At some point in the future, when the threat of COVID-19 diminishes, organizations will need to decide whether to continue allowing employees to work remotely or bring them back to the office.
For many organizations, the approach that makes the most sense is a hybrid one, with some employees returning to the office, some employees working remote full time, and others working remotely some of the time. Companies should expect some workers will want to continue to operate remotely, at least part time, now that they’ve tasted the freedom of remote work. And if they’ve continued to deliver value, that can be a good thing.
As many telework advocates have noted, working remotely offers many advantages. These workers tend to be more productive, and they cut commuting times out of their schedules. Companies that allow remote work can dramatically cut rent and utility costs related to running large offices.
The future office will likely be smaller, with many employees there only part of the time. An employee who wants to work from the office will use online tools to reserve a desk or a meeting room, and companies will focus on using their office space more efficiently.
Hybrid work challenges
This new normal is not without its challenges, however. Many organizations scrambled to allow most or all of their employees to work remotely after the pandemic hit. But now, after a few months of trying to make it work, it’s time to plan for the future of work, which will very likely include working remote.
The main issue with bringing some employees back to the office is ensuring their health and safety. Companies will need to decide who returns, when, and what health and safety measures are necessary. In many cases, employers will want to regularly test in-office workers for COVID-19, and they will also want to limit the number of surfaces that employees touch. This means, for example, installing touch-free door mechanisms.
Another tool for office safety is a smart office configurator that can scan the office space and recommend a physical setup that complies with social-distancing guidelines. Instead of employees manually measuring each office – at some companies, covering dozens of locations – these automated tools can recommend ways to space desks six feet apart, and they can revamp recommendations quickly if social-distancing guidelines change.
The same IT experience
Meanwhile, some of the biggest challenges of a hybrid work environment come from delivering a similar employee experience in both remote and office locations. Companies should investigate comprehensive collaboration platforms that include chat, voice communication, video meetings, and the ability to easily share documents and other work products.
In addition, one of the biggest differences between the in-office and the remote work experience has been the availability of IT support for off-site workers. In some cases, remote workers start with a disadvantage such as an unstable or inconsistent broadband connection, a slow computer, or even an uncomfortable office chair.
Smart companies are conducting technology and office assessments for employees who want to work remotely over the long term. The assessment can look for better broadband options, if available, or recommend cellular backhaul for employees that have slow or overloaded broadband connections. It can also recommend a new laptop, a new phone system, and new office furniture for the work-from-home employee. A good chair and the right desk can save the company sick days and health insurance claims in the long term.
Some companies are offering “home-office-in-a-box” packages targeted at specific office personas or roles. A company executive may need a robust voice communication system, while a developer may need a powerful workstation, for example.
While these steps won’t fix every IT problem for remote employees, they can preempt a lot of issues. Businesses will still need to offer help desk support to remote workers, but a good computer and a stable broadband connection will go a long way toward limiting the number of tickets.
Another frequent complaint about working remotely is the challenge of measuring employee productivity. This fear of employees slacking off seems to be lessening as companies see employees being as productive, if not more productive, while working remotely as they were on premises.
Some remote jobs lend themselves to easy productivity tracking; call center employees, for example, can be rated on mean time to resolution and other metrics. The productivity of knowledge workers is a bit more difficult to measure, but there are collaboration and artificial intelligence-based workplace tools to check in on them, if necessary. Many collaboration tools can track how many documents an employee has shared, or how many meetings he/she attends, for example. AI tools, likewise, can track employee activities while recommending ways to be more efficient or to revamp their processes.
Employee training is another important component of the productivity equation, with productivity likely increasing when employees are adequately trained in the hardware and applications they will use in their remote offices. In addition, some AI tools can provide some over-the-shoulder nudges to help employees better use a feature or shortcut in a work application.
However, a company worried about the productivity of its knowledge workers probably has a problem with its hiring and management.
Tools to deliver the employee experience generally fall into three categories: technology performance, employee productivity, and employee wellbeing (physical, mental, and emotional).
Employee wellbeing is an important issue that some companies tend to overlook. Companies can help employees not only with collaboration tools and connectivity, but also with the right kind of furniture, for example.
Companies can encourage employees to share best practices on ideal remote workspaces. In addition, enlightened employers put more emphasis on wellbeing practices such as taking breaks, scheduling meditation or exercise sessions, and including family members in virtual happy hour video calls. Microsoft Teams, for example, recently announced that it will use AI to automatically block time on calendar for breaks and focus time.
AI tools can also help employees manage their wellbeing, even as many remote workers are tempted to work longer hours and blur their work lives with their private lives. In some cases, the productivity gains from remote workers have come at the cost of emotional and mental health, and smart companies will help their employees avoid burnout.
Built-in intelligence tools in office suites can point out when an employee has too many meetings scheduled in one day, as one example. A helpful AI tool may recommend the remote worker cancel that fifth meeting of the day and go for a walk instead.
As enterprises adapt to the new normal, there are plenty of tools and services to help them manage it successfully. It’s time to start considering them and begin preparing for the future of work.
Learn more about the future of work and NTT Ltd.’s Intelligent Workplace solutions.
Mitchell Hershkowitz, Vice President, Consulting & Advisory Services at NTT Ltd.