home, are looking to regulate the how, when and where of hybrid working to ensure that employees are working together often enough to maintain that collaborative spirit.
The trouble is that rigid office-work time tends to counter the concept of increased working-hour flexibility. For many employees, it's the ability to schedule office time (within reason) to achieve a better work-home balance that’s the whole point of hybrid working, so specifying precise days and times when employees should be in the office appears to take things back to square one. On the other hand, completely flexible office attendance means that people are seldom in the office at the same time, so face-to-face team meetings are difficult to arrange and ad hoc team meetings are almost impossible.
No doubt this issue will be resolved by devolving the ability for local managers and teams to set their own rules while paying heed to fostering the company culture.
Conferencing services don’t go far enough
Most of the industry now understands that simply pumping out multi-participant conferencing services (brilliant though this effort was in 2020) will not by itself compensate for a lack of face-to-face contact amongst work colleagues – in fact, reports of Zoom fatigue rather point to the opposite conclusion.
So hybrid-working advocates hope that enhancements to collaboration and meeting software – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, Google Meet, BlueJeans and others – along with greater and broader familiarity with the applications, will at least alleviate the face-to-face problem for many screen workers.
To add some more collaborative depth to Teams, Microsoft announced Live Share during its recent Build conference for developers. This enhancement allows Teams users to go beyond the usual sharing of ‘static’ non-interactive screens to something that will allow participants in an online meeting to actually interact and change the data presented there for all to see: Think collaborative document sharing (where multiple meeting participants can add or remove words or sentences in real time) but applied to a heavy-duty design graphics package, for example. Microsoft claims coding this trick is really difficult, which explains why it’s not already out there.
Some of the recent software enhancements might be categorised as “things we were going to do anyway,” and didn’t need a deadly virus and a work-from-home mandate to be deemed a good idea. For instance, Microsoft has issued an Edge update to make personal profile switching easier. The idea is that users will likely have both personal and work browser profiles when attaching to the Microsoft Edge, and the system will automatically switch user profiles when the user switches to a work link (if using a personal profile) and back again.
Security is another oft-cited issue with home working. Multiple sources report big spikes in ransomware attacks during the pandemic, with some industry sectors – US government and US healthcare, for instance – experiencing dramatic increases. Another survey by Unisys appears to show that remote workers felt less responsible than they might for corporate security. For instance, it found that only 21% are primed to spot and report sophisticated online threats in real time, and about 39% of the respondents admitted to not being wary of clicking suspicious links in their emails.
This sort of finding may be something to do with employees being at home and feeling somewhat detached from their organisations while enjoying the less formal environment of their own homes. Whatever the case, there is widespread concern that security breaches have increased throughout the pandemic: An AT&T survey found that cybersecurity specialists at 70% of large businesses (companies with 5,000 or more employees) believed that hybrid remote work made them more susceptible to cyberattacks.
However, the same survey also found that around a third of the respondents believed their company had not implemented additional login protocols to protect against cyber-based threats and half claimed they had not needed additional cybersecurity training since moving to remote work.
So how much more home and hybrid working is now taking place? And where are the costs or savings falling?
It’s hard to say as the available statistics don’t point to any particular trends and it’s probably worth noting that the statistics vary widely from country to country. Common sense tells us that some occupations are far more amenable to home working than others. The only thing we know is that most companies that practise home working think it has been successful across a range of measures throughout the pandemic period and that the adoption of hybrid working is continuing. Perhaps the only major area of concern is security.
US research and consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that a US employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year when taking into account increased productivity, lower office rental costs, reduced absenteeism and staff turnover, along with better disaster preparedness.
How many are actually doing it?
According to statistics gathered by Global Workplace Analytics, 4.1% of the US workforce (5.7 million employees) worked from home at least half of the week or more pre-pandemic, but at the peak of the pandemic, 69% of US employees worked remotely.
At the start of the pandemic and as more US workers started to telecommute, the research firm stated: “Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles. Those who were working remotely before the pandemic, will increase their frequency after they are allowed to return to their offices. For those who were new to remote work until the pandemic, we believe there will be a significant upswing in their adoption. Our best estimate is that we will see 25% to 30% of the workforce working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.”
It turned out that Global Workplace Analytics was right on the money. It now says 30% of the US workforce is considered hybrid, a number expected to rise between 35% and 40% by 2025.
The World Economic Forum has produced similar numbers for Europe, where it calculates that less than 5% worked remotely before the pandemic, and 12.3% after. Finland tops the chart with more than 25% of employees now working remotely.
The UK’s official Office for National Statistics (ONS) has figures showing that, even as Covid restrictions were reduced, the proportion of people hybrid working increased and that 84% told the ONS they wanted to continue hybrid working beyond the pandemic.
It’s certain that hybrid working is here to stay and may become deeply entrenched in some countries and industries. If that’s the case, it makes sense to instantiate what we’re now calling remote-working software and systems as standard across an enterprise, no matter where an employee is working, even if permanently in the office. If companies really rate the claimed flexibility and dynamism of remote- and hybrid-working environments (complete with hot desking to save on office space), why not make it standard?
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