Editor’s Note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the Interactive Multimedia & Collaborative Communications Alliance (IMCCA), the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.
Modern work has undergone a major transformation in recent times. In particular, a major inflection point was in March 2020, when many workers were forced into the world of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. With humans once again comfortable in group settings, many organizations have attempted to bring workers back to the office, enjoying varying degrees of success.
The debate on when, where and how people best work might be one of the most polarizing topics of 2023. After all, it raises important questions about the benefits and drawbacks of traditional, office-based work environments. This all comes at a time when the nature of what we actually do for work is evolving rapidly, with the increased implementation of artificial intelligence into our workflows. One thing that’s certain is the importance of connection and inclusivity in shaping the future of work.
We Can Play a Pivotal Role
By helping organizations to embrace collaboration tools that exist today and that will continue to evolve into the future, our industry can play a pivotal role in enabling them to thrive in this new world. By leveraging these tools effectively, organizations can create an environment that embraces the best of both worlds — providing the benefits of in-person collaboration while also embracing the flexibility and inclusivity that remote work has demonstrated. As collaboration-technology experts, we’re in a unique position to guide our customers and our own businesses to make the most of the future of modern work.
Let’s look at each side for a moment. Those who support the return-to-office (RTO) movement are often rooted in tradition and years of practice in management in an office environment. They believe strongly in the value of placing employees in physical proximity to each other to support enhanced collaboration and communication through face-to-face interaction and spontaneous exchange of ideas. Many people are more comfortable building a sense of trust with someone they have physically seen and spoken with. However, workers who are forced to return to the office might find challenges in a traditional schedule when collaborating with others across locations and time zones. They might find it challenging to participate in focused work. The time involved commuting to and from an office might take away from other life priorities, such as family or health. That’s not even to mention the added cost of driving and potentially eating out daily.
Working from Anywhere
Those who prefer the flexibility of working from anywhere often consider the time commitments and environmental implications of increased commuting and travel. They often have a greater degree of flexibility in their schedule and an increased sense of work/life balance, which enables them to contribute their best work. The ability to work with a diverse range of colleagues increases when physical proximity to an office is no longer a hiring constraint. Employees might find it easier to concentrate when doing focused work in a quiet environment. They may be able to contribute by serving in roles they simply would not take if the job required them to live in a different place and spend 10 hours a day away from home.
Organizations may also find themselves able to expand their talent pool to a wider range of applicants and reduce costs by eliminating unnecessary building space if a majority of their workforce is not in the office. These folks might, however, be challenged by a lack of connection with their colleagues — particularly if they have never met in person, if they’re unable to receive mentorship or coaching, or if they feel as if they are the “odd man out” from their in-office colleagues.
Every other week, I seem to read an article about how one style of working is “better,” but, the truth is, there’s simply no right or wrong answer for everyone. With the variability in work types, styles and roles — and with the nature of work changing — I believe we will continue to see the workforce evolve to a hybrid model. Thus, some workers will be in an office either some or all the time, whereas others remain predominantly remote. Now more than ever, amid today’s dynamic workforce, it’s key to leverage collaboration tools to do our best work.
A Thoughtful Approach
If we distill things down to the one most critical strategy to support connection and inclusion, it’s to be thoughtful about our approach to communication and collaboration, regardless of when or where we work. Long gone are the days of our communication choices being constrained to phone, email or in-person meetings. With the emergence of messaging, collaboration channels, cloud document sharing, video messaging and videoconferencing, a host of new options opens up for delivering a message, soliciting feedback or coming to a consensus on a decision. Avoid the mindset of “the way we have always done it” or “the easiest way to deliver the message.” Instead, think creatively about the most effective way to reach people and solicit engagement in these new times. (Any message is only ever as good as its being received and acted upon.)
With more limited in-office time among members of teams, it’s critical to balance in-office and remote work. Be sure that, for every in-person meeting, the space used is designed and outfitted so as to be conducive to engaging the right parties in the best way possible. (This likely involves redesigning and reoutfitting pre-pandemic rooms.) Ensure that everyone in the meeting has “a seat at the table,” even if they’re not physically present. Everyone should have the ability to be seen and heard as easily as if they were there in person. We’re seeing a rapid shift in both hardware and software technologies to ensure meeting equity within these spaces.
Even more important than technology is human leadership. The host must set an agenda and ensure the right people are present and prepared for the meeting. Every reason to call people together must have key objectives and action items. Artificial intelligence is adapting to be able to capture and document much of this activity within meetings, but it’s up to us humans to set the stage and ensure the conversation is on course.
The Asynchronous Revolution
Outside of synchronous meetings is where many other collaboration tools can come into play. This is also where being thoughtful about communication strategies can have a huge impact. Do you need to prep with some teammates beforehand? You don’t have to wait until you get to the meeting to share key elements of a document. Asynchronous document collaboration can take place easily, even if folks are in different time zones. Do you need to relay a quick but important message to a large group? A collaboration channel on a messaging platform can easily reach thousands, while also allowing for better feedback than an email. (Emails, after all, cannot have comments or concerns easily tracked.) Do you need more discussion than that? A quick huddle in a virtual space can allow people to come together and discuss things in a synchronous manner.
It’s also important to be mindful of challenges and other considerations when implementing collaboration tools. First and foremost, accessibility is key. Those who aren’t in the office need infrastructure and equipment so they can be seen and heard at their best. Internet connectivity and bandwidth might be a concern in some areas, so it’s important to consider those factors when choosing a meeting platform. There is always some element of a learning curve when implementing a new tool or technology, so training and support are critical.
Just because we have more tools at our fingertips doesn’t mean they have to be used 24/7, either. Maintaining healthy work/life boundaries — whether those are physical space, time or both — is important so that both body and mind have the space to recharge and decompress between work sessions. You can be mindful of this by utilizing tools to schedule messages or information only during work hours. You can even schedule yourself only to receive these communications when you’re able to reply. Different approaches might work better for different people. It’s also important to establish clear communication norms within the organization so that expectations are set accordingly.
Pros and Cons
There will likely continue to be both pros and cons of the RTO movement, and it’s likely to continue as one of the most highly contested topics for the foreseeable future. There is simply no “one size fits all.” However, each of us can take steps to make our in-person and remote times as effective as possible by better utilizing many of the collaboration tools that are now available, as well as those that will emerge in the coming months and years.
In today’s rapidly evolving world, one can no longer expect to get ahead just by working harder. We must work smarter, more thoughtfully and more resourcefully to bring about a connected and inclusive future of work. And always, build in some flexibility. osThose who prepare for and embrace change will continue to be ahead of the game as the world of work continues to evolve.
For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our digital newsletters!