February 7, 2022

Developing a Successful Hybrid Work Strategy: A Fireside Chat with Nick Hedderman, Director, Modern Work & Security Business Group at Microsoft

Rajeeb Dey MBE

For many years we referred to the ‘future of work’ as if it would materialise gradually at an unknown time and pontificating on what it may look like. Suddenly COVID-19 hit and we found ourselves catapulted into the ‘future’ within the span of a few weeks.

Now, as lockdown rules start to relax, employers are increasingly exploring their options and wondering what the future workplace will look like. Do they remain fully remote? If not, how can you develop an effective hybrid work environment as employees yearn for more face-to-face connections, whilst maintaining the flexibility inherent with remote work?

We partnered with Microsoft to speak with one of their resident experts - Nick Hedderman to find out.

Nick has the apt title Director of ‘Modern Work.’ He shares his views on which changes to the world of work will remain and how best we can evolve to create a modern and inclusive world of work.

Key Takeaways:

- We are not going back to the way things were:
employers must think about suitable hybrid work strategies if they wish to attract and retain top talent.

- Make the office “a destination”: design your office to be somewhere employees actually want to go and that adds value to their day, versus just being there to send emails or attend virtual calls.

- Experimentation is critical: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid work. The key is to experiment while collecting data and insights to know whether the changes you are applying are effective.

- Technology needs to augment the experience not dictate it: technology can support a hybrid strategy to ensure everyone is fully included whether remote or in person.

- Everyone needs to be on a learning journey: making learning more accessible and part of the daily process is a critical change that organisations need to make.

Do you think remote work is here to stay or will people revert back to offices when lockdown lifts?

It’s safe to say that the can of worms has been opened. People have now experienced the flexibility of working from home. Whilst there have been many challenges too, the idea that you can use the time you may have been commuting for other things, such as taking care of personal tasks outside of work, is a great benefit.

It is worth remembering that for some people the last 12 months have been a tough experience. Especially for those that have not had their own dedicated workspace at home, perhaps because they are in a small apartment or shared living space. Some people operate best when they have a dedicated space, like an office, to complete work.

However, any organisation that thinks they can go back to the way things were before will need to think hard about the consequences that might have. 70% of employees we surveyed said they wanted some sort of hybrid work, for example, 2 days a week in an office with the rest of the time remote.

Hybrid work enables people to benefit from the flexibility of remote working whilst allowing for the serendipity and face-to-face connection that we as human beings desire and gain from an office environment.

Ultimately, talent will look for hybrid work policies and principles in their organisation and if they are not getting it in one, they will seek it elsewhere. As we think about acquiring — and keeping — great talent in an organisation, having a well thought out strategy around hybrid work will be critical.

What are the key considerations in developing a hybrid work strategy?

People will begin to question the time and money of commuting. The place of work, therefore, needs to become a “destination” - somewhere people want and choose to go to because it adds value to a meeting or day, versus just being there to send emails or attend virtual calls.

If you are going to an office for a creative brainstorm, just sitting around a table is the worst environment for that. Technology can play a supporting role; technology is here to augment but not dictate, and in many cases it can make the experience a lot slicker. For example, imagine having creative interactive whiteboard environments, where you come together in an informal way, capture the thoughts digitally and share them afterwards.

For a standard meeting room, we used to be dialled into a meeting from a remote environment. Being at the end of a telephone line was a terrible experience. So, how do we make those meetings more inclusive? That's where you need large monitors, video cameras, microphones and ideally some virtual ‘room system.’ Those are just some things to consider when creating the workspace of the future.

One of the benefits of everyone being remote is that it’s a good leveller. Everyone is included and everyone is on the same starting platform. With a hybrid environment you have to be very careful that you don't have a return to 'presenteeism' or favouritism for those who are physically in the office versus those who choose to be remote.

Managers need to role model this hybrid work approach, for example, by taking some meetings from home. The culture will then dictate and support your hybrid strategy. Managers have to work harder to create an inclusive environment; therefore good leadership and management arguably is one of the most critical things.

Ultimately there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to hybrid work - it has to be relevant for your company, your culture, your industry and so many other variables. Experimentation is key. The only way you can run a good experiment is measuring; you need to have the tools behind the experiments to be able to get the data to make a decision on whether it was right or wrong and if you wish to continue.

We know that fully remote work itself has had some drawbacks in terms of people feeling a lack of human connection. Microsoft’s own report says 62% of people felt less connected to their team working from home. How do we humanise remote work?  

It is hard to replicate everything virtually. The teams who have always worked remotely have finally got their day in the sun. They are probably the best audience to talk to as they have been doing it for many years.

How work can be both synchronous and asynchronous is one way to make work more human. Asynchronous work can help you balance your time, e.g. if I start a project I can post that in Teams and ‘@ mention’ the people I want to collaborate with. They may be in different time zones or have other commitments but they can contribute in their own time and on their own terms, which is a very empowering feeling.

If you can't recreate the serendipity of an office, set up dedicated channels for light-hearted chatter. Have more purposeful one-to-ones within the team itself (not just with managers) to connect with colleagues. Don’t talk about work for a good majority of that time so you can get to know them, support them and think about their wellbeing.

Moving onto wellbeing, we are seeing reports of employees working longer hours, not taking breaks and suffering from burnout. What is the role of technology providers such as Microsoft in helping employees to avoid burnout and screen fatigue?

Our data over the last year has shown a real rise in Teams messages being sent pre-9am i.e. 7am or 8am and equally later in the day i.e. 5-7pm. That goes to show that the 9am-5pm day is gone and some people are certainly working longer hours.

As individuals have been working in a remote environment for a little longer, I hope people are recognising that their wellbeing is critical and that it needs to be prioritised and thus are taking the time to get away from their screen.

At Microsoft we shorten meetings to 50 minutes or 25 minutes rather than an hour or 30 minutes and ensure there are microbreaks during the day. It’s also ok to sometimes turn your video camera off. Whilst video is a wonderful way to be able to see both non-verbal cues and create a better connection, equally there are meetings which are suitable to be audio only. Ideally you can then put your headphones on and go for a walk or change your scenery at least.

In addition, there is new technology we have built that will help with wellbeing, such as our Employee Experience Platform - Microsoft Viva. It comes to life in the Teams environment and one of the things it does is give you insights into how you are spending your time and how you could better spend your time. It helps you consider how you could create more time for focus or it encourages you to do mindfulness activities through our partnership with Headspace.

As we all know, one of the benefits in the past of going to an office was that you book-ended your day with a commute where you had an opportunity to reflect and decompress. We have built a ‘virtual commute’ capability into our platform to replicate this.

We also have developed “Together mode” in Microsoft Teams which can help reduce cognitive load for participants in video calls. It creates more natural virtual environments such as a coffee shop, or school auditorium within which meetings can take place.

It takes all members of the call, uses AI segmentation to remove their own physical backgrounds and drops them into that shared scene. What the research shows is that it really reduces the cognitive load on the mind for participants in that environment versus the traditional grid view of individual faces. In doing so it helps reduce the sense of screen fatigue.

Do we risk leaving people behind in terms of digital literacy and what more can we do to ensure inclusivity in ‘Modern Work.’

Everyone needs to be on a learning journey. Making learning more accessible and part of the daily process is a critical change that organisations need to make. Gone are the days of going on a training course for one day once a year. Learning needs to be an always on thing and technology can help do that. Technology can make learning more snackable, interactive and present in your day-to-day vs being hidden away in some Learning Management System.

Specifically around digital; the future of the economy relies on technology and digital skills and they are ever evolving. Technology is moving at such a fast pace, making learning and digital skills core to a company's agenda is critical.

At Microsoft we are a great believer in supporting this cause so we have “Get On 2021” which is our platform where people can access great content to keep their skills refreshed and up to date all the time.  

By empowering your employees with digital skills and low or no code enterprise app technology, you give them autonomy to solve challenges, better meet the needs of your customers and ultimately, reimagine the way they work.

You can read more information about the Embracing the New World of Work in a Microsoft eBook here.

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