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The hybrid workplace - we're all feeling our way, who grasps the whole picture?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 29, 2021
Everyone from Adobe to Salesforce, Facebook, Google and Microsoft want to serve the hybrid workplace - but does anyone have the whole picture?

Team of people cast shadow of elephant © Lightspring - shutterstock
(© Lightspring - shutterstock)

Enterprise software vendors, especially those with digital teamwork offerings, are eager to equip customers for the hybrid working environment of the nascent Vaccine Economy. But like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each is coming at the issue from a different angle, and few seem to have grasped the whole picture. I've already put on record my own view that hybrid working will lead to a completely new, digitally augmented world of work. Here's a quick review of recent announcements from major vendors in the space, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce. Each brings their own piece of the picture, and together they portray the rich complexity of the beast.

Adobe - half in, half out, unless you're wholly remote

Last week, Adobe became the latest tech vendor to declare that the future of work will be hybrid in a blog by Chief People Officer Gloria Chen, who writes: "As the digital experiences company, we will double down on digital tools and workflows across the employee experience." But how hybrid is hybrid? Adobe's new policy will give employees the option of a 50:50 split between being in the office and working from home, with in-person meetings focused on specific purposes and "designed for collaboration." Except, that is, for a separate cohort of "remote workers", who live too far to come into any office, and whose numbers are expected to double "over time". New criteria and guidelines have been set in the US to establish who gets to be a remote worker, and these will roll out globally by the end of the year.

The new policy is the result of a series of surveys, interviews, focus groups and discussions conducted by a cross-functional team. I'm sure a lot of earnest work has gone into it, but to my mind, the decision to sanction a 50:50 split sounds more like an arbitrary compromise than a workable solution that truly caters for the ebb-and-flow of each individual's circumstances.

Some roles and projects depend more on in-person teamwork, while others are more solitary. Workers with children are more likely to value working from home, while younger workers will prefer the facilities and companionship of the office. Across an entire career, the split may well end up as 50:50, but to set a 50% cap on working out of the office seems inflexible and counter-productive. It also leads to the creation of that separate class of wholly remote workers, rather than having a shifting continuum from wholly office-based to wholly remote. These questions illustrate the difficulty of introducing a workable policy for the hybrid workplace — I'm sure many enterprises will struggle with such questions.

I think Adobe has also missed an opportunity to promote Workfront, its recently acquired digital work management tool. Instead, it chose to show off Adobe Live, its smart campus mobile app, built to help staff navigate the hybrid workplace. To my mind, the big challenge of hybrid working is not deciding what hours people work where, so much as co-ordinating work across those highly distributed teams — how they navigate the digital fabric, rather than the physical. The more effectively that can be done, the less it matters where people are making their contributions from. And as we shall see, hybrid working is not just about the divide between working from home versus in the office.

Workplace from Facebook - it's all about the frontline workforce

Facebook highlights a completely different angle, pointing out that the workforce always has been hybrid, with a divide separating desk-based workers from their colleagues who work on their feet in frontline roles. Opening its Workplace Transform virtual event last week, Julien Codorniou, VP, Workplace from Facebook, proclaims:

Creating this future of work for everybody means doing more than providing better technology for the people who have always had it. It means providing technology to the millions of people who have been left behind by traditional IT vendors. It means connecting frontline, deskless and email-less employees — including pilots, nurses, teachers, and retail workers — to their colleagues and leaders for the very first time. It means giving them access to the same information and opportunities that the rest of us have always taken for granted.

Large-scale collaboration platforms like Workplace, delivered as an easy-to-use, mobile app, make it possible to connect everyone, wherever they happen to work, becoming a powerful tool for establishing a sense of community and shared culture among a distributed workforce. With its social media roots, Facebook is uniquely conscious of this role, but every enterprise has to consider how it's going to maintain cultural cohesion as hybrid working becomes the norm.

New features announced last week for Workplace from Facebook focus on improving cohesion at scale, such as giving more visibility to the Q&A function during live events, or automatically dividing video content to make catch-up viewing and sharing more efficient. There are also updates to its Knowledge Library and Safety Center tools.

In reminding us that the digital connections of hybrid working will help to bring the entire workforce together in a way that's never been possible before, Facebook adds an important new dimension to the notion of the hybrid workplace. But that's still not the whole picture.

Google Workspace - preparing for new patterns of employment

There was a lot packed into the latest Google Workspace announcements the other week. Leveling up the teamwork experience for everyone, wherever they're participating from, is a core value, which Google defines as:

Collaboration equity — the ability to contribute equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, and device preference.

In the name of this collaboration equity, Google is creating more of a level playing field for Meet participants. In calendar, when accepting a meeting invite, it will allow you to RSVP with your intended location. Even when physically sitting in a conference room, you'll be able to raise your hand virtually, and participate in polls and chat on a mobile device. Other changes see the current Rooms channels renamed as Spaces, along with upgrades to its integration with other Workspace functions such as Drive — I found the functionality reminiscent of Dropbox Spaces, launched two years ago, so I wonder what Dropbox thinks of that.

There's much else to support a hybrid working landscape, in particular on the security and admin front, including client-side encryption. New controls on Drive access make it easier to control who sees what when sharing documents and folders with users from other organizations.

The headline-grabbing aspect of the announcements was the launch of Google Workspace for everyone, which turns Gmail into a freemium on-ramp to other Workspace capabilities such as Chat, Meet and the new Spaces. This of course is a naked pitch to drive consumer adoption of Workspace and emulate the success of teamwork offerings that have crossed over into the consumer market, such as Teams, Zoom and Atlassian's Trello. But tucked away within this announcement was a new subscription offering, Google Workspace Individual, which adds features tailored to microbusiness owners, such as smart booking services, additional video meetings capabilities, and personalized email marketing.

This highlights another aspect of hybrid working — the new patterns of employment that digitally connected teamwork enables. Workspace Individual addresses the large and growing segment of contract workers and service providers. Coupled with the new Drive access controls, it provides support for engaging these workers more tightly into project teams, providing competition for Slack Channels. It's a reminder that hybrid working isn't just a case of rearranging the distribution of work between employees in the office and elsewhere. Digital connection also makes it simpler to rearrange the distribution of work between full-time employees, contractors, service providers and gig workers — and for those workers to rearrange their availability for work, whether adding side gigs alongside their main employment or serving multiple clients.

Microsoft Teams - helping people connect in the hybrid workplace

It's been a busy month for Microsoft Teams, with the launch of Windows 11 last week — positioned as the operating system for hybrid work and learning, natch — which sees Teams replace Skype as the default video calling add-on to Windows. The Teams architecture is getting a makeover at the same time, too.

Earlier in the month, Microsoft unveiled new Teams features designed to help remote participants feel more involved when they connect into in-person meetings. These include intelligent cameras and video layouts that optimize views so that each participant can be clearly seen, and smart speakers that identify voices so that transcripts are automatically labeled with the participant's name. Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, emphasizes the importance of adapting to hybrid working:

I look forward to finding new ways to help people connect and engage regardless of location and time zone. At Microsoft, we believe that hybrid work is the future of work and that to empower their people to succeed in hybrid work, business leaders will need to reimagine their organizations with a new operating model for people, places, and processes.

For Microsoft, connecting and engaging people is an important aspect of this hybrid work landscape. One of the vehicles for enabling this is the Viva employee experience add-on to Teams, but last week saw new announcements that brought other people connections into play. Built on the Microsoft Graph, these help discover and explore the roles, team relationships and skills of colleagues across an organization, with connectors that pull in information from other enterprise applications such as ServiceNow, SAP SuccessFactors and Workday. It's a reminder of the importance of the human dimension in teamwork, and the need to find digital alternatives for connecting and engaging people when in-person encounters become less frequent.

Salesforce - gearing up to work from anywhere

An expansion of Salesforce's offering to add selected people management services earlier this month echoes Microsoft's focus on the people element of hybrid working. It will be interesting to see how Salesforce brings everything together once it closes its planned acquisition of Slack, but this is an important step. It adds capabilities for employee wellness, learning and career growth, support automation and an HR service center.

My take

Pull all this together, and you can see that hybrid work is so much more than simply a reconfiguration of where people do their work. Digital connection adds many more dimensions, ensuring that the entire workforce can participate on an even level, and enabling new patterns of employment. At the same time, the digital tools have to support new ways of promoting engagement, shared culture, support and wellbeing in an environment where direct, in-person contact is much less frequent than before.

Few vendors or businesses have yet grasped that full picture — outlier exceptions include Cisco Webex, with its focus on making hybrid working a 10x better experience than the old analog ways, and Zoho with its vision of transnational localism. Former Microsoft exec Steven Sinofsky explains why it's so difficult to grasp in a recent tweetstream which he has since published in blog form:

As I've written earlier this month, this is really about the shift from the old analog world to a new, digitally augmented future of work that's far more sustainable, inclusive and productive than what went before. And as I warned last year, many will resist its inevitable rise.

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