Solving for spontaneous collaboration in the era of hybrid work

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Over the decades Australian enterprises have spent countless billions buying and leasing workplaces, then carving them up into offices, open plan desk farms, meeting rooms, or communal workspaces.

Regardless of the end result, the core idea was that these workplaces were designed to support workers who were physically present.

The COVID-19 pandemic tossed that thinking out the window when Australian office workers were sent home en masse, and suddenly, almost overnight, their workplace was the kitchen table.

As we enter the post-pandemic world, it is becoming clear that the future of work will look very different to its past, with many workers desiring to return to the office on only a part-time basis, if at all.

For employers, this raises two big questions.

Firstly, what should they do with all the space they are paying but no longer using?

And secondly, how do they create an acceptable working experience for people who are no longer coming into the office, but who need to interact with colleagues that are?

Designing a hybrid workplace

If the future of work is one where people will have the choice to work where best suits them, it follows that no workers should be disadvantaged because of that choice – that means ensuring they can be safe, happy, and productive, no matter where they are.

But at the same time, many employers know that much of the value of their workforce comes not from their individual efforts, but from their collaborations. Businesses need to reassess what their office spaces look like in order to maximise output from employees – is it a more open layout, more individual booths or a great emphasis on wellbeing aspects, whatever they decide employees must be at the forefront of decisions.

When everyone was working at home, the old model of formal room-based collaboration quickly translated into online sessions using tools such as Webex by Cisco.

What has proven harder to facilitate, however, has been the spontaneous engagements that a physical workspace enables. These are the casual encounters that start with two colleagues spotting each other across the office, engaging in a quick chat, and then finding a place to sit down and have a discussion – the sort of encounter that could only take place when two people were in close proximity.

In the hybrid working world, however, the chance of two colleagues being in the same location at the same time drops dramatically. This means that employers must think about new ways to facilitate spontaneous collaboration.

Solving for spontaneous collaboration

Not surprisingly, the tools that will bring workers together virtually are the same as those that have enabled them to stay apart physically.

With the right tools, such as a desktop camera or a second monitor, and the appropriate training – what starts with a chat session on a messaging tool can quickly evolve into a video call. Better yet, however, is when that video call can be seamlessly flicked from a handheld device to a room-based system, enabling others to join in.

This experience is helped enormously when the technology makes the transitions seamless, such as by immediately pairing a handheld device to a more powerful room-based collaboration suit.

This concept has the added benefit of reducing the number of meetings that people are invited to each day. In a virtual or hybrid working world, people feel anxious about getting face time with their colleagues, so they create additional meetings. This quickly leads to people’s diaries becoming jammed with meetings – something that did not tend to happen so much in an office environment.

However, if people feel confident that they can still have spontaneous engagements, they are less likely to use more formal channels to book out time.

Creating the best of all places

As time passes and hybrid working becomes the norm, we will see more employers investing to reconfigure their workspaces, reducing the number of desks and creating more spaces for collaborative communication.

At Cisco we have already been on this journey, as even before the pandemic, our Melbourne office was successfully meeting the needs of 900 people with a workspace that only offered 285 desks. We could do this because we also provided 140 alternative places for people to work from – and that didn’t include their own homes.

The hybrid working world is one where people use resources as they need them, and we see this same concept needing to apply in the physical world also. True hybrid workplaces are ones where the tools and the spaces are adaptable to the needs of the people using them.

And that means moving away from fixed, time-bound assets such as meeting rooms towards models that truly reflect the working needs of the people using them, including the need for spontaneous engagement.

We know through experience that when the tools and the spaces truly match the needs of the people using them, amazing things can happen, no matter where they happen to be.

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