Tools, tech and etiquette: best practice of hybrid working for small businesses

Stu Hennigan, a senior librarian at Leeds Libraries, had just started the work video-call meeting he’d convened from home when he glanced out of his window. The clouds looked threatening and the laundry hanging on the washing line was almost dry. But it was already too late. “I’m way too professional to go see to a load of wet towels,” he explains. “It’s great to be able to fit in stuff like washing in the daytime, but work has to take priority.”

Domestic laundry has become an unlikely workplace dilemma as millions of employees are now able to work remotely thanks to a combination of pandemic-related lockdowns, evolving technologies and a fresh desire to use them. As well as juggling washing cycles with work tasks, there are a host of new etiquette questions – for example when it comes to attending work-related video calls with laundry visible in the background. And it isn’t just employees who have to navigate this new etiquette. Bosses of small and medium-sized businesses are also having to balance the demands of running a company with the realities of home life. Afterall, business owners also have laundry.

But now that remote working is no longer an emergency measure in response to a global health crisis, the etiquette around it has arguably become more professional and more refined. Owners of SMBs can therefore properly consider evolving best practice and put in place systems and tools to support hybrid teams that consist of both remote and on-premise workers. For instance, videoconferencing technology allows users to blur out laundry-strewn backgrounds – a vital tool for any business owner who wants to appear professional when taking an urgent client or employee call.

“It’s a fine balance,” says Nick Hedderman, senior director of the Modern Work Business Group at Microsoft UK. “Asynchronous hybrid work can give your employees the flexibility to do the school run or make personal appointments and finish up their work later on that day, but there are still clear downsides and risks as the boundaries of work and life continue to blur.”

Technological innovation

New etiquette, behaviours and policies have evolved hand-in-hand with technology. “Previously there had been a human behaviour adoption problem, but now people are indicating a willingness to change how they behave,” says David Shrier, professor of practice, AI and innovation at Imperial College Business School. “Workforces are prepared to take on technology, some of which has been around for [some time].”

Hedderman notes: “At the start of the pandemic, much of the popular focus was on basic video-calling. But businesses are now finding out how technology can play a much wider role in creating connections wherever, whenever, and however people work – helping to keep everyone engaged and informed.”

That technology has both evolved in response to emerging best practice and also helped to shape it. However, given that the seismic shift to more flexible working arrangements prompted by the pandemic was something of a mass social experiment, many of the improvements to technology and best practice have evolved incrementally and iteratively as companies have learned as they went along. As a result, some incredibly useful innovations might have gone unnoticed by business owners.

Tools and systems have emerged to help team members to become more collaborative, flexible and efficient. For example, a recent innovation from Microsoft Teams allows in-person participants to use a companion app on their mobile phone to take part in the meeting’s virtual chat, and react as if they were also working remotely.

“Much of our innovation has been driven by our desire to build a seamless, blended in-person and remote experience for workers,” explains Hedderman. As an example, for those joining a physical meeting remotely, smart cameras can break the display video into individual windows for each person in the room to see their expressions and reactions up close. “And our cameo feature in PowerPoint enables remote presenters to insert their live camera directly on to a slide, embedding themselves in the content and maximising non-verbal communication as if they were in the room.”

The effort to aid non-verbal communication is one of the key areas that technology has evolved in. Likewise, there have been efforts to replicate all those unscheduled workplace interactions that are often referred to as “water-cooler moments”.

A lot of how companies achieve operational excellence is through “little, tiny interactions between people, not long, scheduled meetings”, says Shrier. “You can replicate that in a digital environment as long as you change the behaviour of your employees so they actually use the tools.”

For those fretting that not being in a physical office makes it harder to grab someone’s attention for a quick chat, Shrier thinks digital alternatives can work equally well. “If I use the messaging app in Teams, and we use video not audio to respond, then you can replicate most of the benefits of an in-person office setting,” he says.

Employee wellbeing

Another key area of focus for emerging best practice and technology is employee wellbeing. Hedderman cites insights from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, which has tracked the development of hybrid working since the onset of the pandemic. “As employees feel the pressure to ‘prove’ they’re working, digital overwhelm is soaring – 48% of employees and 53% of managers report that they’re already burned out at work.”

He highlights a tool added last year that gives organisers of virtual meetings an option to automatically start meetings five minutes late or end them five minutes early: “This gives remote employees a chance for a comfort break or to grab a cuppa between back-to-back meetings, and help mitigate the effects of digital overload.”

Tech can also help employees understand how they spend their time. For instance, Microsoft Viva Insights enables employees to keep track of after-hours work, book time with their team, block out focus time, set up reminders over email and wind down with mindfulness exercises in a virtual commute. These kinds of actions can be invaluable for safeguarding employee wellbeing.

“This year, we discussed the rise of the ‘triple peak day’ – as data found that the average Teams user sends 42% more out-of-hours messages than they did before the pandemic, culminating in a third productivity peak at around 10pm in the evening, where previous peaks were seen before and after lunch,” notes Hedderman. “Leaders of small and medium-sized businesses have to take a deliberate, thoughtful approach to managing ‘asynchronous’ working.”


Finally, another key area in which technology, etiquette, policies and best practice have evolved is in the area of cybersecurity.

“If a small or medium-sized business is offering hybrid working flexibility to its staff, this will naturally be accompanied by increased cybersecurity risk, as employees access information from multiple devices over multiple internet connections, from their homes, work premises, coffee shops, trains, buses and everything in between,” explains Sarah Armstrong-Smith, chief security adviser at Microsoft UK.

Related: ‘Fragmented attention is the enemy of productivity’: how small businesses can gain from streamlining their technology

Armstrong-Smith notes that many small businesses had to move quickly to set up remote and hybrid working through the pandemic, without the luxury of large IT budgets or in-house expertise: “Owner-managers often had to wear the hat of chief information officer, while working around the clock to keep the business operational.” In those circumstances, some companies might well have chosen technology that didn’t offer the best protection for the security and privacy of their customers and staff. Likewise, they might have chosen multiple tech vendors for different tools and functions – such as for protecting user identities, data, applications and devices. Having multiple platforms can make it harder to view and manage their overall exposure to cyber threats. And it can also mean businesses spend more than they needed to in the process.

“[However], building a strong online security posture for a small business does not need to come at the cost of enabling a flexible, hybrid workplace,” she says.

And it doesn’t need to cost smaller businesses more in either money or time. Sometimes a business can effectively do more with less. For instance, Microsoft 365 Business Premium protects across all layers (user identity, apps, data, devices) and as part of it, Microsoft Defender for Business provides enterprise grade protection, detection and remediation for PCs, Macs, tablets and mobile phones and is especially designed for SMBs.

“For all the talk about hybrid, the reality is that we are all still learning and experimenting,” says Hedderman. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Leaders will need to embed experimentation – continuous testing, observing and adjusting – to build the hybrid workplace that best fits them.”

For more on getting the right technology and systems for your SMB, check out the Small Business Resource Centre and other articles in this series on how to reduce the stress of being a small business owner