Hybrid Work Needs an Inclusive Collaboration Strategy

As the saying goes - no-one can whistle a symphony, it takes an orchestra. For all the well-publicised (and valid) advantages of our new-found freedom to work wherever we want, some key elements of our working lives have become a little diminished.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had to adapt to myself and my team going from mainly office based, and travelling to collaborate with colleagues, to 100% at home. And then to a more distributed asynchronous model - with some people in California, some in Houston and others around the world, including in the UK.

Today, I come into the office for a specific purpose: to meet with my colleagues and to run workshops, but work from home the rest of the time. As a result, I’ve experienced the benefits having more time from not having to commute, as well as being able to focus on specific tasks. I’ve also seen a kind of collaboration equity - feeling closer overall to everyone on my team because location matters less in a video-first world, compared to in-person first.

However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance and impact of collaboration quality, particularly when it comes to being seen and heard clearly , as teams are more dispersed more of the time. And going by HP’s latest independent research - I’m not alone in feeling this way.

What’s going wrong at (hybrid) work?

With less working time being spent all together in-person, we found people across the UK feel like their collaboration, creativity, and sense of community is being impacted.

An HP Pulse Survey of 1,500 UK office-based workers found more than a quarter (27%) of people feel less collaborative when working from home, and 29% don’t feel included in meetings when working remotely. This is a sizeable chunk of the workforce, and compounds other existing problems, such as 45% of female business leaders saying it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings

It appears in some cases; tech is hindering rather than helping the issue. 75% of people say they can’t help but judge other people based on their video and audio quality - and of the 90 million or so conference rooms worldwide, less than 10% are enabled with video.

All too often in hybrid meetings, staff joining remotely are drowned out by employees in the same room at the office, with the overall collaborative impact being that the loudest get louder and the quiet get quieter. Not great - and even worse for younger generations who have joined the workforce during the pandemic and haven’t yet had a chance to forge the relationships and practices that help give them the confidence to speak up and contribute.

So, what’s to be done?

The three pillars of an integrated collaboration strategy

Clearly, we shouldn’t just order everyone back into the office five days a week. Well, you could, but a third of them would quit. Instead, we recommend supporting hybrid collaboration by focusing on three key areas: Technology for employees, HR and culture, and in-office facilities.

Equipping people with the technology they need, so that everyone is a first-class citizen when it comes to collaboration, is key. This can be built into the devices used by workers, such as a laptop with a good quality microphone and camera, or standalone, such as a headset if needed. As well as - should staff have the space for it - a decent monitor and lighting, and the meeting software that ties all this together effectively.

Facilities teams need the time and budget to plan and create multiple meeting spaces to suit your organisation’s varying collaboration requirements. This might mean a large space for bigger discussion and presentation forums, breakout spaces for smaller groups of people to have quick discussions with input from people who are not physically in the room. And a huddle space - a casual spot for a couple of people to convene and chat in person or with remote colleagues.

Then you have the HR and culture element, which is about recognising how accepted collaboration tools and practices may need to evolve to become fit for purpose in a more flexible future, and actively encouraging that change, as part of the onboarding and ongoing training process. It needs to be communicated explicitly that organisations must recognise that people in different departments and roles have unique needs and working styles - and that there is a cultural expectation for people to put a little effort into understanding and adapting to one another.

For example, my team at HP just agreed we would take two afternoons a week (a Tuesday and a Friday) for ourselves to work on whatever we wanted, with no meetings and an agreement of minimal interruptions for ad hoc requests. We also know that we’re each open to an ad-hoc sync during these times, to enable effective collaboration. Having set, protected times to do focused work alone, helps people be more present when it’s time to collaborate.

Tech can drive quality throughout the employee experience  

Of course, not every organisation is a global tech company, so it’s simply not realistic to expect every employee to be given a mini-recording studio and a metaverse ready VR headset! It’s more about recognising that high-quality video has become essential for helping colleagues in different locations connect and understand each other in real-time. And that audio quality now has a vital impact on an individual’s ability to contribute to and influence a meeting - and investing accordingly.

Collaboration is a human necessity - it’s what we do best, and what many people enjoy most about work, so it has an outsized impact on the quality of the employee experience. Get it wrong, and staff may feel frustrated and alienated, with predictable results. Get it right, and you can create an inclusive, empowering, high-performance environment that will make talent want to stay. This is particularly important in today’s current climate, where talent retention is a problem being experienced by companies grappling with a hybrid working model.

It's because this issue is so important, that I’m immensely proud of our focus on making top quality collaboration solutions accessible to everyone, with the most recent example being the launch of the HP Presence range. This includes the collaboration technology embedded into new HP devices - such as upgraded camera hardware with integrated lighting enhancements that automatically adapts to the lighting conditions of various workspaces. And AI-based noise reduction filters that reduce unwanted background noises, like doorbells or barking dogs.

The HP Presence range also includes purpose-built meeting room solutions with AI-powered audio and cinematic-level video. For example, HP Speaker Tracking allows speakers to move around the room while keeping them in frame, with three tracking modes - slow, cinema, and fast- to accommodate different presentation styles.

It all combines to ensure every attendee feels seen and heard, whether they are in the room or not.

Over the next decade we will see the technology we use at work enable ever more immersive collaboration environments, with devices that work seamlessly together, adapting instantly to our individual preferences. Today, we’re already training new hires on how to use augmented and virtual reality devices - but in the future, they will become increasingly invisible forms of technology because they’re simply embedded in how we go about our lives.

This means the standards and expectations people have for the tools their employer gives them will continue to evolve. My team and I are genuinely excited about rising to that challenge, and forever reinventing the world of work to make it more engaging, and inclusive - for everyone.