The workplace is not dead – but the future is hybrid

The past year has significantly redefined the workplace as most offices across the UK closed and workers set up from home. With the successful transition to long-term remote working (despite initial road bumps), and the drastic COVID impact, the post-pandemic world of work will never be the same again. Though with its documented disadvantages, home working has brought so many benefits to would-be normal commuters that most employees don’t want to go back to the office full time again. A recent survey of technology industry found that technology companies in particular may need to de-prioritize office spaces, with 79 percent of tech workers saying they want to continue working from home for at least part of the working week. 

However, the physical workplace plays an important part within a company’s culture, and with the right IT investments, office and home working can exist in perfect harmony. Throughout this year, as we move out of lockdown, we can expect to see an overwhelming shift to a hybrid working model. Already, companies are reviewing working practices, determining when and how staff will return to the office – and many will establish a hybrid working model. A recent survey undertaken with HR professionals showed that only 10 percent say their organization does not intend to run a hybrid workspace mode after COVID restrictions have eased.

As businesses look to embrace this model, it is key that we do not repeat the mistakes of early 2020, when IT investments were rushed, ushering in immediate but short-term solutions. Optimizing the use of technology and enabling a seamless blend between remote and office work will be the key to hybrid working success. And, above all, hybrid working formula must be connected, secure and inclusive to be successful.

Staying connected  

With many staff hoping to maintain a certain amount of post-pandemic home-working, businesses need to ensure that connecting from another location is as smooth as possible, and exchanges with colleagues are seamless. However, the real challenge will come when people are able to meet in person, with others dialing in from afar. If this process is not straightforward and hiccup-free for those dialing in, it can have a serious effect on collaboration among teams, with office and home-workers becoming two separate groups. It can also lead to unequal employee representation, with some people’s thoughts, ideas or opinions being overlooked. Smart meeting rooms will therefore be an important investment for businesses looking to go hybrid. 

These intelligent spaces integrate hardware and software to create a productive meeting experience for participants, whether they are joining the meeting from the office or remotely. There are new tools appearing every day to complement these spaces, such as Microsoft’s employee experience platform Viva, and intelligent collaboration devices such as Microsoft Surface Hubs or Poly Meeting Room solution, which record and take notes during meetings. Effectively linked together, these tools can help create a seamless working environment and eliminate the risk of those staying out-of-office falling behind. In the not-too-distant future, we will see AR and VR integrate into meeting room spaces to take that experience to the next level and give collaboration another dimension.

Shifting gear – securely 

As businesses swiftly responded to lockdown measures and switched employees to a home working dynamic, so too did cybercriminals, who switched tactics to exploit COVID-19-related fears. Working from home quickly became a gateway to new forms of data theft. In a survey of workers from Deloitte, a quarter of respondents noticed an increase in fraudulent emails, spam, and phishing attempts since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Fraudsters are watching behaviors, devising scams to fit perfectly into the ‘new normal’ – from false Microsoft Teams notifications to Royal Mail scams taking advantage of the increase in home parcel deliveries. 

Given the speed with which we had to adapt to home working, it could be forgiven that corporate IT infrastructure was inadequate for a short time while people got used to the new way of working. However, those who still do not pay adequate attention to their security infrastructure could pay dearly. For those looking to a hybrid workplace model for the future, staff and data security is paramount. 

Creating a security strategy involves several elements, one of which is staff education and ongoing training. With 52 percent of businesses admitting that employees are their biggest weakness in IT security, comprehensive education of the risks out there and how to spot them is an essential building block to a secure IT infrastructure. This training should be regularly updated to represent the changing conditions of the workplace. Cybercriminals will adapt; therefore, so must organizations and employees. Once a cyber defense has been deployed, it’s then crucial to regularly check that the security measures are effective. In 2020 in particular, many solutions were rolled out under significant time pressures and IT staff now need to evaluate these solutions and adjust them if necessary. If businesses now operate with more cloud-based storage, it’s fundamental to check that is this properly managed and protected from attacks. It’s crucial not to forget to validate the security of service providers, suppliers and partners too. After all, supply chain weaknesses can lead to major cyber and data breaches.

All-inclusive safety 

One of the great casualties of the last year has been workplace culture and a sense of community among workers. While office culture was due an overhaul, there are concerns that a remote-only way of working will leave some staff excluded and missing the key social element of work. Employee wellbeing and job satisfaction are also more difficult to track in a remote team. This is where behavioral analytics tools can play a key role, by analyzing behavioral patterns to understand employee activity and help ensure remote working is enjoyable and sustainable for everyone. 

The insights that are unlocked by this technology will be invaluable in 2021, as they can also provide businesses with insights into employee working patterns. When these tools are combined with data sources, such as networks and smart meeting rooms, it provides business leaders with an all-important overview of employee engagement. From here, it’s possible to evaluate the true feeling of employees and understand if anyone does not feel included, and why. In addition to being separated by geography, some social groups are more at risk from becoming isolated than others, and business leaders must take extra steps to ensure that everyone feels invested in. Technology plays an essential role in this. Armed with the right tools and data, leaders can take effective steps to include staff members in this new way of working.  

The way we work has shifted, possibly forever, and crucially business leaders must remember that there is not a one-size-fits all method of implementing hybrid working. The process involves a significant amount of evaluation and learning. As with every IT investment, you must secure the foundations of security and connection, and do not forget to include your team in the process. I predict that we will look back one day and question why hybrid was not always the way.

Mark Skelton, CTO and Vice President , CANCOM UK&I

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