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The last couple of years have been a huge experiment in virtual working that’s given organizations an opportunity like never before to understand productivity, engagement and employee well-being while working away from the office.

The NTT 2021 Global Workplace Report highlights some interesting stats – just 54% of organizations say their future workplace strategy is defined and agreed and 79.1% of organizations say their employees would prefer to work from company premises rather than from home when safe to do so. However, when you analyze the data further, it's not quite so simple. Given the choice 38.9% would prefer to work from company premises, 29.9% want the option of alternating between the two and 30.2% of employees say they’d prefer to work from home. Organizations tend to believe that younger employees are more likely to want to work from company premises than those in the Gen X and Baby Boomer cohorts, but Voice of the Employee (VOE) data contradicts this view.

Technology has matured to support any of these models, but hybrid working has required a cultural shift from organizations that thrived on office presence, either because of their business requirements or their work culture. These companies want their workforce to return to the office and while they have good reasons for this, the hybrid model isn’t going away anytime soon. Those organizations that fared well through the transformation had already started supporting hybrid work environments and were able to accelerate their plans to cope with demands created by the pandemic. These organizations are now realizing cost-savings on the other end while late starters are still trying to get reach an appropriate maturity level.

The global workforce has been trained to work remotely for 18 months or more, but now they’re being asked to return to the ‘traditional’ way of working. What lessons can we learn from observing these different types of organizations as they look to sustain the shift towards a hybrid model? Can technology alone provide the answer or are there broader concerns that leaders need to incorporate?

Give technology leaders a seat at the strategy table

Organizations need to remain open to new ideas, research, tools, technologies and, above all, ongoing shifts in employee mindsets. Doing this will allow them to finetune their views around the future of work. How people present ideas, collaborate and interact has changed and this now creates a different set of responsibilities. One way in which businesses can thrive is by reinventing themselves as technology-led businesses and by giving tech leaders within their teams a seat at the strategy table. This will, in turn, keep their technical workforce engaged and motivated to support evolving business needs.

Re-architect your technology blueprint

Organizations continue to make big investments into their architecture, infrastructure, networks and access to resources. With the loss of the parameter-centric approach to security and enhanced mobility requirements, these strategies need to support anytime, anywhere access in a secure and scalable manner. This requires significant investments to maintain trust while monitoring capacity during peaks and troughs. This could include flexible contracts that allow them to increase (or decrease) their VPN licenses to match demand or work around this reliance by implementing secure access controls that don’t require separate licensing agreements.

Consider everyone to be a remote worker

Instead of having separate security policies for in-office and remote working, companies should view all workers as remote regardless of where they work from – home, office or a holiday let in Morocco. As a result, some organizations will need to fundamentally reimagine their security approach with a focus on incorporating parameter-less defenses and a data-centric security mindset. With the lines between on-premises and SaaS applications even more blurred, this can be achieved by leveraging Zero Trust models, Single Sign-On (SSO), Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), remote device management and zero-touch provisioning, leveraging cloud-native stacks that allow service provision regardless of location. This also requires investments into bandwidth and networks leveraging secure access management.

Develop a culture focused on democratization

While some of the workforce will return to the office many will continue to work from home, joining meetings remotely. Having some attendees physically in a meeting room runs the risk of creating a meeting within a meeting potentially sidelining online attendees. One approach to minimizing this risk is getting everyone to join the meeting online, whether they’re in the office or not. This provides all attendees with an equal voice.

Leaders should recognize that while some people are comfortable speaking in public and addressing a large audience on camera, this isn’t true of everyone. Choosing the right technology makes all the difference by opening parallel channels of communication to allow people to interact based on their own preferences, including audio, video, chat messaging, emoticons and gestures such as claps and appreciation.

Encourage face time, albeit virtually

Teams need to appreciate that the exchange of ideas is going to be different, even if it’s not more difficult. Leaders and employees need to develop empathy and an understanding of each person’s personal circumstances and their approach to work. While having regular team calls is a no-brainer, another aspect is asking people to connect via video during calls and meetings. This helps develop a more personal touch but also encourages participants to think that they’re ‘at the office’ even when they’re sitting at their dining room table. By bringing everyone together in the same frame of mind it’s much easier to get people into ‘work’ mode and enhance team and company cohesion.

Lead by example and from the front

If teams are expected to adopt a hybrid working model, senior leadership, including C-Suite executives, need to set the example. Having a uniform approach allows everyone to form a common understanding of the challenges of balancing work, personal and social commitments, including dedicating part of their home for work. With cameras giving everyone a peek into people’s private spaces leaders need to provide the template for employees to follow, take inspiration from and model their own work-life balance on.

Focus on the upside without losing sight of the challenges

Shorter or no commutes, working hours to suit employees’ personal lives, a balance between work and family time, and opportunities to inject more purpose into the working week are some of the benefits of hybrid working. However, there’s an equally important need to combat digital exhaustion as technology and the tools that keep everyone connected can make it hard to switch off.

Another area that leaders need to consider is how to encourage and support the right behaviors within their organizations. It’s critical to implement policies that will help employees build a stronger work-life balance, make time for focused work and stop working when the day is over. We’ve already seen France and Portugal announce legislation restricting business communications outside of office hours.

Develop a collaborative, global outlook for your business

We’re living through the biggest change since the industrial revolution and leaders can benefit their organizations immensely by sharing their stories with other leaders on the same journey in a safe, non-competitive, and trusted environment. This would enable them to share challenges, learnings and best practices to define a new model for the workforce, in tune with what employees and society are asking of them.

There’s no single model that’ll fit every organization but this collaboration paves the way for a new, optimized model that takes operational requirements and employee needs into account. With the acknowledgment of the great resignation, organizations investing in hybrid approaches will emerge as winners with the ability to hire talent globally, giving their people greater access to learning and development while diversifying and retaining the best talent.