No turning back from the hybrid work future

A Cisco-commissioned study with MIT Sloan Management Review highlights progress towards the future of work. Now comes an equal challenge: building on its promise.

Today we stand at an important crossroads. Hybrid work promises a more inclusive, flexible, and collaborative future. Yet I fear that in some ways we could regress, especially if work cultures fail to evolve at the pace of technology change, and leaders don’t adapt to the evolving “mixed mode” — that is, some people in the office and others at home (or just about anywhere else they choose).  

For all of its challenges and tragedies, the pandemic revealed what’s possible with work. Much of the global workforce moved to remote work all-but overnight. And despite fears to the contrary, we proved that we can be even more productive. But now comes an equally difficult part: building on the knowledge we’ve gained these past two years to build a future of work that’s great for everyone, no matter where they happen to be.  

To shed some light on current attitudes about work, and how leaders can prepare for what’s coming, MIT Sloan Management Review and Webex by Cisco conducted a comprehensive survey. Its 1,561 respondents ranged from corporate directors and C-level executives to supervisors, managers, and individual contributors — all from a variety of industries and spread across 12 countries.  

The results reveal much about what’s going right — and what isn’t. 

For starters, 59 percent still consider the ability to work from a place of their own choice to be a benefit, while only 36 percent believe it’s a given. 75 percent said that working remotely gives them a sense of not being “in the know.” And another 72 percent feared a pay gap between hybrid workers and their in-office counterparts.  

For us to fully reap the rewards of hybrid work, there should be no difference in where you choose to work. That means seamless, secure technology — in the office and remotely — that dissolves the distance between people. And it means a culture that supports this new paradigm. 

The emerging mixed mode is going to be harder to manage than when everyone was in the office — and also harder than when everyone was working remotely. So, organizations will need to be more aware of how their physical spaces are laid out as well as the quality of experience for those working from afar. And meetings will need to be better organized and facilitated — to avoid burnout and to ensure that everyone has a voice (not just the loudest person in the physical meeting room). 

That means that organizations will need to ensure that no one feels left out because of their geography, language, personality, disposition, or any other differences. Because if anyone feels unable to fully contribute due to any of those differences, that will be a great loss — and a setback for the progress that we've made over the past couple of years to this dimension of inclusivity. 

The good news is that many companies have done a good job of preserving their cultures despite moving to a dispersed workforce. In the Cisco/MIT survey, a majority said that camaraderie, closeness to the organization, and feelings of inclusion and diversity have improved, or at least stayed the same, since the pandemic began. They also applauded their leaders’ ability to model empathy, work-life balance, and candid discussions. 

But I think we need to do more. Moving forward, there may be team members who will never even meet face to face. But close human connections will still need to be cultivated, so that interactions and engagements aren’t simply transactional. Leaders need to build relationships and establish trust. And that emotional intelligence needs to be fundamental to company cultures. 

At the same time, the office still matters. In the MIT/Cisco study, respondents cited in-office benefits like face-to-face creativity, collaboration and learning. But the office experience needs to be great to get people to go there. That comes down to more welcoming physical layouts, better technology, and more inclusive, empathetic in-office cultures. The days of rigid hierarchical structures and 9-5, Monday through Friday working weeks are gone. People will want the freedom to meet one, two, three, or zero days in the office, if that’s what suits their lifestyle. (And the Great Resignation shows that they mean business.) 

All of these changes represent a profound evolution in work. But I believe that the full dimension of hybrid work has not yet been completely grasped. If we get it right, the ultimate benefit will be in ensuring that anyone anywhere can participate in the global economy. Because it’s about leveling the playing field — whether someone is born in Silicon Valley or three thousand miles away.  

We are beginning to see more and more companies evolve in these directions. And the ones that don’t evolve their technology and cultures won’t be able to attract the best talent — or customers. And leaders that can’t manage highly diverse and distributed teams with empathy and open communication will not advance.  

As culture change evolves, so does technology. I’m excited at how new innovations can help support equal collaboration in a meeting — regardless of who is or isn’t in the office. Recent Webex innovations like background noise reduction and real-time language translations go a long way. In the office, intelligent video cameras can zero in on individuals and ensure they are being seen and given a chance to speak. And meetings are more interactive using instant polling apps like Slido. 

Looking forward, we can expect a hyper-real 3D experience through technologies like Webex Hologram. This will blur the lines between face-to-face and virtual experiences, to the point where the technology itself will be rendered all but invisible.  

In a few years, we’ll look back at how we once communicated with dozens of two-inch-by-two-inch video images on a square screen and laugh. The progress in augmented reality and holograms will move fast. And no doubt there’s plenty of exciting stuff we haven’t even imagined yet.  

In short, hybrid work is here to stay, and there’s no going back. So, be sure your technology and culture are ready


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