Stu Hennigan, senior librarian at Leeds Libraries, had just started the video call work meeting he’d called from home when he looked out the window. The clouds looked ominous and the laundry hanging on the clothesline was almost dry. But it was already too late. “I’m too professional to handle a load of wet towels,” he explains. “It’s great that you can adjust to things like washing up during the day, but work has to take priority.”
Home laundry has become an unlikely workplace dilemma as millions of employees are now able to work remotely thanks to a combination of pandemic-related lockdowns, evolving technologies, and a new desire to use them. In addition to juggling laundry cycles and work tasks, there are a number of new questions about etiquette, such as when it comes to joining work video calls with the laundry visible in the background. And it’s not just employees having to navigate this new etiquette. Even small and medium-sized business leaders must balance the demands of running a business with the realities of home life. After all, entrepreneurs have laundry too.
But now that remote working is no longer an emergency measure in response to a global health crisis, the etiquette surrounding it has arguably become more professional and polished. SMB owners can then properly consider evolving best practices and put systems and tools in place to support hybrid teams composed of both remote and on-premise workers. For example, video conferencing technology allows users to blur backgrounds littered with laundry, a vital tool for any business owner who wants to look professional when answering an urgent call from a client or employee.
“It’s a good balance,” says Nick Hedderman, senior director of Microsoft UK’s Modern Work Business Group. “Asynchronous hybrid working may give your employees the flexibility to get school or personal appointments and finish work later that day, but there are still clear downsides and risks as the lines of work and life continue to blur.”
New etiquette, behaviors and policies have evolved hand in hand with technology. “Previously there had been an issue with the adoption of human behavior, but now people indicate a willingness to change the way they behave,” says David Shrier, professor of practice, artificial intelligence and innovation at Imperial College Business School. “The workforce is ready to take on technology, some of which has been around for some time [some time].”
Hedderman notes, “At the start of the pandemic, much of the popular attention was on basic video calling. But companies are now discovering how technology can play a much larger role in building connections wherever, whenever and however people work, helping to keep everyone engaged and informed.”
That technology has evolved in response to emerging best practices and has also helped shape it. However, as the pandemic-induced seismic shift to more flexible ways of working has been something of a mass social experiment, many of the improvements to technology and best practices have evolved incrementally and iteratively as companies have learned as they proceeded. As a result, some incredibly useful innovations may have gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs.
Tools and systems have emerged to help team members become more collaborative, flexible, and efficient. For example, a recent innovation from Microsoft Teams allows in-person attendees to use a companion app on their mobile phone to join the virtual meeting chat and react as if they’re also working remotely.
“Much of our innovation has been driven by our desire to create a seamless and blended in-person and remote experience for workers,” Hedderman explains. For example, for those joining a physical meeting remotely, smart cameras can split the displayed video into individual windows so that everyone in the room can see their own expressions and reactions up close. “And our cameo feature in PowerPoint allows remote presenters to place their live camera directly on a slide, embedding themselves in the content and maximizing non-verbal communication as if they were in the room.”
The effort to aid non-verbal communication is one of the key areas where technology has evolved. Similarly, there have been efforts to replicate all those unscheduled workplace interactions that are often referred to as “cooling-water moments.”
Much of how companies achieve operational excellence is through “small, tiny interactions between people, not long, scheduled meetings,” says Shrier. “You can replicate this in a digital environment as long as you change your employees’ behavior to actually use the tools.”
For those worried that not being in a physical office makes it harder to get someone’s attention for a quick chat, Shrier thinks digital alternatives could work just as well. “If I use the messaging app in Teams and we use video and not audio to respond, you can replicate most of the benefits of an in-person office setting,” she says.
Another key area of focus for emerging technology and best practices is employee well-being. Hedderman cites insights from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, which has tracked the development of hybrid work since the start of the pandemic. “As employees feel the pressure to ‘show’ they’re working, digital overload is on the rise: 48% of employees and 53% of managers report they are already burnt out at work.”
It points to a tool added last year that gives virtual meeting organizers an option to automatically start meetings five minutes late or end them five minutes early: Return Meetings and helps mitigate the effects of digital overload.
Technology can also help employees understand how they spend their time. For example, Microsoft Viva Insights allows employees to track after-hours work, book time with their team, block focus time, set email reminders, and unwind with mindfulness exercises in a virtual commute. These types of actions can be invaluable in safeguarding employee well-being.
“We discussed the “triple day peak” increase this year, as data found the average Teams user sends 42% more afterhours messages than they did before the pandemic, culminating in a third peak productivity around 10pm in the evening, where the previous peaks were seen before and after lunch,” notes Hedderman. “Leaders in small and medium-sized businesses need to take a deliberate and thoughtful approach to managing ‘asynchronous’ work.”
Finally, another key area where technology, etiquette, policies and best practices have evolved is that of cyber security.
“If a small or medium-sized business offers hybrid work flexibility to its staff, this will naturally be accompanied by an increase in cybersecurity risk, as employees access information from multiple devices over multiple Internet connections, from their homes, workplaces, cafes, trains, buses and everything in between,” explains Sarah Armstrong-Smith, chief security consultant at Microsoft UK.
Related: “Fragmented Attention Is the Enemy of Productivity”: How Small Businesses Can Benefit from Optimizing Their Technology
Armstrong-Smith notes that many small businesses have had to move quickly to set up remote and hybrid work during the pandemic, without the luxury of big IT budgets or in-house expertise: “Owner-managers often had to put on the chief information officer hat, while working around the clock to keep the business running.” Under these circumstances, some companies may have chosen a technology that did not offer the best protection for the security and privacy of their customers and their staff. Likewise, they may have chosen multiple technology vendors for different tools and functions, such as protecting user identities, data, applications and devices. Having multiple platforms can make it more difficult to view and manage their overall exposure to cyberthreats. And it can also mean that companies spend more than necessary in the process.
“[However]building a robust approach to online security for a small business doesn’t have to come at the expense of building a flexible, hybrid work environment,” he says.
And it doesn’t have to cost small businesses more in either money or time. Sometimes a business can actually do more with less. For example, Microsoft 365 Business Premium protects at all levels (user identity, apps, data, devices) and as part of it, Microsoft Defender for Business provides enterprise-grade protection, detection, and remediation for PCs, Macs, tablets, and mobile phones and is specially designed for SMEs.
“Despite all the talk about the hybrid, the reality is we’re still learning and experimenting,” says Hedderman. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Leaders will need to incorporate experimentation – continuous testing, observation and adaptation – to build the hybrid workplace that best suits them.”
For more information on getting the right technology and systems for your SMB, check out the Small Business Resource Center and other articles in this series on how to reduce the stress of being a small business owner