Uncertainty has been a defining characteristic of the past +/- 18-months. Now, as the move to hybrid working gathers pace, what the future of work looks like in South Africa is equally uncertain. It’s a puzzle every business needs to solve.

Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT, shares insights on making hybrid working, work.

While some offices have remained open at varying levels of capacity in response to the ups and downs of lockdown levels since March 2020, many of us have spent the past year working remotely. Now, as South Africa’s vaccine roll-out gathers speed, the possibility of face-to-face contact, of real-life meeting rooms, of desks in a shared space, becomes increasingly viable.

If you’re a business leader, you’re almost certainly asking: What does the new way of working look like? How does it function? What’s it likely to cost?

“Everyone’s talking about hybrid,” says Millard. “But most people who talk about hybrid mean flexible working, which is absolutely nothing new. We’ve been working flexibly for years.

“My favourite analogy around hybrid is the zedonk – half donkey and half zebra. The zedonk doesn’t spend three days a week as a donkey and two days as a zebra. It’s a completely different breed, all the time. And that’s what hybrid is: a completely different breed of work. It isn’t about how many days a week you are in the office – it’s all about the work, rather than where and when you do the work,” she adds.

It’s a fact that organisations the world over are coming to accept. More than 60% of business executives now believe offices will be very different post-pandemic, as hybrid heralds a new era for work. The trouble is, ‘very different’ feels a bit vague when defining the future of your business.

To get more specific about the features and challenges that characterise hybrid working, Dr Millard suggests a few key questions that leaders should ask themselves.

* How do you make sure that ‘horrible hybrids’ aren’t created, particularly when people who are remote in meetings are ignored by people physically together in a room?

* How do you manage a two-speed company, where the office and the remote workspace operate on different timetables?

* How do you balance overloading in the office midweek, and underloading on Mondays and Fridays?

* What strategies should you put in place to make sure people switch off from work when boundaries have blurred? This isn’t just a problem for home workers – our smart phones tether us back to the office, even if we leave it at the end of a day. Boundaries tends to be more blurred for home workers because they are literally living at work.

* How do you overcome proximity bias? If people who are seen to be in the office seem to get more chance of promotion and a good appraisal, how do you ensure that ‘invisible’ work done away from the office is more visible to everyone?

These questions present a significant conundrum for business leaders because the issues all feel interlinked. So, how can we solve this puzzle?

McKinsey’s whitepaper – Strategy under uncertainty – released in 2000 when the “Millennium Bug” was causing much concern, defined four stages of uncertainty from level 1 – ‘a clear enough future’ – through to level 4 – ‘true ambiguity’, proposing a series of different strategies to apply to each scenario.

The future of work has, arguably, reached the level of ‘true ambiguity’ – a scenario in which the future is virtually impossible to predict. It’s almost always transitory, as is the case with the current working scenario.

“There is no magic formula here. For every boss who is saying everyone needs to be back in the office, you’ll find another saying the polar opposite,” Millard suggests. “Since hybrid is a new way of structuring work, it’s not necessarily going to be a smooth ride. The best strategy is to experiment – learn what works, and what doesn’t.

“The pandemic has demonstrated a lot of work – particularly knowledge work – can be done beyond the four walls of an office. We need to look at harnessing that flexibility with the benefits that offices offer for socialising about work, collaborating, and creating community. What we shouldn’t do is create ‘horrible hybrids’ that mash up the worst of both worlds”.

In other words: Be bold in putting forward a vision of hybrid working. One that establishes an industry standard and can guide your organisation and others forward. Digital transformation can be that standard.

BT has defined six core principles to guide digital transformation as we enter this next phase of transition:

* It should always be people first, technology second – We should think about how our employees’ needs and behaviours have changed, how we can give them a consistent digital experience across multiple geographies, and how we can encourage the adoption of new technologies.

* The choice of platform doesn’t really matter, they’re all brilliant – Choice will only grow. What matters isn’t a single platform – however good it may be – but how well you use it and how well you use multiple ones.

* A great user experience is what’s needed – regardless of location – The future of collaboration is going to be cloud dependent. Location will matter less than having strong, flexible networks and continuous monitoring across your whole end-to-end call flow to keep experience optimised.

* It’s a new kind of work(place) – Whatever your feelings about remote versus office-based working, it’s undeniable that the future of working will be different to anything we’ve seen before. And that means establishing different rules to govern it.

* Security mustn’t take a backseat to speed or user experience – When it comes to imagining hybrid working, security must be built into the design from the start. You want to give your people the flexibility they need to work, while always remaining secure.

* Sustainability will be a dominant motivator for hybrid working – The pandemic has proven the viability of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda for both stakeholders and investors.

“The truth is, as much as we may want a neat and simple solution to hybrid working, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Each organisation needs to explore what the future of work looks like for them and how they can use digital technology to support their vision,” concludes Millard.