As we enter another autumn of our pandemic-changed era, the question of exactly when – or even if – a full return to office will occur remains undecided, according to recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal. This uncertainty serves only to highlight the fact that the hybrid work model, already a fixture across many companies and industries, will be with us for some time.
Given this reality, it is crucial for enterprises to figure out how best to get work done in this environment – reconnecting people who are physically disconnected, and enabling people to work flexibly, securely, and productively whether they’re in the office, out and about, or at home. Doing so effectively, however, requires several key considerations, particularly for those companies that center around knowledge work.
The knowledge work distinction
Unlike many administrative and data-related work tasks can be done effectively in a hybrid setting once the systems that support them are available, knowledge work requires a different approach.
If you think of the work performed by professionals in Legal, Finance, Accounting, Consulting, Marketing, and other similar industries (as well as their corresponding clients in corporate departments), this work often involves interpretation of complex laws and rules; consultation and review/approval with experts or senior staff who have relevant experience; and it is often framed as a goal or outcome, rather than a defined set of tasks. The “how” is not specified. Examples of this type of work might include negotiating an agreement, investigating a regulatory case or incident, or creating a complex report based on research and analysis.
Notably, this type of work requires judgement and creativity in how the goal is achieved. While there may be best practices in how to carry out the work, those are a starting point, not a set of instructions for what to do. Experts need to be identified and actively collaborated with to deliver the best outcomes.
This is where the hybrid work environment presents some challenges. The ability to quickly pop your head over the cubicle to ask, “where are we with the latest version of the contract?” or “where are we with the deal closing?” isn’t a given anymore, since people come into the office on different days, if they come in at all. These ad hoc updates are essential to goal-oriented knowledge work.
Different communication tools – ranging from collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, to Zoom and task management solutions, like Asana and Hive – have emerged to help close this gap. However, this proliferation of tools comes with its own set of challenges, not least of which is the fact that since different groups and generations of end users gravitate to different tools, professionals suddenly need to keep a tab on multiple tools, and multiple channels within those tools, resulting in a loss of context.
On top of all this, hybrid work – and all the new tools that come with it – increase the management of and concerns around privacy, security, and governance. These are key considerations with knowledge work, which often deals with sensitive high value content.
Now that work is no longer conducted within the four walls of the office, there are new risks to deal with around that content, whether that’s controlling access to confidential information or ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements like Europe’s GDPR. Meanwhile, each tech tool and channel requires governance, leading to exponential growth in complexity and cost as tools proliferate. Often, the lack of effective governance winds up limiting what can be used at all.
Making sure hybrid work doesn’t impede knowledge work
In order for knowledge work and collaboration to effectively take place in this hybrid setting, organizations need solutions that effectively address the above challenges.
For starters, they need a platform that reduces the information silos created by multiple communication channels (and the productivity-sapping context switching that comes from navigating amongst them) by providing a single lens through which to manage, protect, and search across e-mails; Teams messages and content; meeting transcripts; Office documents; and more.
At the same time, they need a solution that effectively balances security and governance with knowledge sharing. Professionals need to be able to draw upon the collective intelligence of the organization where they work, which is often embodied in previous work product. Tightly integrated security policies and ethical walls that work across mobile devices and work with existing Data Loss Prevention (DLP) and other technologies can create an integrated “need-to-know” security environment where content can be shared with the understanding that it is safe and allowed.
Additionally, the targeted use of AI can help automatically surface knowledge and expertise throughout the organization by interpreting signals around interactions with core systems like the document management system or the time entry system. For instance, a legal professional who bills most of her time to Singapore-based real estate matters would reasonably be identified as an expert in this area; similarly, a contract template that has been downloaded the greatest number of times by professionals in a certain team would be identified as the best asset to leverage. In a hybrid setting, removing the friction around knowledge sharing in this way is imperative.
New software applications for knowledge work that integrate checklists to improve consistency of delivery in complex dispersed projects and enhance self-training are equally helpful for hybrid work. While knowledge workers still retain the autonomy and flexibility to accomplish goals in their own way, checklists and task lists serve to connect each professional with best practices, instructions, and milestones to most efficiently get there; they are essential coordination and monitoring capabilities for a hybrid environment.
The right technologies matter
The hybrid work environment will be with us for the foreseeable future. But for those enterprises whose stock in trade is knowledge work, it will be critical to ensure that they have technology that closes the coordination gap; provides a single lens through which to view projects across diverse communications; and facilitates knowledge and expertise discovery in a broadly distributed team. If you believe that hybrid work is here to stay, the proper support systems will be the key to thriving in the new normal.