The future is hybrid working. Here’s how to get it right for your teams

By on 28/10/2020
Experts share their insights on how organisations can introduce the right technology and tools to keep their workforce connected and engaged wherever they work. Credit: Nasa/Unsplash

From cybersecurity to keeping an eye on staff wellbeing, there are many ways employers can adapt to support effective remote working. At a recent DELL webinar, experts from the public and private sectors explored what we’ve learned since the pandemic struck

When hundreds of employees began working from home almost overnight in response to COVID-19, Ian Matthews, human resources director at Arts Council England, was pleasantly surprised at “how well we adapted to the new way of working”.

In fact, the pandemic only accelerated existing efforts to change working practices in the organisation. “We had what was called a smart working project, which now feels like a relic of almost Victorian times,” said Matthews. Its goals included encouraging people “to work in more flexible, tech-focused ways” and addressing the “meetings culture”. Until lockdown, implementing such measures often felt as though “we were pushing against the tide”, Matthews recalled – but these new ways of working have become the norm this year.

Matthews was speaking at a recent webinar, run by DELL Technologies and facilitated by Global Government Forum, which explored how organisations can introduce the right technology and tools to support a remote workforce. With the pandemic threat reviving, there is little prospect of people making a full-scale return to the office over the coming months: civil service bodies are looking to ensure they are as well-equipped as possible to support workforce efficiency, security and wellbeing as staff continue to work from home. And this will set them in good stead for the future: as the experts noted, hybrid working — where people mix home and office time — may well become the new reality long after COVID-19 has been controlled.

Get the remote working set up right

Lee Larter, UK Networking Director, DELL Technologies

Like civil service bodies, DELL Technologies had to rapidly scale up its existing remote workforce programme, according to Lee Larter, the company’s UK networking director. “We had to massively accelerate the ability for all of our staff and employees to work remotely,” he explained. The company now supports some 120,000 global employees to work from home.

Alongside this internal challenge, DELL Technologies provides organisations with “a whole ecosystem of devices, applications, infrastructure, networking, that must all be scaled and adjusted to ensure a successful remote work programme,” says Larter. This is all while keeping cost, security and performance requirements in mind, he adds.

For organisations to provide as close to an in-office experience as possible, DELL Technologies recommends that all remote workers benefit from a professional home office with secure access, high-performance connectivity, and links to a core data centre able to “handle the massive increase in traffic” experienced by organisations this year.

Happy homeworkers

The swift transition to remote working at Arts Council England was aided by the fact that employees had been issued with smartphones and laptops prior to the lockdown. This meant the organisation was “quite well enabled with mobile tech at the point the shutters came down,” said Matthews. But when the UK Hydrographic Office moved to home working en-masse in March, managers had to work fast to get everyone up and running with the tech and equipment they needed. “You can’t just give technology to people and expect them to get on with it; you need to help people use it,” explained the organisation’s chief technology officer, Terry Makewell.

Ian Matthews, Human Resources Director, Arts Council England

In response, the UK Hydrographic Office published video guides to help staff get set up. “I think this absolutely paid us dividends because the productivity of the organisation didn’t drop at all, and actually in some areas, it went up,” said Makewell. In fact, in the six months since staff began working from home, not only has productivity gone up but sick leave has gone down, he adds.

This is something experienced at Arts Council England too, alongside a further benefit: that of shorter, tighter meetings. This wasn’t the case at first, explained Matthews: his HR team attempted to recreate their usual monthly day-long meetings online to ensure human contact wasn’t lost. But they quickly discovered that “people cannot hack several hours- or  day-long things on Zoom,” he said. These longer sessions were replaced with twice-weekly, one-hour meetings. The result of these “little and often” calls is that “we get decisions made much more quickly, we exchange information much more frequently,” he added.

Keep talking

But if meetings became shorter, communications from leaders became ever more intense. “I don’t think in these situations, any kind of leadership team can over communicate,” said Makewell. “You’ve got to keep communicating, keep talking to the teams. And I think it’s also about showing understanding that for a lot of us, this is actually pretty rubbish.”

There had been concern that those “serendipitous corridor conversations” or “water cooler moments” may be lost in virtual work mode, explained Matthews. But while Zoom fatigue spelt the end of lengthy meetings at Arts Council England, the chat box has helped improve communication: letting “the chat function blossom” has been one way to re-establish those experiences.

The agency’s leaders are also careful to open up the Zoom floor to contributions. “It’s hard in these short, tighter meetings to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. And not everyone always wants to do the public performance thing,” he explained. “Use that chat box and pick up everything in it because actually, I think a lot of the water cooler moments do come through on the chat box.”

How to support staff wellbeing

Alongside these initiatives, one of the big innovations at Arts Council England “in terms of making us feel like one organisation pulling together” was the introduction of exec board drop-in calls, explained Matthews. All staff are invited to regular meetings with the exec board, often including the chief executive, and have “license to talk about anything.”

These have proved “incredibly useful” and are still continuing six months after their introduction. “They’ve addressed a lot of the issues we had as an organisation about connectedness that we were struggling with before lockdown,” said Matthews.

With employees no longer physically together as much, organisations need keep an eye on encouraging team cohesion and interaction. The wellbeing and mental health of all staff, particularly those that live alone, is very important, said Makewell. He suggested introducing sessions such as virtual coffee drop-ins: Arts Council England developed “Wellbeing Wednesdays” as well as online yoga and meditation classes for staff at the beginning of lockdown.

Cybersecurity is essential

Terry Makewell, Chief Technology Officer, UK Hydrographic Office

This was certainly a challenge for the UK Hydrographic Office, according to Makewell, particularly given its work with the Ministry of Defence. Anyone working from home has to be careful about what they do and talk about, he said. This can be difficult for younger members of staff who may live in shared houses and not have access to a separate room for work. His organisation focused on educating staff, particularly around phishing and “making sure that people are aware of where these challenges may come from”.

One challenge associated with remote working is keeping data secure. Security is becoming much more of a focus in conversations with customers, including those in the public sector, said Larter.

Ensuring data remains secure outside of the traditional workplace involves an “intrinsic security” approach, Larter noted, adding that DELL Technologies builds security “from the ground up.”

“Whereas traditionally security was seen as a bolt-on, we need to ensure appropriate features are included across the infrastructure to protect core assets across any app accessed from any device, to make sure that no threats get into the organisation,” he said.

The future is hybrid working

While many of these tools and technologies have had to be put in place rapidly this year and were initially seen as temporary, the future of work looks likely to continue, with technology at the heart of that shift.

DELL Technologies anticipates a “hybrid approach post-pandemic” said Larter. The organisation’s offices will “open at an appropriate time”, he added, once deemed safe to do so in each country. “But then our employees will have the choice around this hybrid approach,” he said. Office spaces will become more for collaboration and meeting.

Matthews agreed the future “does seem to be about striking a balance between more virtual working, but at the same time, enabling people to come together” – perhaps dropping into the office one or two days per week.

Larter also shared research from Dell Technologies and their ‘Vision for 2030’. “Really this is looking at how emergent technologies are enabling people and communities across the globe to pursue and sustain themselves with more creative, meaningful and equitable ways of working,” he said.

The trend looks set to continue. After a few months of remote working, the UK Hydrographic Office surveyed their staff to find out what was working well and what could be improved. “What we’ve found over the past six months is that more than 90% of people want to keep this increased flexibility and how we’re working remotely,” Makewell said. “I think we’re pretty much now a hybrid working organisation, that’s here to stay.”

View the full webinar on-demand and access the presentation slides by completing the form below.

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