Accelerating Change for the “next normal” workplace

A “future of work” strategy requires restructured workplaces, shifts in and redefinition of roles, and rapid learning and upskilling, all of which need to be delivered within a framework of trust to be successful.  Organizations have been working towards this balance for many years, but are now being challenged to deliver all of these under the additional pressures of the COVID-19 global pandemic.  

Even in these early days of social distancing, we are seeing significant changes that affect work, learning, and daily life – changes that represent a new normal of COVID impacted work. This will shape the next normal post COVID. So how are global enterprises reacting to this, and perhaps more importantly, why should they be reacting?   

In the engaging and insightful workshops at GPA’s June  Unite Virtual Summitwe brought together delegates from all corners of the globe and all different areas of the “modern workplace” community, with a focus on understanding mid and post COVID need, and in turn how to accelerate the changes needed in order to meet these new needs

In this collaborative forum, icollectively became evident that future of work initiatives that were previously unfolding over a period of many years, were now looking at time horizons in many instances of 6 to 12 months or less in the quest to meet the needs of both the “new” and “next normal reality. 

To this end, COVID we believe, might be the great catalyst for business transformation, and go down in history as a modern-day “industrial revolution”.   

To understand this transformation further, we began with the “Why”, as this should always be the driver to solving need.  Only then can one seek to understand the “What”, and the “How”.  The following provides an outline of much of the consensus that came out of the event. 

The Why – The Impact on People and Importance of Company Culture

The spectre of “safety first” is having a huge impact on people’s mental state, their productivity, and ultimately that is having an impact on the collaborative nature of teamwork. There is certainly an urgency around implementation of COVID specific protocols and tools to mitigate these short term emotional and practical concerns for staff, but these only have a limited window of use and potential return. However, for many broader modern workplace initiatives that have only been slowly explored or implemented to date, COVID is potentially helping bridge the traditional “chasm” between early adopters and the early majority that has traditionally been so slow and difficult to achieve.

The core drivers behind great workplaces, great work cultures and environments haven’t changed, but the “business cases” to implement progressive tools have. The catalysts to explore better, to experiment and embrace different have, for organizations and individuals alike. Adoption of change typically needs a catalyst, a “What’s in it for Me” (WIIFM) driver, and COVID is providing that on many fronts.

For the organization, corporations are seeking new ways of working as a way to prepare their workforce for greater uncertainty, volatility and complexity, and ultimately business risk, be that COVID or otherwise. To quickly apply agile principles in the way they shape their businesses, coach their leaders, and run their business. Changing longstanding policies, processes, even hours of operation to prioritize the health and safety of employees and customers. For many this has meant a need to rapidly shift from a more traditional “production” oriented model and focus, to a more creative mentality where adaptation and innovation are at the centre. To do this quickly and effectively, companies need a clear and strong corporate culture to act as the backbone during this change.

Employees are evaluating more than ever the priority their employer is putting on them and their wellbeing within the COVID pandemic! Not just in meeting government regulations and requirements, but truly caring about their wellbeing from a personal and professional standpoint. COVID has created a moment of reflection for many in their work-life balance priorities, and those organizations that are responding will have the advantage in attraction and retention of employees for many years to come as the memory of COVID and those reflections remain strong among the workforce.

This “human centric” focus has seen HR leaders far more actively involved in the conversation regarding the tools and spaces their teams are enabled with. HR leaders are actively supporting IT and Facilities teams in key infrastructure decisions. We have long talked in this industry about the need for unification of People, Space, and Technology to drive optimal “experience”, yet the Space (Facilities) and Technology (IT) stakeholders have traditionally dominated. As such, as we move from reactive response to immediate the COVID “emergency” to maintain some form of business continuity, to a longer term “proactive” analysis of next normal, we believe the increased role of “people” can, should, and likely will be maintained.

The WHAT – The Post-Pandemic Office

While many have embraced the flexibilities of Work from Home (indeed work from anywhere) that these tools have enabledpeople crave social interactionpersonal connection, and workplace culture.  As such after the initial reactive pendulum swing, there is increasing recognition among most that the physical office will not disappear in lieu of remote working.  Rather it will only hasten the adoption of the trends that have been at the forefront of progressive “modern workplace” design in recent years.  

The “Office” is and will more than ever need to be optimized toward human interaction and collaborative activity, as opposed to simply a place to sit. Even if less often than past, when practical, employees seek to come to the office, but because of a recognition of the value it will bring to the human engagement outcomes it will generate. There is now a stronger value and recognition of the physical and emotional aspects of “in person” collaboration that have always been so critical to the best collaboration outcomes are important.

COVID has largely removed the issues of trust, and even stigma around work from home, and will largely now charge employees to make their own decisions around why and when they should come to the office. This next-normal evolution will however require significant change within post-pandemic office and its functionality, in particular in the meeting spaces it offers.

  • Every meeting space will need to be enabled with collaboration tools, as most meetings will feature remote participants. 
  • As users have become more and more familiar with the personal video experience they face on their PC, meeting rooms will need to up their game in terms of simplicity and reliability of the user experience.   
  • The meeting room had clearly had the priority in terms of capability and experience in the past relative to remote users.  There will be a clear shift moving forward however, where it will be understood remote users may not ever be able to achieve “equality or Experience” to those in the physical meeting room, they will certainly need to have an equality of presence.   
The HOW –  Changes in Collaboration

COVID has ensured that video-based collaborative conferencing tools have become part of almost everyone’s daily lives – be that personally and professionally. Out of necessity, even technology laggards have now experimented with, and in turn begun to embrace these tools. For many workers, their day is now filled with back-to-back video conference calls trying to achieve the same collaboration outputs that were present before the pandemic. Platforms like Zoom, Teams (Microsoft or Cisco versions), and Google Meet have become pervasive for most. Indeed for many of us we are faced with using multiple if not all of these platforms over the course of a typical day.

As a result, we are seeing even further increases in demand for streamlined, standardised, and simplified meeting and collaboration solutions. But not just stand alone solutions, but solutions that seamlessly integrate with a corporation’s operational workflows – meaning whether a person is working from home, from the office, or indeed from “anywhere”, they will can have a successful and efficient “integrated” collaborative engagements experiences with their peers.

GPA Unite Summit Virtual Event Team Instagram Filter

While some companies had comprehensive and pervasive video collaboration strategies and tools in place already, the majority were either only part way through such an adoption effort, or were still a long way from that goal. For the less prepared, COVID required a rapid pivot to evaluate, approve, and implement one or more of these platforms. Zoom saw huge adoption as a less integrated and thereby rapidly deployable solution. Microsoft Teams adoption may requires greater implementation effort given its breadth of capabilities aligned to the overall Office 365 suite, but this is countered by the fact it was already available to users in many Office365 centric organizations even if not being used previously.

Rapidly made organizational decisions around adoption of these big picture tools is the easy part however. While each platform may have its pros and cons, all are widely deployed and proven, so a decision favouring any of these will bring immediate value to almost any organization. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” as the old mantra goes – No matter the conferencing platform decision, the risk was low to make a bad choice. What has, and will increasingly become an issue, is the fact that all of these platforms tend to be somewhat siloed within their own platform ecosystem. We expect to be able to make a phone call between a Samsung and Apple phone, so as video collaboration tools become more prevalent, users seek and expect a similar experience.

With the widespread adoption of all of these platforms, we now see a rapidly emerging need towards solving the interoperability issue. To support users in their need to meet across multiple conferencing platforms to accommodate the diversity of internal and external stakeholders. This brings us back to the “human” side of the issue, the more complex effort to understand “user” need, to look at the multitude of user personas, workflows, and use cases within an organization. Having made the initial reactive decision on platform, now there’s a more proactive and considered decision to evaluate and optimise.

As such, our prediction is that platform interoperability solutions will be in high demand over the next 12 months. There are efforts among the likes of Cisco and Microsoft to create interoperability of basic call capabilities between their platforms, this is still in its infancy, and purposefully limited in more advanced feature interoperability. Companies like (but not limited to) Pexip, Synergy Sky, Poly, and UC Workspace, each offer somewhat different approaches to the “how” of solving the problem, but all are actively solutions addressing that seamless interoperability goal, and while requiring effort and consultative engagement to align and optimise to an organization, are likely to become very much more in demand as we move forward with a more integrated and thoughtful, proactive approach to a more holistic collaboration enablement strategy.

CONCLUSION

We are still very much in the “new normal” evaluation phase, and still trying to wrap our heads around what “next normal” may look like. There are no experts in this right now. We are in unprecedented times and will be challenged to make decisions quickly and without a lot of evidence. Certainly, some teams are further ahead than others in that journey, some being bold and already embedding and scaling strategies and investments for the long term, while others are yet to get past initial evaluation phases.

Independent of what stage any organization is at in this journey, right now we have the opportunity, indeed for most the mandate, to experiment. This ultimately provides great freedom to even make wrong decisions in order to come to the right ones. Speed is more important right now than perfection. While we may still have much distance to still travel to fully understand what Next Normal will in fact look like, we know investments in collaborative culture, in human capital enablement, are not simply COVID mitigators that will become redundant as the virus threat recedes. While the pendulum may swing back in terms of how we will work in the years to come as our personal safety fears diminish, recent months have already carved a new path for the future of work that will not be altered. We have proven ways of working better even as we have found challenges, found innovation and inspiration in the different environments we were forced to embrace. We will come out of this the better for it.

What resonated across each region from our Unite workshops was that we still need to better enable teams to work together and share ideas. That the need to facilitate and generate innovation is an evergreen concept, and more than ever of foundational importance. In fact there is clear empirical evidence already emerging that those companies that pre-COVID had already invested in developing agile, innovation oriented, collaborative corporate cultures, and equipping their human capital with the very best tools to support this, are in fact growing and prospering amid the challenges the global economy is currently facing, while those who have failed to make such changes in recent years are declining.

So our challenge to all in the months to come is to take this opportunity to truly focus on the WHY. To look beyond the simple answers, to look past technology itself to solve problems and to instead truly consider the drivers behind relationships, teamwork, chemistry, and culture – the foundations of success for most organizations. As long as we remain committed to those foundations, as an industry built upon enabling people to communicate, to share and build upon passion and emotion and knowledge, we have an opportunity like never before to be the engine that indeed powers the opportunity for a business transformation “revolution” that COVID has presented.