Hybrid Work: How to Ensure Everyone Gets an Equal Seat at the Table

BrandPost By Aruna Ravichandran
Oct 01, 2021
Remote Work

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Credit: Cisco

Hybrid work and back-to-work are topics on everyone’s minds right now, but when I watch and listen to people talking about them, I realize they are only getting half the story. They focus so much on location and logistics, and are blind to the true revolution that stands before them, which is a new opportunity for wholly productive and inclusive collaboration. We are now undergoing a people-focused transformation.

Generally, when people come up against change, their first instinct is to ask, “what will I lose?” It has always been so much about the fear of loss rather than the potential for gain. So, with hybrid and back-to-work, they picture more clumsy meetings done from living rooms and kitchens, and they worry about how the community – the team – that was once centered within the office, will dry up and blow away. Managers question whether they can trust their home-based employees to do their assigned work unobserved, and wonder whether they themselves are capable of managing them properly, as this Harvard Business Review (June 2020), article describes.  

The media, too, eagerly comments about the dangers of “not going back to the office.” University of California prof. Kimberly Elsbach, said, in CNN Business, in January 2019, offices “are perfect environments for face-time bias…. an unconscious perception of people who are seen around the office … as dedicated, reliable, committed, dependable…[while] people … who are just not as visible are scored lower on those kinds of traits.”

These are all biases that come from the very human weakness of judging people and innovation solely on the basis of what had come before. Every technology has had to go through this trial. Telephones, a century ago, computers in the 1980s, internet connectivity in the 1990s. Always, the question has been, “why do we need this, and can we trust our employees with it?”

The great discovery that is now making itself real as it springs from the pandemic lockdown is that many types of jobs can indeed be done from a place other than the office without any reduction in team synergy, communication, or creativity, and in fact, an increase in the potential for employees to thrive as individuals and as teams is taking its place.

This revelation came with a struggle because most of us started by using these new technologies with yesterday’s mindsets. Everyone was told they must connect to a video chat meeting, but few were trained how to act and interact with it. The goal was to replicate what had been done in the meeting room and naturally this didn’t work so well. It just could not reproduce that space. This was like “live remote” version 1.0, and just like all version 1.0 releases, there was a lot to be fixed.

The blossoming of talent through inclusion

What we have now is a world where the dynamics of team togetherness do not have to be lost due to distance, where spontaneity and vibe are as accessible as ever, and where connection is effortless and even proactive. The meeting technologies available now are capable of leveling the playing field to ensure that the experience is positive and supportive for everyone, and that the outcomes are superior to what came before.

It’s about ensuring people who work from home or in a hybrid setup can get a seat at the team table where confidence and dignity are available to all. For example, if English is not your first language, artificial intelligence can translate immediately and accurately for you in both directions. This allows team members to focus on their strengths rather than barriers. Similarly there is great confidence that comes from knowing that background noises are intelligently removed and that the meeting camera’s immersive focus delivers a sense of equality and commonality, no matter where people are sitting. Introverts now have the opportunity to make themselves “heard” through gestures or chat – whatever works for them and for the team.

This is what collaboration technologies can now do. They can be flexible, inclusive, supportive, secure, and well managed. And after the meetings are done, they should be able to help people better track their time, including prep time and me time, to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is as much a part of the daily agenda as are tasks and messages.

No more second class citizens

When my daughters watch a clip from a TV show or a newscast that shows the gridlock of rush-hour traffic, I see them shake their heads in disbelief. Looking at hundreds of thousands of people, mostly one-per-car, driving to the place where they do their work, with many more thousands crammed into trains and buses. They’re using between 500 and 1,000 hours a year, just getting to where they needed to be and then back again. Those were the ones who were considered “legitimate” workers.

Recently, as within the past few months, some of the largest tech sector employers, including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook, have suggested that post pandemic employees who still choose to work from home should receive proportionally less pay than those who commute, especially if they live in less-expensive neighborhoods. They say this has more to do with the relative costs of rent and travel, but it seems to continue to reinforce the concept of a work-from-home/hybrid professional as second class. It suggests that some companies and managers might still see the value of a worker not so much in what they produce, but in the fact that they must be physically present and accounted for.

So the question remains – is the value of employees measured by the work they deliver, or by where they deliver it?

The truth is a great many knowledge workers can perform all of their workplace functions at home – where there is no commute required – or wherever else they would like to be. Everything that can be done in an office can be done remotely, and this not only includes meetings, presentations, and self-directed work, but also having spontaneous chats and other informal interactions with colleagues and managers. The dynamic atmosphere of the workplace can still be present even remotely. But we had to have version 1.0 in order to pave the way for version 2.0 and beyond.

This is a new method of leveraging the talents and the passions of employees by taking away the barrier of the commute. We have done this change many times before. Think how comfortable we have become as consumers, doing online banking in place of standing in line for a teller at the bank branch in town. 

This new age of intelligent, people-focused collaborative technology will serve to revitalize companies by channeling more time, passion, and energy into developing the products and services that they want to sell, and reducing the waste that we have carried over from the pre-digital working era. There is no second class when companies put people first.

Aruna Ravichandran Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer Webex Collaboration