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Hybrid ways of work – there's a lot more to it than just giving everyone a laptop and some collaboration tools

As many Australian business leaders see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, many are realising the effects of the pandemic will live on long past the reopening of the national economy

One of the most significant lasting impacts will be the effect that lockdowns have had on the psyche and preferences of Australian workers. While many have struggled through lengthy periods of working from home, others have thrived thanks to the loss of their daily commute and greater flexibility in their schedules.

Beneath all this is a desire for a greater work, life balance and finding a sense of purpose in work, which is translating to a global phenomenon that has come to be known as the "Great Resignation". In August 2021 alone in the US, 4.3 million people left their jobs, and the same trend has been predicted for Australia.

For employers, this is creating enormous pressure to ensure that employees are happy, safe, and engaged, which means catering to their preferences for when – and where - they will work.

With an accelerated focus on the hybrid workplace, some workers want a full time return to the office, others want to significantly scale back the amount of time they are physically in, but the majority are likely to want a merge of the two.

But as employers are coming to realise, there is a lot more to creating an effective hybrid workplace than just giving everyone a laptop and some collaboration tools.

With this in mind Optus and Cisco have come together to provide guidance and services to help our customers navigate their way through this emerging world of hybrid work.

An effective hybrid workplace is built on the principle that a worker should not have to compromise their experience based on their location. And that means giving much deeper consideration to how the workplace supports employees' ways of working and delivers the best of all worlds.

The near-term future of work

Creating an optimal hybrid working environment means considering both the things that are lost by having some people working remotely, and the things that are gained.

On the 'gained' side, the most obvious advantage is time and flexibility, although this can quickly become a negative if it means losing the separation between working life and home life.

Managers of hybrid workplaces must be mindful that their responsibilities for their employees' workloads do not cease when that worker leaves the office, and ensure remote workers feel empowered to say 'no' to requests for their time without fearing they will lose their remote working privileges. This makes trust one of the key elements of a successful hybrid working world.

On the 'lost' side, a key consideration is the loss of opportunity for spontaneous interactions that are common in physical workplaces. Hybrid working environments need to encourage social interactions and discussions, and not be reliant on endless meetings to foster collaboration.

Employees rarely scheduled deskside visits in the office, and such interactions should be encouraged for remote workers to ensure they can bounce ideas off each other readily and feel connected to their colleagues.

The long-term future of work

As employers come to understand that hybrid working is here to stay, they must also grapple with the fact that many office environments are not set up to support hybrid work.

For instance, hosting a virtual meeting where all participants are remote is much easier than when some are local and a physical meeting room is needed. New collaboration environments are needed, such as forgoing meeting rooms in favour of casual group working spaces, or having all local workers also participate virtually.

Such scenarios demand a working environment that supports this model, especially through delivering an appropriate audio environment where all people can hear and be heard.

This means putting real thought into the design of the physical workspace and the tools that workers are using, rather than just accepting the default options. This starts by assessing the work people are doing, and how they are best supported to achieve their outcomes.

It is here that we expect to see Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) technologies playing a greater role, by understanding the context of workers' tasks and goals, and helping them to better organise their time, or to extract greater value from their interactions. AI Engineering and ML Operations become the core functions that form the seamless back-end processes of hybrid working, facilitating the digital transformation of the workplace.

Creating your hybrid workplace

As employers come to understand that hybrid working is not a fad, they also realise that supporting a hybrid working world is very different to when everyone was working from home.

Cisco has already been living with this reality for some time, as even before the pandemic the company already had only half of its workforce spending four or five days a week in the office. Throughout its existence, Optus has been striving to help its customers and employees engage in any location, on any devices, at any time.

Together they offer solutions that strengthen employee and customer experience and promote flexible ways of working that create moments that matter and help people connect at a human level.

While the path ahead will be different for every organisation, what is known for certain is that the first step in embracing the hybrid future of work is to accept that life will not return to what it was like before the pandemic. Once that realisation is set in stone, then the real work of considering what the future of work will be can begin.

While this might seem like a grand undertaking, it should also be seen as liberating, as there is now an opportunity to let go of the legacy processes that deep down were hindering productivity but were kept because of familiarity.

Because at its heart the hybrid future of work is not about compromises between local and remote based work. It is about merging the best of all ideas into something that is fundamentally superior, no matter where a worker is located.

For those employers that want to ensure they retain a happy and productive workforce for the long term, there really is no other option. It's time to embrace it.

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