Key technology for hybrid workplaces

It is hard to believe it was only a couple of years ago that many employees would take a deep breath and cross their fingers before asking their managers if they could – heaven forbid – work from home. While there was plenty of evidence to suggest technology had evolved to the point where flexible work arrangements were within reach, old-school attitudes reigned supreme across countless industries. Many workers will no doubt remember the reasons (i.e. excuses) that were repeatedly rolled out by managers fearful of letting them log-on from home, even if only for part of the day.

M_BlogT_Technology and the hybrid workplace

“If I let you work from home, I’ll have to let everyone.” “How will I know you’re being productive?” “What if an unexpected situation arises and I need your help?” “What computer will you use?” “How will you work amid the chaos of family life?” “What about cyber security?”

As recently as early 2020, many managers could not fathom a world where their staff were not within eyesight, let alone in the same building. Of course, we all know what happened next. A global pandemic gave birth to ‘social distancing’ and working from home became a reality for tens of millions of people across the globe. COVID-19 lockdowns forced once-hesitant companies to not only accept remote work as a viable option but actively pursue it to ensure the viability of their businesses.

Amazingly for many managers, employee productivity actually increased in those early months of the remote work revolution and has stayed that way even after the initial buzz subsided. As Gartner analyst Suzanne Adnams told Computerworld: “Leaders across the board were shocked and amazed how quickly all their workers made the transition once they had the equipment – and by how productive everyone has been.”

With the global pandemic set to enter its third year, managers now are turning their attention to adopting and fine tuning a new model – the hybrid workplace. With studies showing that only 9% of the global workforce expect to ever fully return to the office, the focus is on providing the vast majority of employees the technology they need to message, meet, call, share content and collaborate from anywhere. The home office has fast become an extension of the corporate office, which is why it is no surprise 96% of companies want to improve their work environments with intelligent workplace technology.

Role of hybrid workplace technology

The hybrid workforce is here to stay and IT organizations that scrambled to support remote work and collaboration in 2020 are now building environments that will support flexible work for 2022 and the future. In an alternate universe, the evolution to geographically dispersed workplaces would have taken up to a decade to unfold – or even longer in some sectors – but the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired an unprecedented migration to cloud-powered digital tools.

The subsequent pressure on IT teams to deliver for both employers and employees is immense and goes far beyond providing additional support for remote workers. There are many benefits of a hybrid workplace including:

  • Improved employee experience and productivity
  • A greater talent pool and increased ability to retain top talent
  • Enhanced organizational flexibility and agility, and 
  • Reduced real estate expenses.

To access such benefits though, there are significant factors that firms need their IT departments to consider – and get correct - in the pursuit of a successful hybrid workplace.

  • Digital processes: no surprises here. With employees split between traditional offices and a variety of remote locations, work processes need to be digital and available 24/7. Between cloud-based platforms and suitable bandwidth, a high-quality user experience for remote workers is a must for remote workers and will see them increasingly become partners with their IT departments and not mere consumers.
  • ‘Hybrid’ focus: just as it will be increasingly rare for all staff to work in an office, 100% remote workforces will be the exception rather than the norm. Many of those who do work from home will still need or choose to spend time in their communal offices and that means IT teams must ensure appropriate attention is dedicated to providing technology infrastructure and tools across both centralized and individual spaces. That may include coordinating the concept of hot-desking, where employees reserve a workspace for a day or even hours. It is not just about facilitating the reservation process but also ensuring the right equipment is available and, in a COVID world, monitoring the cleanliness and safety of communal devices such as mice, keyboards and headsets.
  • A strong voice: some companies have historically viewed IT staff as support players but the rise of remote work and hybrid workplaces means their executives need to be sitting at the leadership table. Technology platforms, security concerns, recruitment advice and even practical insights into employee experience are crucial when staff are scattered across multiple locations and that is why organizations must bring IT into enterprise-wide meetings. The days of IT departments being viewed through a lens of ‘only relevant when needed’ are at an end as a hybrid model requires them to be respected as partners of all departments at all times.
  • User support and training: in a traditional office setting, tackling a computer issue was often as simple as asking a colleague in a neighboring cubicle for advice or asking an IT support technician to drop by one’s desk. Remote work adds a geographic hurdle to such scenarios and that is why IT teams need to rethink how they provide support to colleagues. Along with extending phone support to cover more flexible working hours, some organizations are embracing co-browsing technology (aka collaborative browsing) that allows IT technicians to not only see a user’s screen but work alongside them in their browser. Facilitating dedicated training, as opposed to directing staff to YouTube videos and vendor links, will also prove beneficial in the long run.
  • Security: in a pre-COVID world, this was one of the biggest concerns for managers weighing up work-from-home requests and it remains the case today. The ability to ensure employee accounts and company data are as secure as possible was much easier when staff were all in the same building and many organizations are now using multiple tools and platforms for identity, access and device management. The likes of password and email security, firewalls, endpoint and VPN security are imperative to protect businesses and their people from online threats and risks wherever they work.

Types of hybrid workplace technology

The best hybrid workplaces boast strong collaboration, communication and engagement between employees no matter where they are logging on from – and that is why organizations should harness the following technology categories to achieve success.

  • Collaboration: innovation flourishes when teams can connect freely and collaboration tools such as document sharing (Google Docs, Microsoft Office Online), file sharing (Dropbox) and project management (Asana, Trello) are great examples of solutions that let teams simplify and digitalize their tools and systems.
  • Communication: with studies showing 98% of organizations believe meetings will always have remote participants from now on, video communication is integral to quality staff engagement. To ensure a level playing field for in-office and work-from-home employees, it is imperative to research and embrace video conferencing tools that best mirror in-person experiences. Tools such as instant messaging also help streamline operations.
  • People analytics: while many managers have come to terms with the fact they may not be able to physically see their staff eight hours a day, they should still take advantage of emerging technology in the workplace that helps analyze and optimize their work. Dedicated software that captures productivity insights is a great tool for viewing organization-wide trends, studying historic benchmarks, identifying top performers, highlighting what distractions reduce focus and better understanding how work gets done.
  • Smart offices: the office of tomorrow needs to feature smart workplace technology, with tools that leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics best placed to tailor unique and individualized systems for staff. Space management tools and facial and voice recognition are just a couple of examples of workplace applications and software that can enhance an employee’s remote work environment.

Summary

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold physical, emotional and economic pain, it has created unexpected benefits in certain sectors. Forcing digital transformation on companies previously rooted to old ideals is one of them, with the rush to embrace remote work inspiring a renewed focus on the crucial role played by IT departments and the new workplace technology they are ready to unleash. The beauty is the revolution of 2020 was just the beginning and, with the foundation now in place, the sky's the limit for the hybrid workforce of the future.

Just as many organizations are embracing hybrid work technology, a host of innovative companies are investing heavily in the creation and delivery of knowledge management systems to better manage the knowledge within their walls and within the minds of their people. Learn more about an industry forecast to reach a global market of $1.1 trillion by 2026.