Hybrid working isn't a halfway house, it's a whole new future of work

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 21, 2021
Hybrid working is much more than a fusion of working from home with being in the office - it's a whole new, digitally connected future of work

Graphic of digital teamwork and creativity © Jesus Sanz - shutterstock
(© Jesus Sanz - shutterstock)

As offices start to reopen, no one can be certain how the new world of hybrid working is going to operate. Most of us think of it as a mashup of the two states we've previously experienced, when first of all pretty much everyone was in the office all at once, and then no one was. But there's another interpretation, which sees it as a completely new way of operating that transcends both prior states. This view sees hybrid working as the basis for creating a future of work that's far more digitally connected, sustainable, and inclusive.

At the heart of this alternative view is a recognition of the digital thread that runs through hybrid working. Perhaps a better term would be digital working, since the most important feature of hybrid working is not that some people are in the office and some people aren't, but that everyone is using digital technology to stay connected. Hybrid working marks a shift from the old world of mostly analog-only encounters to a new future in which all aspects of teamwork are digitally augmented.

Look at it this way, and you realize that hybrid working isn't about solving the problem of how to fuse together working from home with working in the office. It's taking all that we've learned in the past year about this new, digitally connected pattern of work, and seizing the opportunity it presents for a huge leap in inclusion and sustainability, while enabling much more effective, productive and affirming work.

Promoting inclusion

The most striking effect of this new future of work is how much more inclusive it is than the old way of working, across a number of different vectors. It has flattened heirarchies by putting field workers and frontline staff on the same communications platform as head office managers and executives. It has made it easier for parents and carers to balance family and work responsibilities through more flexible hours. It has made it possible for companies to recruit new talent in locations where job opportunities have previously been scarce — a capability some organizations have embraced as a means of bringing new economic opportunity to disadvantaged rural areas.

It has allowed those who were never able to travel to conferences or courses to participate in gatherings that previously excluded them. It has opened up new channels for quieter voices, who always found it difficult to speak up in large in-person meetings, to be heard. As the technology of virtual meetings advances, it is becoming possible for people to meet even when they share no common language, through AI-enabled real-time speech translation and transcription.

Of course it's true that working remotely has also erected new barriers. Recent joiners, especially those at the beginning of their career, have missed out on the on-the-job advice, mentoring and training that's more readily available in a traditional office setting. Some employers may see remote working as an opportunity to reduce their employee headcount and employer liabilities by making greater use of contract workers. Many companies and teams have worried about their ability to maintain a cohesive culture and mission without the shared experience of spending each working day together.

But to some extent these barriers are a product of our inexperience with the new pattern of work and the need to evolve new tools and techniques to overcome them. And let's remember that the very industries that seem most eager to return to traditional office-based work, such as software development and financial services, are the ones that have seen some of the most egregious examples of 'bro' culture, where conformity to the prevailing culture has played a powerful role in suppressing diversity and inclusion. The old world that some want to return to was far from perfect.

Reducing the carbon footprint

Sustainability is another huge win from hybrid working. Many people routinely used to spend hours traveling to perform work, attend meetings, or take part in conferences. The past year has shown that, for large numbers, it's possible to do all of that without ever having to travel from our own homes or local communities. When enterprises assess their carbon footprint, how many of them take into account the emissions created by their workers' daily commute, their field sales people's on-site meetings with customers, and the global travel to their annual sales kick-off and customer conferences?

I'm hearing many vendors now talking about their eagerness to return to the old in-person global events that used to see the diginomica team jet across the Atlantic, or coast-to-coast in the US, multiple times each conference season. However good that might be for the aviation industry, the convention center business, and our own desire to catch up with good friends across the industry, I think we should think twice before we return to the old status quo. There are far more imaginative and sustainable ways to achieve the same goals. Events can run in multiple locations rather than one, and in-person attendance might be something to do every three or five years rather than annually. We owe it to the planet to think these things through.

Similarly, we have to undo the expectation that a deal can't be done unless the sales person visits a customer in person, or that work can't be performed unless the employee is phsyically in the office. These are just conventions and habits that the past year has shown up as invalid. While there are some adverse impacts on carbon emissions — there are economies of scale in heating and cooling offices as opposed to individual homes, for example — hybrid working can have a massive impact in reducing road and air travel emissions as well as urban traffic congestion.

Digital teamwork is more effective

Finally, there's the impact on work itself. In the first months of the sudden shift to remote working, it felt to most people like a retrograde step. But those feelings have started to fade as people become more familiar with digital tools, aided by the ongoing improvement in the capabilities of those tools, and the evolution of new skills and techniques as teams get used to the rhythm of digitally connected teamwork. Even then, we're still in the early stages of realizing its full potential. In my view, there's a maturity model of enterprise digital teamwork, as organizations and teams become more adept while the tools continue to improve. This will increase opportunities for automating away repetitive tasks so that people can focus on the work where their skills, empathy and insights can make a real difference.

As an example, the past year has seen a huge wave of innovation in digital video, with most video meeting platforms creating new ways of showing participants in ways that put participants on more of a level playing field, while giving individual users more control over how they view the meeting. A separate development has been the recent emergence of video clip capabilities, which instead of forcing participants to sit through real-time presentations, allow them to view this one-way video communication on demand. Asana's partnership with Vimeo, announced last week, is one example, which also adds digital transcription and analysis of the content. This digitalization of video conversations brings formerly analog content into the digital realm and jumpstarts the potential to automate much of the routine work associated with meetings to focus on key follow-up actions. It is this kind of augmentation of traditional human interactions that leads Cisco Webex chief Jeetu Patel to talk about hybrid working delivering an experience that's a 10x improvement on the old analog ways.

Some rightly worry that this digitalization of routine conversation may lead to intrusive scrutiny of worker behavior. But hybrid working only works in a climate of mutual trust and respect. Done well, it gives individual workers more control and autonomy over how they organize their work in order to deliver the desired results. The combination of greater automation, more transparency and a stronger focus on outcomes vastly improves the individual worker's sense of their role in the organization and the contribution they make to its overall mission.

My take

Thinking back to the early days of cloud computing, I'm reminded of the term 'hybrid cloud'. In most cases, adopting hybrid cloud was a means of delaying the ultimate move to cloud-native computing that most businesses — though still not all — have since embraced. That's precisely the trouble with a term like hybrid working — the natural inclination is to see it as a modification of how you currently behave. In reality, hybrid working is an entirely new way of behaving, and it's only when you fully embrace those new behaviors that you'll get the full benefit of making the shift.

If you focus too intently on how we make the transition from the old ways of working, you end up getting bogged down in the trivia of accommodating different seating arrangements and connection modes. What really matters is how you digitally connect your workers, wherever they happen to be from day to day, and make their work easier and more efficient. Instead of getting bogged down in where they've come from, enterprises should focus on where these new technologies can take them to. There is whole new world out there enabled by digitally connected teamwork — at diginomica we call it frictionless enterprise. You don't embrace the future by clinging to the past.

A grey colored placeholder image