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3 Models to Defining the Future of Work

The future of work is at a point of change and growth for many organizations throughout the world. In order to understand how to move forward, we take a closer look at three models that make up potential future of work possibilities.
October 28, 2020

In this Article:

What is Future of Work?

Learn what the definition of Future of Work means in scope for this article — and for your organization.

1. Work from Home

If your organization's work environment is to keep your teams remote, learn how to optimize and continue enhancing these experiences.

2. Return to the Office

If your plan is to return your employees to the office, learn how to do so safely.

3. Hybrid Work Model

Will you be returning to the office and working from home, having a combination of the two? Learn how to make the most of a hybrid work model in the future of work. 

What is the Future of Work? How Do We Define Future of Work?

Google the term “future of work” and you’ll be greeted by not only tens of millions of results, but also by a wide range of content. Future of work as a term could mean anything, from trends to technology to staffing behaviors and environment evolutions. Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all definition to future of work because different organizations are going to have different futures.

COVID-19's impact only evolved and expanded the definition of future of work. While everyone is looking to prepare in their own ways, there are three key areas that we’re going to define as “future of work” when we refer to it both in this article and throughout parts of CDW:

  • Work from Home: The future of work is having employees work remotely, with no main office where they are required to work – if there is a main office.
  • Return to the Office: The future of work is returning employees to the office, requiring phases and new technology/procedures to ensure their safety and health.
  • Hybrid Model: The future of work does not reside solely in the office or at home, but rather a combination of both to create a work-life balance and  in-person collaborative environments.

Future of work, however, is more than just location – it’s the efficiency and opportunity that comes with it. To have an effective future of work plan, you must have an understanding of what it takes to make these work environments work. The depth of these future planning efforts will be further explored in upcoming articles about this topic, but for now let us work to understand the benefits and challenges that face each of the three defined future of work environments.

1. Work from Home and the Future of Work

The suddenness of COVID-19 forced countless employees to work from home and many organizations to learn how to operate in remote working environments. Everything, from secure connections into work applications to getting the right end user devices, was critical.

Months have passed, and while some companies are starting to return to the office, many have decided that the work from home model works for them. A Global Workplace Analytics study found that 56% of US workers can do their job remotely at least part-time, and a Gartner survey found that 48% of employees are likely to work remotely going forward. The shift is likely a welcome one for these employees who are enjoying a better work-life balance, a reduced commute time and more financial savings, just to name a few highlighted benefits. In fact, Buffer’s State of Remote Report found that 98% of surveyed employees said they want the rest of their careers to include remote working opportunities at least some of the time.              

Organizations have seen benefits, too; that’s why you may have heard about many going full-time remote. Reasons can range from the happier workforce to the lower overhead costs by not having to worry about an on-site office – it all depends on the organization. But the benefits are there and some organizations are responding.

But having gone remote back in February/March doesn’t mean that the work is done. Quite the contrary. Businesses who move to remote work environments need to have a plan to meet employee and organizational needs that’s as robust as when everyone was still working in-office – but to meet the challenges of work from home.

In the same Buffer report noted above, employees shared that common issues with WFH were collaboration and communication (17%), unplugging after work (22%), distractions at home (10%), staying motivated (8%), taking vacation time (7%) and reliable Wi-Fi (3%). Additionally, employees were concerned about their work not being noticed by their managers (32%) and having difficulty addressing sensitive issues virtually instead of in-person (26%).

Organizations, too, are facing challenges of their own. Concerns about privacy and security, changing now-outdated work policies to fit a WFH setting, company culture impacts and technology requirements are just a handful of the barriers that companies face as they look to make WFH both permanent and meaningfully implemented.

Don’t let this intimidate you. If you’re considering a full-time WFH environment for your organization, or you’ve already implemented one and are now looking to refine it, there are plenty of steps you can take to refine and enhance your efforts. Make no mistake: Turning your future of work into an entirely work from home experience can be done. Below are some considerations to make as you look to start on or build up a WFH environment:

End User Technology: Make sure your end users are equipped with the right tools they need to succeed. They may already have their computers, but find out what else they need. This could be an external keyboard and mouse, a docking station, extra monitor, or even a desk and chair. Your goal is to make sure that they can work and focus comfortably, without feeling like they’re working around their technological limitations at home. This should help your employees feel less distracted since they’ll now be able to work more productively.

End User Applications: We don’t need to tell you that collaboration tools are critical in a work from home environment. But are your end users using these tools correctly? Make sure they’re getting the most out of their communication and collaboration tools, as well as getting the most out of other software such as productivity apps and security protections. If you’re not sure, work with your managers and organization leaders on how they can utilize these tools, and have that information passed on that way. Put another way: what good is a hammer if you’ve never been taught how to properly nail something? Your goal is to not only ensure your organization is getting the most out of these applications, but that employees feel less siloed and more collaborative. And be sure to keep an eye out for applications that could improve upon or further enhance collaboration and productivity. The applications you acquired in March to support a sudden work from home environment may have been good for a quick patch, but now that you’re looking to position your company to be fully WFH you may find those applications don’t address all the needs your workforce will have – or that other applications may be more effective and robust.

Set Policies: The first few weeks during work from home, every employee probably loved the idea of walking out of their bedroom, making a cup of coffee, heading into their office and getting the day started. After a few weeks the lines between when the workday ended and their evening began probably blurred. This is because as we become more comfortable with work from home, we also know that work is at home. Walking away from your computer when you know that you might receive an email at 5:30 makes you want to check back at 5:35, and then again at 6:15, and slowly this creeps out more and more until your employees feel like they’ve never truly unplugged. Set policies and boundaries for working from home. Let your employees know you understand there is a workday and that workday ends. Help them understand when it’s okay to unplug and reaffirm the importance of work-life balance.

2. Return to the Office in Future of Work

Organizations had to take quick, decisive action back in late winter/early spring to keep their workforce safe by having them work remotely. For some organizations and some regions, life is slowly returning back to normal. And as life returns back to normal, so too do organizations start considering returning employees to the office.

Simply put: Employees are stressed about returning to the office. Reasonably so, as COVID-19 has not gone away. According to Safety and Health Magazine, 65% of the workforce is wary of returning to the office. It’s the equivalent of escaping a haunted house only to return a few nights later. The threat is there, they know that, but it’s not fully understood and can’t always be quickly seen or identified.

However, in the same survey, 69% of participants said that they trust their employer to be mindful of the world and the current COVID situation, making the right choice on when it’s time to return to work. Workers are trusting you and your organization to keep them safe when they do return to the office. They also want to see certain things to keep them safe. For example, 74% want to see thorough cleaning take place in their office or workspace, 62% want policies on who can enter the workplace such as those who are sick or who have recently traveled, and more than 60% want to see options for social distancing.

If the future of work for you means reopening and returning everyone back to the office, then you’ll want to prepare properly. Here are some tips for taking the first steps into the future of work for reopening the office:

Know who’s in and who’s out: Employees want to feel safe, and that safety comes from knowing who’s coming in the office. Using technology to employ practices such as thermal screening and occupancy tracking can help stagger your workforce for social distancing as well as to act a safeguard for employees who might have elevated body temperatures, possibly indicating a fever. This checkpoint at the entrance will help employees feel assured that those who are coming in aren’t ill, and gives them the option of maintaining distance throughout the workday. More sophisticated efforts with technology, such as knowing which employees are at what locations in the office throughout the day, can help with potential contact tracing efforts as well.

Make the right investments: Employees who are returning to work are doing so with the expectation that things will be working. However, aging technology that you had planned to replace but could not because of COVID may cause gaps in productivity if not addressed. If you can’t replace your aging tech with new infrastructure that’s okay, there are still solutions such as warranty extensions that will help extend the life of your tech rather than leave functionality to chance. You’ll also want to ensure that end user hardware is up to par after the end users had to work remote for some time.

Be patient and have procedures: Returning to the office is a big ask after the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion and stress that people experienced from suddenly planning their workdays around remote work. Your employees may need time to adjust not only to being back in the office, but also adhering to new procedures around the office. Be precise about what your new policies are in a reopened office environment. Check in on your employees. Ensure communication and collaboration is producing results and supporting employees.

Review and reassess your floorplans: Did you have open bench seating in your office environment? Was it crucial to have employees sit near each other for collaboration? Did you have congestion points or areas where large amounts of employees were likely to gather? Before you bring the employees back, be sure to look at the actual layout of the office and consider how you ensure proper spacing, congestion and congregation reductions, and offer personal space. This may mean rethinking your entire floorplan, but your employees are counting on you so it’s worth the effort. 

3. Hybrid Work Model and the Future of Work

The future of work for your organization after COVID-19 may not be fully in person. It may not be fully remote. Much like the middle handle on a chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream, a hybrid work model is the swirlie of work from home and in-person environments.

For many, it’s not hard to see how this is extremely beneficial for employees and the organization. Employees gain flexibility in their schedule, work-life balance, and can still have important face-to-face interactions with their coworkers and managers without being in the office every day. Organizations can better manage social distancing, empower their employees to feel more in control of their schedules, and still provide critical meeting spaces for team meetings and team building efforts. This sounds like a win/win, right?

It does, but as with all other plans for your future of work, you must think strategically and critically. With a hybrid work model, you’re essentially supporting central offices and however many remote work environments you’ll have based on employees who want to work from home some days. What’s more, you need to ensure that these environments have parity. A real hybrid work model means the employee can work efficiently and effectively both remotely and from the office. If there’s an imbalance, you risk the effectiveness of the entire model. You also have to clearly communicate what new schedule structure your employees will be following.

So, you want your future of work to be a hybrid model? It’s going to a take a little more than just checking boxes from WFH and in-person office settings – though that does help. Instead, you need to know where to prioritize your efforts to create a truly seamless hybrid model. Here are some tips:

Communicate scheduling: If your hybrid model is that some teams come on some days, you must ensure those teams know. Failure could cause a fuller office and a challenge for social distancing. But even after this, imagine an employee showing up on a day they thought they had to come in but really were scheduled to work remotely, or vice versa? It’s two sides of that familiar nightmare where you’re running late to work and forgot to get dressed, or showing up at your old high school and you didn’t study for a test but you know you shouldn’t be there. Make sure everyone knows their scheduling protocols, and enforce them.

Have effective communication and collaboration tools: Similar to the work from home effort, you must make sure your employees can communicate with one another. This is especially so while some are in the office and others are working remote. Have the right technology in place for communication so that employees can use these apps effectively whether they’re in the office or at home. Adding to that, make sure your employees can collaborate effectively, as well. This comes down to choosing the right collaboration and file sharing apps, and the right documentation so employees know how to access these whether they’re in office or at home.

Get feedback: Though this tip is universal for any path you take in your future of work, you need to consider the benefits and disruptiveness that are unique to a hybrid model. This blend of both worlds means that people could get confused, they may want more flexibility or time in the office, they may not feel they’re equipped to be productive in one environment or the other. Gatheropen and honest feedback from your employees and solicit it often. Then, use that feedback to make the adjustments you need – whether they’retechnology related or office environment related.

Whether your future of work is transitioning your business to a more permanent work from home setting, returning your employees back to the office, or a combination of both, now is the time for effective planning to take place. For more information on how to best address your future of work goals, check out CDW’s Future of Work pages to learn how various products and services can help support your goals and make your future of work initiatives successful.

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