Safe returns: how software is paving the way for hybrid working

·4 min read

From the fax machine and personal computer to email and videoconferencing, technology has changed how we communicate and work over the decades. The latest widespread shift to hybrid work marks another major technological transformation – one that presents businesses with opportunities as well as challenges.

Most British workers (57%) want to be able to work from home after the pandemic, according to research published in April by YouGov. Of these workers, 37% said they want to work from home some of the time – in a “hybrid” working week. Some experts believe that providing a good hybrid workplace – including features such as the ability to book desks as you would an airline seat − will help employers attract and retain the best talent.

“There’s no doubt that employees want more freedom in how and where they work in the future,” says Corinne Mills, joint managing director of career coaching firm Personal Career Management. “They’ve seen that it can work and the positive impact on their quality of life.”

One challenge for organisations is how to accommodate people’s different preferences while maintaining productivity, team cohesion and oversight, she adds. “Employers who get [the] balance right between flexibility and control are able to offer a much better employee experience and this will be attractive both to candidates and to the in-house talent they want to keep.”

Technology, including workflow software, which organises and connects the different stages of a work task from beginning to end, can help organisations meet growing demand for hybrid working.

ServiceNow, a leading digital workflow company, is at the forefront of hybrid working – for both the customers it provides solutions for and also for its own workforce. The company is encouraging its workers to make a phased return to its office in Surrey, south-east England. Employees use an app (on their phones or on their employee portal) to confirm they do not have coronavirus symptoms, book a desk in the office, clock in and record which colleagues they have been near during their day in the office.

To support the move to hybrid working, the company made organisational changes, such as the creation of an “incident management” team comprising HR professionals, facilities managers and management. The team functions as a steering body for UK employees to improve coordination between departments. Shelley Hammond, senior HR business partner of Global Talent, at ServiceNow, says the team’s formation meant that making the right decisions for employees – for instance, whether they should be required to wear masks – has become a collective effort.

So far, hybrid working and the technology underpinning it has worked well, says Hammond. “We’ve seen increased levels of productivity. Our fundamental routines have changed.”

ServiceNow customers, such as Coca Cola European Partners, are using the same technology – including ServiceNow’s Safe Workplace suite of apps that streamline the complex health and safety logistics of reopening large business premises.

Workflow apps are critical to a smooth return to the office, says Apani Buksh, solution sales manager of employee experience at ServiceNow. “It’s about moving away from allocated desks to more flexible, hot-desking arrangements,” she says. “Without the tech, you have no insight into the demand and how people intend to use new spaces and employees’ appetite to return to the workplace, how to optimise cleaning and maintain workspaces. It’s a whole new level to managing work and workplaces.”

In the longer term, ServiceNow’s workflow software could extend from enabling employees to book desks to helping teams come together to collaborate within the workplace, says Lewis Barker, senior manager, EMEA, workplace and real estate at ServiceNow.

“Who owns the future of work?” asks Barker. “Is it HR or facilities management? How they collaborate is hugely important.”

It is early days for hybrid working. But the need for technology to support employees and improve collaboration across the business is clear. It can also help managers address one of the challenges cited with hybrid working – the emergence of a two-tier workforce based on who is in the office and who isn’t.

Of course, getting the right software in place is only one aspect of a healthy hybrid workplace. Organisations must also adapt their culture. “[Digitalisation] is not the same as digital transformation,” says Bryan Betts, principal analyst at Freeform Dynamics, an IT research company. Moving existing processes online may create advantages, such as the ability to better track work outcomes, but it’s not going to transform the business, he says.

“How do we take these transformational technologies and apply them to all those less tangible factors? How will someone be able to bring a new colleague up to speed on a specific task if they’re not in the office together? How will people connect and share without those initial – and often serendipitous – watercooler-type conversations?”

One answer could be to connect people and processes one digital workflow at a time.

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