So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Our lives have been turned upside down in so many different ways and it isn’t over! Yet we find ourselves thinking about what it will be like when we are allowed back into the office, or back to school, or when we can travel again. Maybe we want something to look forward to after a year of limited human interactions. Or perhaps we want to feel more in control of what other changes might come our way. What is clear is that many companies are asking what will come next as far as work and while there is still a lot of uncertainty, one thing is quite clear: working from home and hybrid work are high on many employees’ wish list.
In a study conducted in the United States by Creative Strategies among 750 employed participants, 610 of whom have been working remotely during the pandemic, employee’s sentiment about working from home shed light on where organizations will need to focus on driving satisfaction as well as productivity.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents say they have settled into a routine and they are much more comfortable working from home now than at the start of the shelter in place. I have often said that working from home during the pandemic should have been referred to as “being home trying to work.” Having children at home from school trying to learn or having partners or roommates sharing the same space creating an environment that for many people was not your “business as usual” working from home. Only 48% of panelists who are always remote found their routine during the pandemic.
The level of uncertainty remains indeed high, with 30% of the panelists who say they have not been told how long they will be able to work from home. Another 7% have been told they can work from home till March and 11% have their deadline set for the summer. Only 19% have been told they can work remotely indefinitely, unless they work in a group that needs to be in the office, such as manufacturing or research.
This wide range of responses seems to mostly account for the practicality of returning to the office, leaving out of the equation what the employees might want to do when the time comes to reopen the office doors. A whopping 46% of the panelists have expressed that they want to work from home as often as possible, with another 31% who wants to work from home a couple of days a week. Only 17% can’t wait to go back to the office.
When panelists were asked what it would take to make them more comfortable about returning to the office, 28% said they wouldn’t go back until there is a vaccine. On the other hand, twenty-three percent feel quite comfortable going back because they have a dedicated office. Interestingly, many companies are rethinking their offices’ layout to encourage in-person collaboration, which is what 31% of the panelists missed the most about working from home.
From all these data points, it is evident that the back to office reality will be quite different, but it is safe to say it will include a mix of office and remote employees. Making this mix successful will require more than employees’ determination to stay home or go to the office. The pandemic was the great collaboration equalizer. With everybody working remotely, we all have an equal voice in a meeting. Yet, the concern is that, as people return to the office, we will lose that equal footing to return to favoring people in the meeting room over remote participants. Companies will require the right tools to cement new workflows born during the pandemic that will keep collaboration as digital as possible.
The Right Tool for the Job
When it comes to tools, only 34% say that work has adapted well and provided them with the tools they need to maintain their usual productivity level. Among the strongest drivers of frustration the panelists experienced during remote collaboration, 31% called out sound quality and 26% video quality. The strongest reason for frustration was found in the sound of emails, text messages, or other notifications. These frustrations correlate quite well with 77% of the panelists using an external microphone and another 31% using an external camera.
The return to the office and the official status of remote workers bestowed on those who will not make it back will raise the stakes of what is expected in terms of collaboration quality. While I hope the greater empathy level in welcoming barking dogs, nosy cats, and screaming kids will remain, I am sure that remote workers will be required to have a minimum standard for their home office physical environment and tools. This push is not only linked to performance but also and arguably more importantly, to employee wellbeing. Quality of video and sound being a frustration adds to stress and makes employees work harder during meetings.
Such a need to deliver the right tool for the job will likely drive more PC upgrades and support devices like monitors, mics, cameras, lights and control decks. This opportunity will undoubtedly attract companies leading in the enterprise PC market and the collaboration market. Yet, winning the home office will require different skills and different products. Whether we are talking about a PC or a camera, brands will have to deliver products that show greater attention to design, satisfy IT when it comes to security, deployment and manageability while allowing user to self-support. Towards the end of 2020, we saw Cisco bring to market three new products aimed at the home office (the Webex desk Camera and Webex Desk) and new office hotdesking practices (Webex Desk Hub). Today Poly, a leading brand in collaboration, is making an early move to address this market with the Poly Studio P Series, which includes the Poly Studio P5 Webcam, Poly Studio P15 Personal Video Bar, Poly Studio P21 Personal Meeting Display. The name could not be more perfect “P” for professional and personal, exactly what users want.
A professional delivery from a device that fits a home environment is easy to set up and manage. Poly’s DNA, born from Polycom and Plantronics’ union, seems to be perfect for this new market. Yet competition will be fierce. Poly is betting on the idea that hardware alone will not be enough and I could not agree more. Tools like Poly Lens Desktop App to help manage the devices and even a new support service Poly+ to complement an existing IT department or simply be one for those organizations who don’t have one all add to a differentiated and more tailored experience.
Culture Will Be as Critical As Tools
Tools alone will not be enough to make the new hybrid work successful. Culture will be critical to success. Companies will have to be deliberate in keeping workflows digital so they remain as inclusive as possible, separating office presence with the idea of what constitutes productive work and instead encouraging the office to focus on socialization. Managers will have to show employees that being remote does not mean a hindered career and less opportunity to have their work recognized. We have proven that we could be productive under the harsh conditions the pandemic brought on us. Collaboration technology leaped into the twenty-first century after years of neglect. All we need now is not to fall prey to old habits. The temptation will be strong, but we owe it to ourselves to resist.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column