Hybrid work: From personal experience to global trends

The pivot to remote and hybrid working has reshaped our behaviour, as well as tech spending and device shipments.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

I've experienced a variety of work regimes during my 35-year career in tech publishing. From the late 1980s until well past the millennium, work was 100 percent office-based in London. Portable computers existed but, with notable exceptions, you didn't want to carry them far and couldn't use them on battery power for long. And even when email and the web became widespread during the 90s, internet access was slow and often unreliable on dial-up modem connections.  

After moving 40 miles north of London in the mid-90s, I spent around 20 years commuting by rail in and out of a London office every working day, until reliable broadband internet – ADSL over copper at first, then fibre to the home -- finally made it feasible to work from home in a rural village. A back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the total time spent travelling in and out of work over that 20-year period at around 1.3 years. That's a chunk of my life I'm never getting back, but there has to be a better way going forward, on all sorts of health grounds -- mental, physical, environmental, financial – right? 

As soon as the technological and work-culture conditions allowed, I gratefully embraced what's now called 'hybrid work'. And now I have not seen the inside of a London office since March 2020, although I expect to resume visits soon – mostly to reconnect with team members in-person, rather than for any pressing productivity reasons. 

Hybrid work is now likely to replace pandemic-mandated remote work for many people, with the balance between home and office determined by their role, the sector their company operates in, and personal choice. Increasingly, if employers fail to offer the flexibility that workers require, employees will vote with their feet, joining either the Great Resignation or the Great Reshuffle

Hybrid work trends 

Microsoft's recent 2022 Work Trend Index (WTI) report – Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work -- has some interesting data and analysis on hybrid work, much of which resonates with the personal experiences recounted above. The WTI report is based on a survey of 31,102 people in 31 countries, conducted between 7 January and 16 February 2022, backed up by analysis of "trillions of productivity signals in Microsoft 365 and labor trends on LinkedIn". 

Microsoft's first key takeaway is that employees have a new 'worth it' equation, with 53% saying they are more likely to prioritise their health and wellbeing over work than before the pandemic. The minority claiming the opposite shows a clear generational trend: 11% Gen Z, 7% Millennials, 5% Gen X, 4% Boomers. Beyond pay, the five most valued aspects of work were: positive culture (46%), mental health/wellbeing benefits (42%), a sense of purpose/meaning (40%), flexible work hours (38%), and more than the standard two weeks of paid vacation time each year (36%). 

These workplace changes are still playing out: around half (51%) of the hybrid employees in Microsoft's survey were considering a shift to remote working in the year ahead, while more remote employees (57%) were considering a switch to hybrid.  

Microsoft's second key takeaway is that Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations, with over half (54%) feeling that leadership is out of touch with employee expectations and nearly three-quarters (74%) saying they lack the influence or resources to make changes for their team. 

There's clearly tension here, which Microsoft's survey digs into by revealing that 50% of leaders are planning a full-time return to the office (and more in sectors like manufacturing [55%], retail [54%] and consumer goods [53%]), while 52% of respondents are 'somewhat or extremely' likely to consider going remote or hybrid in the year ahead. 

How this tension gets resolved will vary depending on the industry sector, the extent to which company leaders recognise that the world has changed during the pandemic, and the degree of empowerment of managers. 

Microsoft's third key takeaway is that Leaders need to make the office worth the commute, with over a third (38%) of hybrid employees saying their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to come into the office, and just 28% of companies having established team agreements to clarify this. 

A lot of the uncertainty here revolves around how meetings are organised and conducted. Although the ability of video conferencing platforms to handle hybrid meetings with remote and office-based participants is improving all the time, there's still a way to go: less than half (43%) of remote employees in Microsoft's survey said they felt included in meetings, and only 27% of companies had created new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure that all participants feel included and engaged. 

As far as I'm concerned, the 'case for the commute' -- any commute -- remains to be proven. I can do all of my day-to-day work comfortably and productively from my home office, remote meetings work well, and the office will only likely be a draw for special occasions and periodic team-building exercises although it helps to be a reviews editor on a tech publication and have a decent, if rotating, array of video conferencing and other kit at my disposal. 

One consequence of findings like this is likely to be widespread office redesigns, as premises transition from arrays of desks or cubicles for 'presentee' workers, to attractive and flexible spaces designed to host flexible, hybrid workforces. 

Microsoft's fourth key takeaway is that Flexible work doesn't have to mean 'always on', an observation prompted by some startling figures from the company's Microsoft 365 telemetry: a 150% increase in meetings per person in February 2022 compared to March 2020, and increases of 32% in chats per person, 27% in average after-hours work, and 13% in average workday span: 

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft researchers recommend that companies examine the frequency, timing and conduct of meetings, and how chats and emails are handled, in order to optimise employee productivity, focus and wellbeing. 

Microsoft also asked its survey respondents about emerging technologies such as the metaverse, finding that just over half (52%) were open to using digital immersive spaces for meetings or team activities in the next year. Predictably, there was a generational trend underpinning this finding: 

Data: Microsoft / Chart: ZDNet

I don't work in the metaverse or expect to do so regularly in the next two years. However, I have reviewed VR headsets and collaboration platforms, and can appreciate the technology's potential, if not yet see a clear productivity benefit in my day-to-day work. 

Microsoft's fifth and final key takeaway is Rebuilding social capital looks different in a hybrid world: 43% of leaders say that relationship-building is the greatest challenge in hybrid and remote work, while survey data shows that employees who have thriving relationships with immediate team members report better wellbeing and productivity, and lower likelihood of leaving, than those who don't. 

As you might expect, more hybrid employees report thriving relationships within (58%) and outside (48%) their immediate team than remote employees (50% and 42% respectively). Leaders will clearly need to help remote workers, in particular, build strong and broad networks -- especially if they have been recruited within the past two years, Microsoft says. 

Here's my take on this: while I appreciate most aspects of remote and hybrid working, I have missed the opportunity for in-person interaction since the start of the pandemic. As well as strengthening the bonds within and between teams, many good ideas have emerged over the years from informal encounters and meetings, both on-site and 'off-site' (a.k.a. the pub). None of that is likely to happen in a video-calls-only workplace. 

IT spending and device shipments 

Worldwide IT spending 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a (likely permanent) shift in working practices, as described above, it also temporarily disrupted the pattern of IT spending during 2020 and 2021, with critical short-term projects driving increased outlay on devices, IT services, enterprise software and data centre systems, all designed to cater for a rapid increase in remote and hybrid working. 

Here's analyst firm Gartner's latest spending summary and forecast, starting pre-pandemic (2019) and extending through to 2023:

Data: Gartner / Chart: ZDNet

The temporary effect of the pandemic is evident in spending on devices, which saw year-on-year growth hit 13% in 2021 ($787.4 billion), as the world rapidly upgraded its tech to accommodate use cases like remote work, telehealth and remote learning.  

Longer-lasting systematic changes in IT spending, Gartner says, will revolve around IT services and the cloud, which drives almost all of the forecast growth in the enterprise software segment (11% in 2022 and 11.9% in 2023). 

According to Gartner's John-David Lovelock, "staff skills gaps, wage inflation and the war for talent will push CIOs to rely more on consultancies and managed service firms to pursue their digital strategies." 

External consultants will be particularly involved in helping organisations realise their cloud strategies -- upgrading their software stacks to SaaS -- in the face of limited internal resources and capabilities, Gartner says. This will deliver the flexibility and agility needed to support initiatives like the shift to hybrid work. 

PC, tablet & Chromebook shipments 

Traditional PCs (desktops, notebooks and workstations), along with tablets and Chromebooks, saw a resurgence in shipments during the pandemic. According to analyst firm IDC, PC shipments reached 348.8 million in 2021 – the highest level since 2012. Meanwhile, tablet shipments reached 168.8 million units in 2021 – the highest level since 2016 – and Chromebooks grew 13.5% to reach 37 million units: 

Data: IDC / Chart: ZDNet

Growth in the PC market might have been even stronger, but for supply-chain issues: "A challenging logistical environment, coupled with ongoing supply-side shortages, meant that the PC market could have been even larger than it was in 2021," said IDC's Tom Mainelli in a statement. "We closed the year with many buyers still waiting for their PC orders to ship. As we move through the first half of the year, we expect supply to remain constrained, especially with regards to the commercial segment where demand is the most robust." 

Longer-term, however, the PC and tablet market will return to business-as-usual, IDC says: "Following two straight years of strong double-digit growth, the expectation is that the PC market will begin to slow in 2022. However, as we look towards 2025 the latest IDC forecast still shows a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.3% with most of that growth coming from the notebook PC segment. Tablets, meanwhile, will continue their decline as the category remains challenged by smartphones and notebook PCs." 

Image: IDC

Monitor shipments 

The monitor market also received a shot in the arm in the run-up to and during the pandemic, reaching a nine-year high in 2021 with 143.6 million units shipped, according to IDC. This trend was underpinned by equipment refreshes related to Windows 10 and the pandemic-driven pivot to remote working. 

 "However," IDC says, "we now see growing saturation, inflationary pressures from the pandemic and the Ukrainian crisis further accelerating an already cooling environment in 2022, when we expect monitor shipments to shrink 3.6% and then stabilize after." 

Image: IDC

Webcams and other peripherals 

As well as PCs and monitors, webcams saw a big uplift from the remote-working boom during the pandemic – so much so that there were widespread shortages and price hikes in 2020 as users sought to improve on the cameras built into their laptops and tablets. According to FutureSource Consulting, conference camera shipments reached an all-time high of 1.2 million units in 2020 – a 56% increase over 2019. 

"We're now seeing the rise of a hybrid working model, where location is increasingly irrelevant," said FutureSource analyst Adam Cox. "As a result, transferring from one working environment to another has to be near-seamless. And that demands extensive investment in the right tools, whether that's conference cameras for meeting rooms or webcams for personal solutions." 

Big tech companies have taken notice of this trend and made their moves. For example, HP recently agreed to acquire Poly for $1.7 billion, citing research predicting that 75% of office workers will invest in new hardware to improve their hybrid work setups. Poly – formerly Plantronics, and before that Polycom -- is a leading player in video conferencing solutions, cameras, headsets, voice and software. 

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