As the UK has begun to tentatively open up and businesses reopen their offices to welcome back at least some staff in person we are starting to be able to picture a return to normality.
But what does that normality look like? Will we ever really return to the way we worked before, and do we really want to?
It is universally agreed that the way we work has changed, but we don’t yet fully understand how this is going to impact the way we work in the future. Near-universal adoption of remote working – even for previously office-based business models – has driven work-from-home competencies and technologies into even the most archaic of organisations. Indeed, research from staffing group Adecco suggests that more than three-quarters of all UK employees believe a mix of office-based and remote working is the best way forward post lockdown.
With digital transformations fast-tracked across thousands of organisations we are now ready to return to the office and are looking for a balance that marries our new-found capabilities – and all the benefits they bring – with a traditional on-site presence.
The Work Trend Index published by Microsoft, and based on extensive surveys across 2020, identified a number of key findings about how people were finding remote working, but also provided some clues for how we might adapt our working practices in the future.
Remote working means flexibility
Remote working in the future almost inevitably goes hand in hand with flexible working. This could be a flexible working model where employees can work remotely part of the week and be located in the office for the remainder, one where a team remains in site while others work remotely, or even a model where individuals are able to shape their own working week without the constriction of ‘office hours’. With the tools and experience we have now, all of these are possible.
Many high-profile organisations have already taken a strong stance on flexible working practices with Twitter declaring that their workers could continue to work remotely “forever” and Spotify aiming to attract talent from across the globe with New York and San Francisco-level salaries being offered for remote workers.
Moving to remote work can actually mean that businesses are able to be more inclusive. Over half (52%) of the people surveyed by Microsoft felt that they were valued more – or made to feel included – because everyone is now in the same virtual room. In-meeting chat is also a unique medium in virtual meetings – and unfeasible in in-person meetings – giving people the ability to share their perspectives. Specifically, chat messages within Teams meetings increased more than tenfold between March and June 2020.
There is still a place for physical offices
With low-cost, low-risk remote workforces a possibility for many businesses, some have wondered whether physical offices are needed at all in the future. The Microsoft research indicates that, rather than a pure approach, it is likely that the way most of us work will be a hybrid, flexible mix of in-person and remote collaboration. 82% of managers expect to have more flexible work from home policies post-pandemic, and 71% of both employees and managers reported a desire to continue working from home at least part-time. However, the need for physical connection is likely to drive more people back into a shared space with almost 60% of people surveyed saying they felt less connected to their colleagues since working remotely more often.
Those physical spaces will need to be reimagined, says Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, with an increased focus on allowing people to “get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events”. Yes, hot desking is likely to be more prevalent as more employees embrace flexible, remote working and choose to dip in and out of the office, but maintaining dedicated collaboration spaces for teams who need to work together – as well as ways to bring in-person and remote teams together – is vital. Dropbox has announced it will effectively eliminate office space for focused individual work and transform spaces for meetings and collaboration.
Technology is going to play an even greater part in supporting hybrid working practices with hardware installations inevitably required in offices to support office-based and remote workers’ collaboration as part of the core operating model. This could take the form of anything from more comfortable headsets to state-of-the-art digital collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams Rooms which give you high-quality audio and video so that everyone can be seen and heard. Specifically designed to connect workforces across a hybrid workplace, the Teams Rooms application gives you live captions, whiteboarding and intelligent capture capabilities – and much more – whether you are working in office or at home.
With distractions, connection issues and lack of appropriate working conditions bound to continue for remote workers, it’s highly likely that a fit-for-purpose space for workers to focus, come together and collaborate around shared activities and social bonding will continue to be a core part of the modern workplace.
9 to 5 may be a thing of the past
With a vast array of data available through My Analytics and Workplace Analytics it is easy for companies running M365 platforms to see shifts in workers usage over the last year. Microsoft reports seeing a marked change in Teams usage with the average time using the application increasing by over one hour. The survey shows that people were working more frequently in the morning and evening hours and picking up tasks and activities over the weekends. Teams Chat was seen to increase by up to 23% in the early morning and early evening, with weekend chat having increased by over 200%.
Microsoft have introduced a focus status to their suite of tools that – using My Analytics – lets individuals automate the setting of do not disturb time to work with their own routine. This is particularly valuable for those working remotely but – in a new hybrid model – should also be reflected for those working in office.
We can’t lose sight of wellbeing at work
Setting time aside out of the working day is also a valuable tool for individuals and managers to manage wellbeing at work, with Teams mobile giving users the option to define quiet hours and quiet days. This ability to set undisturbed time aside in the day can give individuals time to de-stress or step away from work. In an ‘always on’ culture – a clear risk of a hybrid working model – this invaluable tool can allow users to protect ‘life’ time in their work/life balance.
Employee wellbeing is vital to long-term productivity and a hybrid model of working introduces a new challenge for managers with mixed teams who need to have a consistent way to check in with staff and remain emotionally supportive day-to-day. Reflect messaging extension was introduced to M365 late in 2020 to give leaders an easy way to touch base with employees using suggested questions and giving the team member a poll-like experience. Results can flag to a manager whether an employee is dipping – in the same way as a glance across the desk can indicate whether a colleague is happy or sad – and give opportunity to dive into supportive measures.
With the new hybrid set to land in so many businesses in the near future, it is clear that technology companies like Microsoft are all set to tackle – and continue to innovate for – the challenges that this new normal brings. With applications to bring on-site and virtual teams together, mechanisms to smooth the working day, and support tools to promote and encourage wellbeing in the workplace we have access to all the technical support we could need.
The question is, are our organisation models and physical spaces ready to restructure around the way people want to work now and ongoing, to make the most of these tools and capitalise on the increased engagement and productivity that such a hybrid model can deliver?