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Home >Opinion >Columns >Hybrid work is the future but we are not quite ready yet

Over the past few weeks, businesses around the world have begun to tentatively think about allowing employees to go back to office. But even as they take these initial first steps, it is becoming clear is that the post-covid workspace will look nothing like the offices we were accustomed to. According to one organization that surveyed its employees, no more than a quarter of all its global workforce intended to resume full-time work. As many as 30% indicated that they were planning to work remotely on a permanent basis, while the rest planned to come in to work for no more than a couple of days in a week. The future of work is clearly hybrid.

Before covid, I was of the firm belief that as important as it is to give employees the flexibility to work from home when needed, this had to be an exception and not the rule. To my mind, the office was our primary environment within which all work-related events took place. It was where clients expected to find you when they needed you in a hurry, and where your colleagues could rely on you to be, if ever they needed to interact with you.

I have to admit that the past year has proven my misgivings about working from home to be largely unfounded. Thanks to technology, we’ve adapted well to our new reality—so much so that many of us have actually thrived. After an initial adjustment period, we got accustomed to a world in which collaboration was largely asynchronous and came to the slow realization that it was far more efficient to interact with teammates on chat or over a video call. For their part, clients were also quite understanding, and they moderated their expectations of us in keeping with the challenging times we were all going through. It seemed that work-from-home was better than I had thought it would be.

However, when I discussed this remote future with my team, their enthusiasm was muted. While they were, glad for the flexibility this gave them, there was genuine concern about the opportunities they would miss if we were all not working in the same physical space. Most formal interactions, they agreed, could be replicated digitally—daily team meetings, online training sessions and even formal debriefs at the end of a transaction. But there was much that could not—the tacit learning that came from watching colleagues as they dealt with challenging situations and difficult clients, for example, or even just observing how they manage the stresses of the day.

Microsoft’s chief Satya Nadella calls this the ‘hybrid work paradox’. In a blog about the future of work, he pointed out that while everyone likes to have the flexibility of being able to work from home, no one wants to miss out on the benefits of working collaboratively in an office with their colleagues. Our focus so far has been on using technology to make it easier to work from home. If we want to make hybrid work a reality, we must address the other part as well.

One way to think about this is to see if we can implement a sensible division of work assignments that makes sure that the more mundane items of work are done individually at home, while the creative ideation is scheduled for a time when everyone is in office. The only problem with this is that you can’t really schedule a good idea—they just occur at random moments. One of the benefits of working in an office space is that when such an idea strikes you, it is possible to spontaneously jump into a room and brainstorm.

If hybrid work is ever going to become a reality, we will need to fundamentally rethink meetings. We need to design our workspaces presuming that every meeting will have some people in the same physical space, while others will be dialling in. We need to make sure our platforms are redesigned so that everyone at the meeting—those present in the room as well as those attending it remotely—can interact with everyone else. We need a format so that if anyone is drawing on a whiteboard, everyone else (including those calling in) can see what they are doing and add their own two bits to the drawing. If we do not, we will end up making those who are participating remotely feel like they are second-class attendees who will be denied the benefits afforded to those who have managed to physically make it to office. To ensure wider participation, we’ll not only have to change the technologies we use, we will also need a new etiquette for meetings.

We also need to reassess how we think about our digital security. Today, organizations focus narrowly on securing digital assets within their office environment. They implement robust firewalls and complex authentication systems to make it hard for bad actors to crack open a chink in our defences through which they can access our data. Many organizations go so far as to require employees working remotely to log in through virtual applications like Citrix if they want access to files on their own desktop machines at work.

When a good portion of our workforce plans to work from home, such measures cause unnecessary friction. Instead, we need to adopt an internet-first approach. Rather than building better locks for our front doors, we should ensure that the tunnels through which we do our work are safe. This calls for greater attention to endpoint security, with employees accessing company data only via managed mobile devices.

Hybrid work seems like an idea whose time has come. But a lot still needs to be done to get it ready for prime time.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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