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Shaping the future of hybrid work

Computing and infrastructure giant Dell Technologies has found itself reexamining its assumptions about the world of work and redefining every expectation, said Jennifer Saavedra, the company’s chief human resources officer. “Earlier, I heard people say, ‘I can’t wait to get back to the old way of doing things.’ That was never a winning strategy,” Saavedra said. “This is a reflection on the past 18 months. What have we learned? What great things do we want to push forward? What challenges or obstacles are there? How do we update expectations?”

Saavedra sees a lot of “great things”: opportunities for increased efficiency, productivity, and inclusion, and ways to reimagine the workplace to achieve what was previously impossible.

For example, Dell’s more than 25,000 salespeople will never be able to meet in one place at the same time — let alone the army of human resources, finance, and marketing people who support them. Like many companies, Dell used to hold face-to-face training and leadership events for all sales managers, believing that the strategy and sense of purpose shared at these meetings would impact rank-and-file employees.

The pandemic has changed all that. Suddenly, managers couldn’t meet in person, but everyone could meet virtually on video conferencing platforms like Zoom. Saavedra said that while it was a great opportunity to connect and communicate, figuring out how to get so many people involved in a virtual environment was a challenge. “You’re not just trying to replicate what you do in an in-person or classroom experience.”

In the past, resources for developing skills or absorbing new material, often delivered in small groups or in class, are now being moved online to Dell Learning Studios, which people can access individually at their leisure. The group portion of the event, now held virtually, focuses on collaboration and networking. “Now it’s no longer a leadership program or a training program, it’s a training experience or a leadership experience,” Saavedra added. “The change in language actually reflects the change in design.”

Dell has reimagined its entire training function: for example, personalized learning programs have been expanded, adding group training for more job functions for each of its 15,000 engineers to address specific knowledge gaps and requirements.

Embrace technology and culture and work together

Redefining the workplace as independent of physical location requires a fundamental change in technology and organizational culture. In most cases, this doesn’t mean redefining “work” itself, which remains focused on outcomes such as productivity, innovation, communication, customer experience, and other key performance indicators. But for many employees, these rapid and necessary changes are proof that work environments can be flexible, collaborative, location-agnostic, and still get work done, perhaps even better than before. Their output—the achievement of goals—has largely replaced face-to-face as the key performance indicator.

Global consulting firm Deloitte calls this new paradigm “distribution by design.” Its research shows that 77% of employees say they are equally productive working from home, or more (though most think they are productive about 58% of the time). “Employers should focus on improving the employee experience by reducing mandatory meetings and emails and focusing on culture and well-being,” said Alex Braier, managing director and U.S. public sector leader for organizational strategy, design and transformation at Deloitte.

Dell’s figures also reflect improved working conditions, including less stress and better connections with colleagues. For example, more than half of organizations that are establishing a “hybrid” work model — that is, combining office and remote work in their employees’ schedules — report an increase in employee satisfaction and well-being.

While many experienced managers are uncomfortable with distributed workplaces because they feel they can better manage their employees when they see them, Braier sees this as a myth. “The percentage of workers you can see at any given time is very small. Working with virtual collaboration tools allows you to collect a lot of data, and by mining that data, you can better understand how work is actually being done.”

An organization’s managers can use the metadata created on the collaboration platform to see which employees are collaborating, which employees are excluded, which employees are hosting meetings, and overall patterns of who is participating in meetings. They can track whether all relevant teams represent diverse groups and interests, thereby advancing their organization’s goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sticking to metadata, rather than tracking individual activity, keeps data mining anonymous while allowing leaders to monitor the overall health of their distributed workforce.

Dell’s Black Friday — the biggest sales day of the year for many retailers — is always a high-pressure live event, with “war rooms” set up across the globe to monitor everyone’s performance and respond Promotion, hundreds of employees work around the clock. Jen Felch, Dell’s chief digital and CIO, said the pandemic forced a major overhaul — moving all dashboards from a centralized war room to individual screens in team members’ homes and setting alerts so they don’t miss out important information or an opportunity to take action while they are away.

The transition has been so successful that even though the company could have considered returning at least partially to an in-person setup in 2021, it chose to continue the “pandemic way.” That way, “people can stay at home. They can have dinner with their family,” and it still works, Felch said.

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This content is produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.

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