Martin Cross, CTO at Connect, argues that effective hybrid working requires a reassessment of the employee experience of technology.
Of all the enormous changes we’ve had to deal with over the past 20 months, the technology shift has been one of the easiest.
When workplaces had to shut, technology was the answer: the remote working tools that IT departments had been quietly deploying for years suddenly came into their own. Starved of outside contact, even the most technophobic colleagues embraced them. Teams and Zoom weren’t just business tools; they became the key to our social lives.
Now, as people return to offices in increasing numbers, it’s a natural assumption that we’ll keep using these same tools to support what’s called a “hybrid” working model – some at home, some in the office.
But rather than blending easily, traditional office and home working cultures may well clash. And this time, with solutions and networks fundamentally designed for office working, technology may be part of the problem.
The hybrid meeting
Let’s start in the meeting room. Four of you are around the table. Now you need to get your three remote colleagues dialled in. Forget Teams; there’s that weird spider-phone to remember how to operate.
Switch on, and someone is there waiting to be admitted. Another is having tech problems and the third, once he’s joined, starts with the small talk you’ve already had. It’s disjointed and awkward, and you’ve not even begun.
With the meeting underway, the four in the room are exchanging views naturally, picking up cues from body language. By contrast, those at home are struggling to get a word in. When one does, their voice keeps breaking up. To assist, a meeting room colleague makes notes on the whiteboard, that those at home can’t see.
At this point, the colleague with tech problems finally joins in…
Hybrid isn’t just about location
Over the coming months, scenarios like this will be replayed in organisations across the country. Hybrid working means not just that individuals will be mixing time in the office and home, but a hybrid of technology and working cultures. To make that work effectively requires some thought.
Inevitably, technology exists to facilitate this new hybrid model. Indeed, businesses have a lot of it already. Tools such as Teams, WebEx and Slack have been designed or rapidly enhanced over recent months, to enable collaborative multi-location working.
What we now need is a way to bring these easily into the office environment.
To support hybrid working, meeting rooms need to be equipped with display screens, full audio and video capability and – crucially – a way of allowing people to use the same tools they’ve become accustomed to from home, in the office. Ideally, you’d just walk in with your laptop and start the meeting on the big screen.
But it’s not just meetings we need to consider. Think too about the ongoing collaboration between teams in different locations. Instant messaging and chat tools are crucial here; the smarter workspaces – again, the likes of Teams and Slack – make it easy to store these conversations.
Essentially, what we’re looking for is an environment where every member of the team has access to all the same tools, wherever they are working.
An effortless employee experience
In the world of the contact centre and customer service, organisations have invested extensively in delivering an “effortless” customer experience. Customers would rather deal with organisations that are easy to do business with.
But it turns out that reducing customer effort often serves to deliver efficiency gains for the organisation itself, removing bottlenecks and duplication. Why not apply the same logic internally too?
An effortless employee experience will save time for the business. It will liberate teams to focus on what they’re discussing, rather than how the discussion should take place. And in a world where your people can choose to work literally anywhere, taking away some basic frustrations could even help with retention and attracting new talent.
Rethinking the network
The most common frustration employees face is a slow connection. While sometimes that’s a user problem, there remains a fundamental issue on the business side.
Pre-pandemic, organisations built their networks on the assumption that most staff would be office-based and only a small proportion working remotely. That led to a centralised model, with capacity and net work intelligence focused on the office or data centre, which remote workers accessed via a virtual private network (VPN) connection.
When hundreds of people are remote, that model no longer makes sense. The capacity is in the wrong place.
Instead, to deliver an effortless and consistent experience to all employees, organisations need to look at a distributed model, where the power is at the network edge, closer to users. That reduces the risks of sluggish video performance or issues with any other real-time tool – benefiting not only remote workers, but also those in the office. The experience is better.
Crucially for businesses, these models put security controls at the edge too. By recognising a user’s identity, device and location, the network determines what services and applications the user can access. Instead of needing to connect to multiple tools in multiple ways, there’s a simple, consistent experience for the user, and the business retains control.
Moving to a distributed network model is arguably the single biggest change in corporate networking in a generation. But if we are committed to hybrid working as the future of work – which most analysis suggests we are – we need our networks to step up. A distributed model will not only provide an effortless employee experience, but will also give organisations the agility, security and scalability needed.