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A new world of hybrid work is loading

One thing that this pandemic has done for us: it has dispersed work. What used to be done together in one place is now being done all over the place: in homes, in cafes, in far-off locales. Except for those most acutely affected, the work, by and large, has not stopped. It’s just relocated.

Once upon a time work was something we exclusively did in the same location as our coworkers. We worked at our desks; we gathered in meeting rooms; we met customers; we exchanged banter at the coffee machine. We had to be present to work. Not being at the workplace meant not working. That’s certainly how the first part of my working life transpired.

Technology began to change all that. Knowledge workers began to be equipped with portable computers; the internet revolution happened; affordable connectivity became the norm rather than the exception. Many of us became road warriors and digital nomads, doing our work here, there and everywhere. 

I wrote about this phenomenon in 2014: that we were now able to work at home, and play in the office. Some folks, seemingly immersed in their work at their desks, were actually tracking the day’s trending trivia on Twitter. Others, perched at the corner of the coffee bar looking at the phone and laughing, might actually be in a serious work-related video call.

And then the novel coronavirus arrived. Suddenly, and for prolonged periods, there was no choice but to work away from the office. Remote work became everyone’s work. By force. A massive acceleration of an existing trend took place.

So now what? After we are mostly vaccinated and mostly safe, will we swarm back to our offices and treat the days of Zoom calls and Teams chats as aberrations? To some extent, yes. Some things are best done in person and face-to-face, after all. Two years of pandemic does not undo two hundred thousand years of human evolution.

But wait. What the time of COVID-19 might leave us with is this realization: we have options. Having done this work-from-anywhere thing, we can decide if we want to continue it, even in part. We can see what makes most sense to our own organizations. We can chop and change. We can reconfigure work and offices to suit us. We don’t have to be chained to our desks, every hour of every working day.

A world of hybrid work is loading, in which offices are used for the things offices are good for: collaboration, team-building, cultural reinforcement, social connections, learning by watching others, and good old-fashioned human contact.

What the office doesn’t have to be, any more, is a desk factory. One desk per person was how work was done. You can still choose to go back to that world; but you no longer have to. Liberating work from the office, where this is possible, can lead to some excellent outcomes: the end of the mind-numbing daily commute; the ability to reduce property and premises costs; attracting the younger talent that likes to have options; and widening the pool of expertise across geographical boundaries.

Some will embrace this new world enthusiastically; others will shun it vociferously. It’s your organisation’s call to make, based on your unique circumstances.

Whatever you choose, the fact is we are all going to be involved in many more virtual meetings and digital interactions from now on. That genie is out of the bottle. Working while distanced from our colleagues will be a fact of regular life for many of us, particularly all the knowledge workers. So all the Zoom zest and Teams tricks and Slack savvy you’ve picked up in corona times? They’re all good, and they’re here to stay.

This will have consequences. Cultural norms will evolve. Investment patterns will change (better devices and bandwidth, fewer parking places). Offices will morph (fewer desks, more collaboration spaces).

Our individual skillsets will also need an upgrade. Can you run an effective virtual meeting? Can you make it lively and interactive? Do you know how to combine synchronous and asynchronous work? If you don’t, you had better learn – fast.

And guess what will happen if we disperse more and collaborate across geographic borders and time zones? A certain old-fashioned, time-honoured skill will come back into play. It won’t just be about your tech tricks and software skills; something rather more elemental will also take eminence. If you have this skill, you will be extra valuable to your organization. It will help you to stand out from the crowd, and develop some distinction.

What is this skill? That’s for next week. See you here.

(Sunday Nation, 18 April 2021)

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