It’s hard to know what makes an individual digital workplace tick, given the hundreds of apps now available to enterprises and workers. The technology behind a hybrid workplace poses an even bigger conundrum. Businesses are tasked with balancing employee demands for greater flexibility and accessibility with business needs for security. Recent research by multiple firms provide a glimpse into the questions and solutions businesses are debating.

Collaboration Tools Top Hybrid Workplace Needs

The use of AI capabilities grew by 200% between July and September 2021, according to a recent report by San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco. The Hybrid Work Index (HWI) aggregated millions of anonymous customer datapoints to identify areas of growth and trends. 

Meeting engagement topped the list of employee demands. While Cisco clearly has a horse in this race, the findings are worth considering given the amount of time devoted to meetings. Meeting features like noise reduction, automatic translation and transcriptions, polling and gesture recognition were among the requested features, all aimed at making it easier for people to engage in conversation, whether virtual or in-room.  

What many of the requests come down to is choice. Employees want choice. Having the option to work remotely instead of coming into the office directly affects whether 64% of employees remain or leave a job. However, uncertainty remains around what employers' plans are: only 47% think their company will allow working from anywhere as opposed to in-office over the next six to 12 months. 

The technology-related findings were less surprising, but of equal concern for technology leaders and those responsible for managing the technology in a digital workplace. The main findings show that: 

  • Enterprises view collaboration apps as the most critical application type for hybrid work success.   
  • Heightened threats underscore the importance of user-centric security.  
  • Home networks are now one of the most critical parts of the enterprise network.
  • Cloud provider networks demonstrate more stability than Internet Service Providers (ISP).  

Cisco's findings — especially around collaboration tools — are similar to those of a recent Gartner report. In its Digital Worker Experience Survey, Gartner found 80% of workers are using collaboration tools for work in 2021, up from just over half of workers in 2019. This is an increase of 44% since the pandemic began.  

Related Article: Making Collaboration Work in the Hybrid Workplace

The Impact of Age on Hybrid Workplace Expectations 

A more technology-centric look into the hybrid workplace comes from Milpitas, Calif.-based ABBYY, which specializes in digital intelligence. The survey focused on the use of automation technologies and other technologies employees identified as important for doing their jobs. Once again, ABBYY has a vested interest in this discussion, but the survey revealed similar trends to Gartner’s findings. Respondents cited communication tools as a priority for improving the workplace, as well as other interesting trends: 

  • Three-quarters (74%) of surveyed WFH employees in the U.S. felt they were challenged by a lack of information on solutions or tasks (38%), while 33% of employees blamed not having the right IT tools to get their jobs done.
  • Asked what tools could make their job better, the top three answers were communications tools (70%), task monitoring (43%) and AI (39%). 
  • In addition, software robots are being used by 46% of respondents, who reported they spend up to two hours a day with their digital co-worker. Those who wished they had a digital co-worker said they would use them for digitizing paper, prompts and classification purposes and estimated they could save 54 days per year using a digital colleague. 

The survey showed vast differences in workers expectations based on their age. Two thirds of executives under 35 said there is not enough information provided on business processes, while only 26% of those over 55 agreed. And two thirds of those under 35 said there is not enough visibility of the progress of processes, while only a quarter of older executives complained about this.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: How Technology Can Help Bridge Generational Divides

Communication Policies to Improve Asynchronous Collaboration

Workers need more than just communications to succeed in remote or hybrid scenarios, they also need asynchronous communication, said Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of San Francisco-based Totara Learning. In fact, asynchronous collaboration can help level the collaboration playing field, allowing equal participation and input from all parties, making it more effective than forcing people to communicate in real time. 

One positive outcome of the pandemic is it caused some organizations to discover the significant productivity benefits of giving people the autonomy to work in the place and time that suited their needs. Of course, many other organizations instead drowned their people in back-to-back Zoom or Team calls, which have proven draining at best, damaging to wellbeing at worst — both detrimental to company performance.

Working asynchronously requires very strong written communication skills to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding. It also requires strong audio/video capture skills. People also need to be comfortable with working out loud — the practice of sharing what one is working on in internal channels. A sense of psychological safety is another prerequisite for the hybrid workplace, so employees can express views and ideas in a climate of constructive rather than critical feedback.

"Developing guidelines and learning resources to support open communication is an important step towards building an async comms culture that will eradicate large amounts of wasted time consumed by unnecessary meetings. In larger organizations a lack of coordination in internal comms creates friction and frustration for people," Hyland said. The required technology tools in your ecosystem should include:

  • Continuous performance management: This is for regular feedback and orientation on agreed goals and development pathways 
  • Synchronous meetings: Use of Zoom/Teams/Webex to bring people together irrespective of their physical location. Set policies in place to avoid fatigue and to balance inclusion and contribution between office-based and remote workers
  • Physical workspace and a flexible, comfortable IT set up: This is a basic that is often overlooked. For example, a good webcam/microphone makes virtual meetings and contributions flow more smoothly. A second screen is proven to improve productivity, as is a good desk, chair and consideration of posture and an accepted culture of regular breaks away from the screen.

Related Article: A Step-by-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration