Future of Work – beyond returning to the office…

Clare Dillon

Clare Dillon

Executive Director of InnerSource Commons Foundation

The phrase ‘hybrid working’ is very popular across workplaces and society at the moment. Encouraging flexibility and inclusivity, it definitely has positive connotations, but it’s slightly more complex than it may at first seem. 

This was a big topic at this month’s LNETM discussion, which I moderated, between Andrew Wilson (Chief Digital Officer at Microsoft) and Nathalie D’Hers (Head of Employee Experience at Microsoft Digital). We discussed ‘The Future of Work’.  

The event was kicked off by flash-talks from Paul Sheedy (CEO of unifi.id), Alex Pryor (Head of Digital Innovation at IOCO Tech), and Kai Nicol-Schwarz (Editorial Lead at Sifted). Both Alex and Paul outlined the need for, and their solutions to assist in, increased building management and awareness of the workspace as requirements change. Meanwhile, Kai gave attendees a sneak-peek of one of Sifted’s latest articles, for which they asked their readership about their thoughts on hybrid working. (Check out https://sifted.eu/articles/work-from-home-hybrid-survey/ for more info on that!)


Having spent 14 years working at Microsoft myself, I remember their pre-existing focus on being a remote-enabling employer (in fact, their products even enable such work for other companies, too). So, as we launched into our fireside chat, I asked the experts: what trends are they seeing in terms of hybrid working enablement? 

Hybrid working is still largely dominated by the virtual 

This is what Andrew suggests. And it makes sense – employees wish for flexibility – to work when and where they want. The problem is that they also want in-person interaction, so how do we find a balance?  

This is where Nathalie stepped in – it’s not about mixing our pre-COVID ways of working with how we muddled through lockdown working, she says. It’s about reimagining how we work altogether. It’s about rethinking all of our workflows and modes of collaboration entirely, from a clean slate and a hybrid perspective. 

We’re still learning. That much is clear to anyone who has attempted a ‘hybrid’ meeting (some in-person, others joining remotely). And it’s possible that some events will simply always work better in-person than online, or vice versa. What we want to avoid though, is losing the progress we’ve made so far in our journey to hybrid. 

The culture of ‘in-office supremacy’ was raised during the discussion… In a way, virtual work can be hailed as the great equaliser – when lockdown struck, suddenly everyone was on a level-playing field with completely equal access to their workplace and the people within it. So, as some people go back to the office and others choose a more flexible path, is the harmony stripped away? Employers and managers must work to ensure that this doesn’t cause bias in promotions and opportunity in the workplace. 

How does hybrid working fit with company culture? 

Speaking of harmony – how will hybrid working change the way we relate to one another? Will hybrid working be a disruptor or an enhancer of company culture? Andrew pointed out the importance of a sense of connectedness – not just between employees and their company, but between individual members of a team, too. It’s clear that there is much to be lost if we don’t get this new style of working right. 

Nathalie pointed out the increased focus by HR and People departments on employee wellbeing since the onset of the pandemic. This isn’t just because of the trauma of global events, but also because burn-out is becoming more and more common in employees. We’ve traded the commute for more meetings than ever before and a blurred line between work and home – was it worth it? We need to ensure appropriate balance in this new way of working.   


The role AI may play 

Here’s another interesting thought about the future of work – what effect will increasingly accessible artificial intelligence and machine learning have? AI has always been a controversial topic – something that was proven as our panelists took opposing stances in this discussion.  

Nathalie highlighted concerns that home-working poses to the development of AI and ML work-enabling software. When employees work from home, there is less visibility about what they do on a daily basis. Does this only affect the boss, or could it affect them too?  

Technologies such as these could be used to reduce the need for repetitive, administrative tasks, and open up time for more creative output from employees. This definitely seems positive for the workers. But in order to identify which tasks may be automated, we need to monitor work. Something which may make workers twitchy, says Andrew. 

What’s clear is that if AI is to enter the workplace, it will need to be responsible. That means both monitored and limited. What we don’t know is what this framework for using AI would look like – how comfortable would people be with the idea and what are the pitfalls? 


We’ve not worked it out yet 

With the talk around AI, hybrid working, and everything in between, we kept coming back to this simple fact – we’ve not arrived at the so-called ‘new normal’ yet. In fact, as Andrew suggested, there won’t even be one ‘normal’ when we do. Different models of work will always work to varying degrees of success for different businesses.  

Many elements of a hybrid working environment are still being developed. Andrew pointed out that his teams are working more than ever in short sprints since the pandemic – he doesn’t believe that the workforce will be working the same way it is today come two weeks’ time. Even during this LNETM event, many of us marveled at the wonders of a platform we hadn’t seen before – Toucan.  

New technologies to facilitate the changes in our ways of work are being developed as we speak – clearly at Microsoft, but also from the likes of Toucan to the much-pondered ‘metaverse’, we’ve definitely not arrived at a stopping point yet. 

We never will. 

Thanks very much to Ian as usual, as well as all of the speakers and presenters of the event. It was brilliant!