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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – X – Hybrid work

An interesting analyses evaluating the potential for remote working depending on the specific activity. Each square consists of 100 dots. The black ones represent the current use of remote working, the blue the untapped potential for remote working, the white ones the percentage of work that cannot be done from remote. The analyses focuses on US data. Image credit: McKinsey

Hybrid virtual and in-person workforce

Of the three elements I mentioned in the previous post, volume, quality and way of working, the FTI report focuses on the latter and I feel this is correct, since the long term impact of the pandemic will be most felt on the way of working.

Companies have been forced to have their workforce operating from remote, whenever possible. This has resulted in three discoveries:

  • it can be done, with limited or no productivity impact
  • it decreases cost
  • a significant portion of the workforce actually liked the new dimension of work

As pandemic and social distances will fade away those three facts will remain and a number of company will stick to a new normal. Google is considering requiring their workforce to be on site for just 2 days a week, the remaining 3 days can be WFH (Work From Home) or WFA (Work From Anywhere). My youngest son has been working from home (homes actually, sometime in Milan, sometime in Turin and from time to time from our vacation home on the mountain). Now he is considering moving to Spain getting a flat by the seaside and work from there. This is the WFA that several workers have come to appreciate.

Although the end of the pandemic will restore the “normal” way of working for many companies the expectation is that the level of remote working in Asia will be 4 to 5 times what it used to be in the pre-pandemic area, according to Anu Madgavkar, McKynsey Global Institute partner, and we know that other geographical areas are even more inclined to adopt remote working than Asia.

Remote working changes the way of working: it requires a different organisation, a clear focus on objectives rather than on activity. Also, it requires in many cases different tools (the replication of the office environment at home is not straightforward, it takes more than a PC screen to get the same “feeling” and interaction level).

Sure, it is not possible for any type of work, as shown by the McKinsey analyses reported in the graphic. Remote working is clearly easier to support for white collars whilst blue collars usually need to be “on-site”. However, we are seeing that technology supporting remote interaction with machines like robots is now becoming available. The possibility to control from remote a robot using VR and a low latency communications network is enabling blue collar remote working more and more (watch the clip).

On the one hand workers appreciate the increased flexibility of remote working and less commuting time (in some cases we have seen people moving away from cities where they have been living to be reasonably close to the office to the countryside enjoying better and cheaper living environment), on the other companies have realised that they can save office space, hence real estate cost (including cleaning and maintenance) and are therefore interested in continuing at leat partially remote working, as pointed out in the FTI’s report. The report is also noting that so far data are not conclusive on the impact of massive remote working on productivity, nor on the actions that can be taken to increase remote working productivity. The forecast for this decade is leaning towards an increase of hybrid working, that is work that at a company level will comprises both remote and on-site working and at individual level work being partly on company/client site and partly from remote (WFH/WFA).

The recreation of the office feeling when operating from remote is the focus of several companies, including start ups that have seen the pandemic effect as an opportunity to push their offer to the marketplace.:

  • Teamflow: recreates the organic flow of proximity conversation by showing a virtual office floor plan populated with colleagues icons that a person can hear talking once they are sufficiently close. On e can move around and get close to engage colleagues in conversation by moving her own icon around the virtual office floor;
  • Gather: emulates the routine of office work, including a coffee with colleagues using a collaboration software that brings back to a “retro” interpretation of the office work;
  • Reslash: provides a virtual space that is cluttered, not organised, to stimulate serendipity and creativity, quite the opposite of an office space designed for a structured activity. It is interesting since rather than trying to recreate a physical office space in the cyberspace it takes the opposite approach: leverage the unconstrained possibility of cyberspace to stimulate creativity;
  • Sneek: recreates the possibility of dropping by a colleague office, peek in to see if she is willing to chat

We can expect several companies coming up with tools to make remote working both engaging and productive and the availability of better/different interface technology is likely to boost this trend.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.