UK businesses responded rapidly in response to the first national lockdown to maintain business continuity and keep operations running. Understandably given the suddenness of the announcement, many organisations were restricted at the time by their existing technology solutions and the limitations of the equipment they were able to source. Now, as we transition into the next evolution of working, businesses find themselves in the position where they can take a longer-term, more strategic response.
What does the post-COVID working world look like and how can businesses adapt to benefit, both commercially and in the interest of their most valuable assets — their people?
We caught up with two senior members of the Opus team, Chief Commercial Officer Michael O’Donnell and Sales Directors Matt Dudleston and Stephen Harte, to find out more about the future of work and how our customers can use new — and existing — technology solutions to adapt to it.
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‘Hybrid working’ can be used to describe a working environment in which an organisation’s employees work from both home and the office. The movement is growing fast, with UK law firm Irwin Mitchell the latest in a series of large, high profile organisations announcing that it will allow its 3,000 employees to “choose where and when they work in the future”.
As Michael explains, the sudden uptake of hybrid working has come about as a result of people gradually returning to office spaces after more than a year of home working.
“Many organisations are discovering that this isn’t an overnight transition. For a variety of reasons, some employees are continuing to work remotely. In this hybrid work environment, employees are leveraging the same technology suites they have depended on over the last year of home working. But on their own, these solutions don’t translate seamlessly into hybrid work environments. If three people are in one meeting room and their colleagues or clients are remote, the experience will be poor.”
Are there designated spaces where hybrid huddles or other meetings can be held uninterrupted? Many people aren’t using audio devices except for the speakers on their laptops, but that isn’t viable in a busy open-plan office/meeting room — what will they use? And how can organisations plan for the reintroduction of employees into the workplace in a way that is operationally smooth, frictionless for the staff, and commercially efficient? As Irwin Mitchell has stated, the transition is currently “subject to [its employees’] and client work being completed effectively”.
“To mitigate the challenges of hybrid working, businesses are taking steps to integrate their core business technology with the likes of Zoom and Microsoft Teams to facilitate better collaboration. Take meeting rooms, for example. Smaller rooms will require different kinds of equipment to larger spaces. At the same time, attendees shouldn’t be required to mute their laptops and communicate through one microphone. A hybrid working environment requires organisations to think about their technology differently.”
One of the biggest challenges faced by businesses looking to adopt hybrid working practices is security. Beyond the reach of the corporate network, and operated in informal home environments, remote employees’ devices are more vulnerable to security breaches.
“Most organisations equip their employees with laptops precisely because they are mobile devices. In the case of business continuity being challenged, employees with laptops or tablets have full remote working capabilities, wherever they are. But this presents a security challenge as well. In this environment, basic security like software VPNs don’t really retain the control”, Michael explains. “When we’re talking with a customer about their security concerns, it is often an organisation’s people who are identified as being the highest risk.”
IT Services Sales Director at Opus, Stephen Harte, explains how in a hybrid work model, employees are then bringing potentially infected devices back within the corporate network.
“We are all familiar by now with the way in which a virus spreads. In a similar way, employees working flexibly are bringing their devices back into the corporate network, where they have the potential to infect other devices and systems across the business. While this shouldn’t deter organisations from embracing a hybrid model, it is a key consideration and an area where we’re seeing significant demands. Traditionally when we talk about security with our customers, we are having conversations about securing the network, so that’s something that’s changed. Fortunately, our range of security offerings is really strong right now, and we are working with our customers to recommend the right products to protect their devices.”
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Hybrid working presents organisations with new challenges but it also offers them opportunities that may not have been acceptable or available through the more traditional working model pre-pandemic.
“Looking at it from the point of view of the business, hybrid working creates an environment in which organisations can potentially get the most out of their workforce”, explains Matt. “Every employee is working in their preferred way, in an optimal environment. What we’re seeing is businesses looking at the technology solutions they need to enable this.”
Another benefit of a successful hybrid model is improved collaboration. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) claims the rise in productivity [as a result of remote working] is “clear”, but warns that hybrid working must prioritise “wellbeing, communication and collaboration to recognise people’s individual preferences”.
“One of the things many businesses have lost throughout the pandemic is that sense of ‘office time’, those moments of informal brainstorming and ad-hoc discussions”, Matt adds. “We’re seeing customers looking for solutions that replicate or enable this within a hybrid workforce. How do they deploy the right technology to make the most out of the workforce and the operating model?”
Implemented successfully, a hybrid model creates a positive experience for employees returning to the office after 12-18 months away as well as for those who choose to continue working in a more flexible manner. Matt highlights the importance of this for ensuring that those employees who want to return to the office are able to do so easily and painlessly.
“Organisations need to be able to make that return to work a positive experience, otherwise they stand to demotivate staff, push them away from the office or lose part of the workforce altogether — sentiments echoed recently by PwC chairman Kevin Ellis when he said that he hopes the company’s shift towards hybrid working means employees feel “trusted and empowered”. In stark contrast to the knee-jerk reaction most businesses had when remote working was enforced at the beginning of the first national lockdown, an organisation’s hybrid working strategy needs to be thought through and there needs to be technology in place that facilitates a positive experience, so that employees returning to the office don’t finding collaboration even more challenging than it was when they were working from home.”
Far from making commercial concessions for the sake of appeasing its employees, the hybrid working model offers those businesses willing and able to adapt the opportunity to maximise employee efficiencies and even attract new talent that might otherwise have been inaccessible or put off by the prospect of commuting/location.
“The return to the office shouldn’t hamstring a business”, Michael summarises. “It offers organisations a competitive advantage through the ability to enable even better collaboration, engagement and efficiencies. With the right technology in place, it can be.”
Matt is already seeing businesses invest to make sure they have technology in place to facilitate a hybrid working model that lets its employees collaborate, wherever they’re based. As he explains it, the solution is more complex than simply relying on the same tools and systems that enabled remote working through the course of the pandemic.
“Most offices have designated employees taking incoming calls”, Michael adds, “but this isn’t a standard feature of Microsoft Teams, so organisations will need to build in the switchboard functionality. The same is true of its contact centre as a service (CCAS) or reporting and analytics features, all of which can be thought of as non-standard services. To make a solution like Microsoft Teams work for the hybrid model, organisations need someone who can piece together all of their requirements and match them to functionalities.”
Many businesses already have the software to be able to facilitate these integrations, and employees already have the software they need to work remotely. What they lack is the technology in meeting rooms and in the office to ensure the two work seamlessly. At Opus, we acknowledge these challenges and work closely with each of our customers to help.
“As we build out this model within our own infrastructure, we are able to invite our customers to see and experience them, so we can give them advice on hybrid working best practices from more than just a theoretical point of view”, Michael explains. “There are a lot of telecoms or IT companies recommending the same kinds of tools and software we have collectively used to navigate remote working challenges over the course of the pandemic, but that’s not helping organisations to really match their IT strategy with their business strategy. That’s where our focus is, on aligning technology to meet the needs of the business goals and strategy to deliver the result each and every one of our customers is targeting.”
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