Beta, Delta, Gamma, Lambda...it's clear that by the time we work our way through the SARS-Cov2 variant alphabet, companies will have long since given up on setting firm dates for office attendance.
As I wrote in my last column, an increasing number of CEOs are resigned to the fact that remote work will stretch well into next year. For example, a survey by Littler, a labor and employment law firm, found that 40% of respondents have delayed plans to return employees to on-site work. Some, like Gusto, an HR and benefits provider, have adapted employee work profiles to reflect the reality of prolonged seclusion and a desire by most employees to foreswear the Monday-through-Friday commute for a more limited in-person schedule. As the Wall Street Journal reported (emphasis added):
The company earlier this year allowed most employees to select what it calls a work 'persona.' Those who want flexibility could commit to using an office two to three days a week, with the freedom to work from home the rest of the time. Others could ask to stay fully remote. Roughly 64% of the company’s more than 1,400 employees chose flexible schedules, while 35% decided to go remote.
According to a Google CIO pandemic impact study, 83% of executives plan to support hybrid (70%) or all remote(13%) work, while 74% of companies intend to permanently shift some employees to remote work status. Seeing these trends and more — one can only imagine the treasure trove of data at the disposal of Google's analytical staff — prompted Google to adapt its Workplace application strategy for a future of hybrid work where work is not a place, but a condition.
Tuning Workspace for hybrid environments
As Gusto's positioning illustrates, traditional 'office' workers, i.e. those primarily engaged in digitized creative, developmental, administrative, supervisory or bureaucratic processes that don't require one's physical presence to successfully perform, will mix in-person and online-remote environments. The ratio between the two 'personas' will be determined by a combination of personal preference, group dynamics and organizational culture.
Although our collective experience with video conference-heavy online work has mostly been successful, if not a bit wearisome, as we transition to hybrid modalities, there is a significant concern that the asymmetry in engagement between physical and virtual presence will disadvantage those who primarily work outside the office.
Google has been studying the hybrid workplace to identify improvements to its Workspace productivity suite that can support a hybrid work culture. This week, it introduced several new features designed to improve interactions between on-site and remote employees, including:
- Workspace Spaces, formerly known as Room in Google Chat, are now available for all users. As a reminder, the recent update and rename to Spaces added:
- In-line topic threading
- Presence indicators
- Assigned tasks
- Expressive reactions, custom statuses using emojis, and GIFs
- Improved content search across Spaces
- Message pinning
- User roles and moderation tools
- Discoverable spaces
- Better integration with Calendar, Drive and Tasks
- Spaces will shortly get a facelift with streamlined navigation, inline topic threading and better search and Spaces discovery functionality.
- The ability to set work location and a weekly location routine in Calendar.
- Google Meet calling minimizes the friction of initiating a video or audio call from another Workspace application. The Gmail mobile app is first to receive the integration that facilitates ad hoc calls, chats and Spaces conversations.
- Companion Mode in Meet facilitates collaboration when some participants are remote and some are in a meeting room using their personal device. It provides both remote and group participants with features including polls, screen sharing, sidebar chat, hand raises, Q&A and live captions.
Google and third-party partners also introduced several new hardware products optimized for Meet, including:
- Series One Desk 27, a 27-inch, 2560x1440p touchscreen with front-facing HD camera, front and rear four-microphone arrays, stereo soundbar and docking ports that support using a laptop as a secondary screen. It will be available in Q4 2021 for $1999.
- Series One Board 65, 4k wall- or stand-mounted display with a 12 megapixel 4K camera, 12-mic array, speakers and stylus support for video conferencing and whiteboard. It will be available in Q1 2022 for $6999.
- Meet Rayz Rally Pro speaker dock for phones that automatically launches Meet when docked.
- Meet support in the Logitech Rally Bar and Rally Bar Mini integrated conferencing devices that add an HD camera with intelligent auto-framing, beamforming mic array and soundbar to any display.
Google and Cisco have also agreed to embed interoperability features in their respective conferencing hardware to simplify the process of joining meetings hosted on one platform from the other's hardware. So, it doesn't matter if you're going from a Meet device to a Webex meeting or vice versa, the experience will be roughly the same. This includes the ability to join scheduled and ad hoc meetings, mute audio and video, control volume and share content. Cisco is also planning to add the ability to control the video layout, list participants, display closed captioning text and use a secondary screen to future versions of its Webex software. Unfortunately, the integration doesn't extend to the management interface (Google Admin console and Webex Control Hub) so organizations with a mix of both conferencing systems, so organizations with mixed hardware environments will still need to use two administrative interfaces to manage device policies and track usage.
Building a hybrid workplace
Google has also published a guide to improving collaboration and engagement among employees in a mixed environment where some work remotely and some can converse in person. In surveying its Workspace customers, Google found that their chief worries about hybrid work are:
- Keeping people productive and engaged, regardless of the locale they happen to be working in on a given day.
- Preventing the meeting fatigue that became common in the aftermath of lockdowns when many people ended up spending the majority of their day locked in video conferences.
- Making the hybrid work experience equitable for all employees and not disadvantaging remote employees who won't have access to serendipitous 'water cooler' conversations.
- Ensuring the in-office experience promotes collaboration with both in-person and remote co-workers.
Google's objective is to determine how technology can best support hybrid collaboration and help employees better manage their time and attention. Naturally, the guide focuses on how best to use Google's Workspace, but after filtering out the promotional hype, there are some generalizable observations worth noting. The overriding theme is that hybrid work requires that productivity software include embedded collaboration features (like Workspace!) and be integrated with real-time audio-video-chat communication tools to allow seamless transitions between asynchronous (e.g. comments to shared documents or Spaces threads) and synchronous (e.g. videoconferences, instant messaging) communication modalities.
Google also categorized the five most common meeting types in a hybrid organization and the required mix of tools for each.
- Relationship-building meetings are small group meetings or dialogs that are coordinated via calendar invitations, occur over video conference and often use a shared document to record details.
- Working sessions are interactive meetings among small groups that use the same tools as one-on-ones, but often add slides and spreadsheets.
- Reviews are more formal one-to-many presentations that are typically less interactive than the previous two.
- Brainstorming meetings are similar to working sessions, but often include leader-facilitated whiteboard collaboration.
- All-hands meetings are large one-to-many presentations that typically don't include real-time conversations, but often use the chat or Q&A features of video conferencing software to gather comments and questions that are subsequently addressed via email or a website.
As Google's new calendar location feature indicates, the company believes it is crucial that employees share their expected location so that others can plan how to attend and interact. It also recommends that employees block out "focus time" that provides uninterrupted periods for work requiring intense concentration.
Remote work and hybrid home-office environments are here to stay with a Littler report finding that 55 percent of employers polled planned to offer a hybrid work model with 39 percent of surveyed employees saying they would consider quitting if their employer didn't provide location flexibility and demanded a full-time return to the office. As more companies returning to any level of in-office work, their executives and IT organizations must prepare the technology, training and work culture to support both geographically dispersed project teams and workgroups with a mix of in-office and remote employees on any given day.
The substance of Google's product announcements and recommendations isn't as significant as the fact that they reflect the new hybrid organizational reality. While every company managed to muddle through the past year — most, quite well judging by various employee surveys and company financial reports — the work technology and practices were reactionary, not planned. Phase two of the hybrid work era must focus on optimizing the tools and mores to exploit the strengths of online communication and collaboration technologies while not entirely losing the benefits of in-person interactions.