When the pandemic hit last year and businesses and schools of all types rushed to get people to work and learn from home, hardly anyone thought about bringing everyone back to the office.
After all, the initial presumption was that it would be a short-term situation, and there was so much effort put into making the transition out, that no one thought of the return process.
Almost a year and a half later, the reality of back to work and school puts millions of people and hundreds of thousands of organizations in the face – and it seems to be a much more difficult problem than anyone else. originally thought.
In fact, ironically, the more I talk to people, the more I read about it, and the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is going to be more difficult than the transition to working from home. Much harder.
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And let’s not forget, that’s saying something. When migrating out of the office, many companies went to Herculean efforts to find PCs, configure remote access tools, reconfigure their applications, quickly migrate to cloud computing models and more to make sure people can do their jobs. To their collective credit, it was an incredible success. Of course, there were hiccups along the way, but the initial fears of an economic collapse and worse were not only avoided, but the exercise actually leads to increased productivity according to many different metrics.
Of course, this has also led to a lot of soul-searching into how work (and learning) can and should be done, on the part of both employers and employees. In addition, this has led to rethink the tools we need to work and how we can collaborate. Those old dreams and promises of remote-working technology weren’t that far behind after all, at least in most situations.
The result is that practically everyone seems to have a certain sense of hybrid work models (with literally millions of variations), and the day after Labor Day, a lot of people and organizations are going to go into another experiment of at least 18 months on exactly how to run the hybrid, well, work.
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One of the first (of many) challenges that most organizations will face is the lack of high quality video conferencing tools. It’s fair to say that the pandemic has taken most of us from videoconferencing novices to videoconferencing experts, but a return to one of your organization’s meeting rooms might bring back more terrible memories of interpersonal frustrations than a 5-year-old Skype-only hardware conferencing tool can induce.
Although there are exceptions, most organizations have not adapted their meeting places to the multi-platform, one-click standard that we have become accustomed to. If you think that’s not really that important, remember that all of the success of hybrid work depends entirely on being able to continue to communicate easily with anyone, anywhere.
Worse yet, if you’ve started participating in calls where some people are now in a conference room while others are still in the standard one person per box “Hollywood Squares” style arrangement, you have no no doubt noticed how annoying this can be.
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I have spoken with several organizations that are intentionally trying to avoid this and maintain the sense of equality that video squares have brought to all of us by asking everyone to bring their laptops into conference rooms and basically act. as if they were all distant. While I like the logic, I think the idea of ââtalking to your screen to communicate with the person across the table (or next to you) won’t work for very long, if at all.
Then there is the challenge of where you will actually sit when you return to the office – and, oh, let’s not forget the potential political hot potato of COVID vaccination requirements, or the FOMO (fear of missing out) that will engender the fact of seeing colleagues in the office).
Some organizations will just put people back to where they were – although they must also accommodate anyone who has switched to working remotely and new employees who have joined during COVID. Many others are considering things like hot-desking, where you register for different physical spaces every day. Not only does this risk aging very quickly, but it doesn’t help with the other challenge of not being able to easily determine (and plan) when certain people are in the office or working remotely.
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The challenges that these issues – and many more – will raise, will undoubtedly lead many companies to shift their strategies when they see which processes and tools work and which don’t in the new hybrid world of work. It’s quite interesting, for example, to see a lot of tech companies – which have generally shown the most interest and willingness to try hybrid working models – start to change their thinking and strategies even before the start of the mass migration back to the office.
Amazon, for example, went from forcing almost everyone to return to the office full time, to a more flexible, three-day-a-week arrangement. Apple, on the other hand, is showing signs of stricter requirements and higher expectations for time spent in the office, to the dismay of some employees.
In the end, we’ll likely see a lot of experimentation, some of which are doomed to frustrate people and might even lead – as some have predicted – to massive resignations and huge jumps in the number of people changing jobs.
Without a doubt, however, the much-anticipated return to the office that many have been eagerly awaiting will be much more difficult than expected. Hopefully companies plan accordingly.
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