In pre-pandemic times, remote working wasn’t an option for many of us. It was a #workgoal that appealed to people looking for flexibility, freedom and the once rare opportunity to wear track pants at their desks.
A lot of employers outside the tech sphere actively discouraged working from home because they didn’t have the technology to support remote teams and were concerned about privacy and productivity. A day of working from home was reserved for exceptional circumstances, like caring for sick kids, waiting for a repairman to show up or crunching a deadline. The home office was free of workplace distractions and interruptions because, due to the lack of communication tools, remote working wasn’t just remote, it was isolating.
Fast forward to early 2020 and, due to the threat of covid-19, nearly one third of Australians suddenly found themselves working from home offices, kitchen tables and makeshift desks set up on everything from washing machines to nightstands. In a few short months, working from home became the new normal and employers have now accepted that there is no turning back.
“Recent numbers from GlobalData, shows that 30% of people in the Asia-Pacific region want to continue working from home and another 42% would prefer a mix of working from home and from the office,” says Scott Rigby, chief technology adviser at Adobe. He believes that although some people will return to the office, hybrid teams are the future of work.
In a hybrid workplace, some team members are based in the office, while others work remotely part of the time or on a permanent basis. And it’s not just employees who benefit. Embracing a hybrid way of working can boost team productivity and gives employers the opportunity to hire from a global talent pool.
But there is a catch. Switching to the hybrid model requires a seismic shift in workplace culture – bosses will have to prioritise team morale and embrace technology that ensures people feel connected.
“Besides the basic technology that allows people to do their day-to-day jobs, there’s a need for communication technology and a need to drive virtual wellbeing,” says Scott. “We have to give remote teams opportunities to have those water cooler chats and share jokes, while still being productive.
“There’s definitely a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when it comes to employees and what CIOs and CTOs have to think about with respect to technology.” The most basic need is for technology that allows people to work effectively from a remote location.
“We need to get the core tech and infrastructure in place first and then we need to build on top of that.”
To improve engagement and motivation, the next step is to provide the hybrid workforce with technology that enables individuals to develop relationships with their teammates. “There is no doubt that there is a [need] to be able to build more of a connection between employees as you normally would in a face-to-face environment,” Scott says. He predicts the rollout of 5G will change the remote working environment dramatically, as it will bring technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality into the home office.
According to Scott, tech companies are currently investing heavily in platforms that improve employee experience but existing applications like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and G Suite are good tools for communication and team collaboration.
So, how do you increase cohesion in a hybrid team? Begin by asking both office-based and remote workers to attend team meetings and brainstorming sessions via Zoom so that everyone stays connected and informed. And involve the entire team in less-important decisions by looping everyone in on conversations via instant messaging apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Messaging apps are also great tools for building relationships. Get onsite workers into the habit of communicating through Slack or Teams so their remote colleagues feel included. And create social channels for the kind of chats that used to happen in the office kitchen. Post regular conversation starters or pols in channels like #working-lunch, #funny and #wfh and encourage everyone to post photos, memes or jokes.
While a meme on a messaging app is good for a giggle, it’s no substitute for office lunches and Friday drinks and it doesn’t deliver when it comes to celebrating birthdays or company milestones. This explains the growing demand for platforms that provide workmates with opportunities to socialise online. Playing games like bingo and trivia or taking part in hosted experiences such as cooking classes and yoga bring people together and help build a collaborative team culture. Because we all know that, when it comes to productivity, fun is just as important as hard work.