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It is the question on every executive’s mind: is pushing for return to office the right thing to do? Will productivity drop if people keep working from home?
In fact, 80% of Australian managers surveyed by CIO.com in November 2021 said that the shift to working from home had created a more positive view of remote work policies within their company and was now informing how they planned for office space, tech staffing and overall staffing levels in the future.
The issue for business leaders is the pervasive worry that if everyone is working at home in isolation, company culture – the je ne sais quoi that makes a company better than the competitors – might dwindle over time, especially as new people are inducted into the business.
It is obvious that coffee chats and lunch discussions have dropped away with more people working from home. How can that five minute conversation culture be rebooted? How can staff crosstrain new joiners if they can’t provide swivel-chair mentoring?
From the workforce’s perspective, though, the benefits of working remotely are many: more flexibility around young childrens’ schedules, more regular family time, more sleep, no commute time and reduced daily costs, not to mention the ability to control personal risk in relation to the virus still circulating in the community.
It’s going to take experimentation
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that 2021 will be a year of experimentation, and this will no doubt carry into 2022. No company on Earth has all the answers yet about striking the perfect balance of hybrid work.
For example, Google recognises that the office isn’t going to be the same as before – most people will be working remotely some of the time – which means when they do come in, it won’t necessarily be to sit down at their normal desk to do work; it’ll be more about collaboration with their team and extended stakeholders.
So Google and our customers are trialling new types of work spaces, made possible by making use of the large ecosystem of technology partners that Google works with.
Here are some of the key improvements we’ve made to make hybrid work more human.
#1 Making remote participants equal in meetings
The biggest complaint from remote meeting participants is the sense of feeling unequal to people in the room – actually a serious problem for a workplace looking to get the best out of all its team members.
Google investigated how it could make meetings equal for everyone, whether dialled in or in the room and developed a concept of “immersive meetings” where remote participants appear on displays around the table.
For the people in the room, a central camera with multiple lenses tracks the faces of each in-person participant so that at the remote end, they appear as separate tiles on screen. The result is that in the room, everyone has a seat at the table, and remotely, everybody appears as a separate video tile.
Google’s new ‘companion mode’ (in preview) also lets people in a meeting room present with the same level of precision as someone presenting remotely. This makes the experience consistent, no matter where a participant is. Take a look at the video below to see how it works.
#2 Making the most of time when the team is together
If teams are coming together for a design sprint, the last thing they need is a cramped meeting room with a single whiteboard and six red markers, all of which are dried out.
Dedicated sprint spaces allow teams to book a space to come together with all the equipment they need to get work done quickly.
Large displays, a presentation space, small pods where two team members can collaborate together and multiple digital whiteboards make it possible for teams to get work done quickly.
#3 Making the best use of space with flexible team pods
Sitting with team members will still be important on the days teams come together. However, density limits will continue to be important in the office as the pandemic trails on and even in the annual flu season, so it’s important that the office can move around teams’ needs.
Consider how you can best support staff when they do choose to come into the office – that may mean reconsidering the banks of desks designed for staff to work at all day and instead reconfiguring them into small bookable neighbourhoods designed for focused collaboration.
It might also help to add more dividers into office desk areas and space between pods to allow smaller groups of people to come together safely. If these are not permanent dividers, then the office can be easily reconfigured according to changing team needs.
#4 Putting collaboration first
If you’re moving to a hybrid work model, why would you leave your office technology as is and expect the same results? It’s essential that the software platforms you provide your team are built from the ground up for online collaboration, not as a bolted-on afterthought.
Google Workspace was built around live document collaboration, and it works well on any device through a web browser. Video chat is built right in to the apps themselves, so team members can talk to each other right on the live document where they’re doing the work, rather than having to “share screen”.
And, because the documents live in the cloud by default, team members quickly get used to not emailing documents round to each other, but instead working on them collaboratively in real time.
#5 Making hybrid work more human
Many employers have found that their teams transitioned surprisingly smoothly to remote working, thanks to a fortunate confluence of collaboration technologies maturing and fast broadband being available across Australia.
However, staff also told them through surveys that working from home posed a challenge to wellbeing – it’s easy to feel that wall-to-wall video meetings sitting in a chair can be less enjoyable than the social side of a workplace.
That’s where it can be helpful to set up staff social events including remote team members that are a bit more than just 5pm drinks on a Friday.
It might be a bartender hosting a drink-making class where everybody concocts cocktails along with their team members, or an online Wiki-style contest to put together a cookbook with staff recipes.
Perhaps team members can book a 10 minute 1:1 video session with a chef to learn how to whip up a healthy home lunch.