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Remote work vs office life: Lots of experiments and no easy answers

More and more people are returning to the office. The priority now is to ensure everyone has the same experience, whether they're commuting to work or logging in from home.

With some people returning to work in the office and others continuing to log in from home, managers will need to create a hybrid workplace that successfully blends in-person collaboration and remote working to keep everyone happy and productive.

Three executives at the recent DTX Tech Predictions Mini Summit explained how their companies are using a range of tools and techniques to build the workplace of the future.

1. Make sure everyone has their say

Tom Kegode, future of work strategy lead for the Work:Reimagined initiative at Lloyds Bank, says 78% of the firm's workforce – or about 65,000 employees – are hybrid workers who split their working time between home and office. The priority now is to think about what hybrid work means for employees over the longer term.

"It's important that it's an iterative process because we're going to find out things that we didn't necessarily expect in our assumptions around how the styles of work that we will be carrying out may well change as we start to reach a balance," he says.

Lloyds is examining the work that takes place in offices, branches and homes, and is thinking about how the bank will connect people across these spaces in what Kegode refers to as "a mindful way". Developing that understanding involves constant conversations and an analysis of the crossover between business demands, individual needs and team requirements.

"It's always about looking at how we can use technology as an enabler to make us more human," he says. "How can we use technology to enhance our human traits and the things that make us unique that machines can't do?"

Lloyds started introducing Microsoft Teams just before the pandemic, which served the bank well when lockdown began. While video-conferencing tech has kept workers productive during the past two years, the future of the workplace will require careful conversations about how tools are adopted and adapted. 

Any new tool shouldn't just be used to replicate legacy tools, says Kegode. Rather than simply using Microsoft Teams as a alternative to the phone, businesses and their employees must explore how these platforms can enable people to interact and collaborate in a richer manner across hybrid locations.

Lloyds has been running 'test and learns' across a couple of sites to investigate how modern video-conferencing software can be used to support connectedness between branches, offices and people at home. Those tests will inform debates about how technology might be used to define the loosely connected office of the future.

In fact, the technology that might shape those new workplace communities is already being used to host debates about the future of work. Kegode says Lloyds is using Yammer as a community-building tool, where people engage and discuss new ideas.

"We're encouraging people to be part of this ongoing conversation about the next phase of the future of work, because everyone has a point of view they want to share, right? And I think it's about how we create the space for that to take place."

2. Build connections across disparate teams and locations

Mary O'Callaghan, director of technology engagement at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), is another expert who says the creation of a productive hybrid-working environment is still a work in progress – but success is likely to be more about people than tech. 

"We've spent a lot of time coming up with guidelines, so that people in hybrid meetings are connected, and we're making sure that everybody has their camera on, so that we all can have the option to see everyone's face in the same way," she says.

Those endeavours were successful for BHF and its employees during lockdown. Yet while the organisation has made solid progress regarding the people side of hybrid working, O'Callaghan says there's still much more to do – even after the successful rollout of remote working policies during the past two years.

"What we've lost is that cross-team collaboration; that sense of spontaneity and opportunities to go. 'Oh, do you do that? That's brilliant. I'd love to do that, too.' And so that's our next big challenge: how do we get that cross-team connection?"

SEE: Project management: Five ways to make sure your team feels engaged

O'Callaghan hopes some of the answers will become clear as people return to the office, for at least some of their working week, and start to explore how technology can be used to connect with colleagues across disparate teams and locations.

Like so many other people, O'Callaghan has spent much of the past two years in back-to-back meetings. She says one of the key challenges will be how people plan their working days as hybrid working becomes the new normal.

Managers and employees must be careful not to create new geographies of exclusion, where people in some locations are more connected than others because of entrenched expectations around how employees worked during lockdown. 

"One of the interesting challenges is how we manage timing and how we change our perspectives," she says. "I've been around for a long time, but even I'm thinking, 'If I'm not in back-to-back meetings, am I really working?' And that's not a very healthy place to be. That reversion back to some good practices from the past is going to be quite important."

3. Take calculated risks on new working methods

Philip Simpson, head of application support and development at legal firm Horwich Farrelly, says it's important to recognise the progress that's been made in creating productive hybrid-working environments during the past two years.

Simpson says these changes have created a positive shift in perception: internal measures show the firm's lawyers are more productive and an organisation that was previously reticent has now fully embraced flexible working.

Horwich Farrelly is now thinking carefully about how it will use technology to support the hybrid office of the future. For remote workers, the firm has been using a digital whiteboarding tool called Miro to replicate some of the face-to-face elements of work. 

SEE: What is Agile software development? Everything you need to know about delivering better code, faster

The firm is also using a range of Microsoft tools, including Teams and Power BI. Heavy use of the cloud during the past two years has shown the benefits of embracing new ways of working, particularly giving more control of IT development to business users.

"We're embracing citizen development and low-code/no-code tools. Because we're heavily invested in Microsoft, we're using the power platform, so things like Power BI, Power Automate, Power Apps, and putting the power back in the hands of the people on the coalface and enabling them to deal with problems quicker," he says.

Simpson says businesses who want to innovate around new ways of working must provide psychological safety to staff, which is the ability to take calculated risks without the fear of losing your job. He says Horwich Farrelly will continue to explore how it can use new tools and techniques to create a competitive advantage.

"We're looking to do more of the same," he says. "So, more integrations, more APIs, continuing down the citizen development path and trying to mature ourselves as an organisation. That will mean trying to move towards a DevOps model and that effort builds into the whole cultural piece. We are investing heavily in innovation."

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