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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

The next step in hybrid work? Making it truly exceptional

Work will always be, well, work. But at its best, it’s creative, stimulating, and fun.

The next step in hybrid work? Making it truly exceptional
[Image Source: nenetus/Adobe Stock]

When the global workforce moved home last year, the world didn’t stop. In fact, we became even more productive. But we also saw challenges, such as when interpersonal connections and creativity sometimes fell short.

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And now, the world is changing again as organizations move to hybrid work. The debate over whether people can work from anywhere at any time is over. But the process of unlocking the full potential of hybrid work is just beginning.

This creates a terrific opportunity.

I see it as a future in which emerging technologies transform the work experience, opportunity reaches more people than ever before, and the very concept of “remote work” falls away. There’s no difference between working at home, in a café, in an office—or anywhere in the world. Every location should feel like a first-class location.

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Hybrid work represents an opportunity to enable the 3 billion digital workers on the planet to participate equally, regardless of their geography, language, personality type, or technical proficiency. Opportunity is unevenly distributed throughout the world, but human potential is not.

To me, that vision isn’t abstract, it’s personal. At 19, I left India for America. It was an incredible adventure, and I’m forever grateful to the U.S. for the educational and career opportunities it has given me. But at the time, I could barely afford to phone home. For seven years, I couldn’t see my mother.

There are many people who can’t or don’t want to make such a move. It would be great if, within our lifetime, no one has to move to a new country to be afforded an opportunity within the global economy.

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For that to happen, digital technologies must continue to level the playing field and transcend the barriers to human progress and inclusion. They must allow you to work from wherever you choose without being penalized for your choice.

That demands a work experience so seamless that there is no gap between virtual and face-to-face, and where locations and time zones become all but irrelevant. We should all benefit from the amazing talent and cultural perspectives that have been shut out from the global economy for too long.

HYBRID MEETINGS AS NATURAL AS A WATER-COOLER CHAT

Work should be about what you do, not where you are. We should reach the point where anyone, anywhere is a first-class participant in terms of opportunity and having their voice heard. And working from “headquarters” should no longer be a requirement, but a choice.

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I see that happening with transformation on three key fronts: technology, culture, and the physical workspace.

I’m especially excited about the ongoing innovation in the collaboration technology space. With emerging innovations in AI, machine learning, 3D imaging, and augmented and virtual reality, we’re creating an incredibly immersive and connected experience for users, whether they’re together in a room or working virtually.

For example, we need to capture and amplify what people convey non-verbally. So, AI-powered video cameras will need to respond not just to sound but to nonverbal gestures. And meeting attendees should be able to voice their feelings in flash surveys, so the tenor of even a large meeting can be gauged—and the meeting itself becomes more valuable because everyone’s engaged and no one feels left out.

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At the same time, technology must be simplified to the point of invisibility. A voice-activated or one-click meeting must begin as spontaneously as the proverbial water cooler chat—even across continents. Video experiences must allow for “wander time.” And innovations like real-time translations and transcriptions will dissolve the barriers between language and time zones.

There’s also a cultural shift that needs to continue. People will demand flexibility and inclusivity—as they should. All workers must be given the same advantages, regardless of where they choose to work. Organizations must be empathetic to their employees’ well-being—and technology can provide employees real-time data and insights into work habits and behaviors so they can better manage their work-life balance. Achieving this will be essential for organizations to attract the very best talent.

Leadership will need to be redefined. The old hierarchical models won’t cut it in a world where collaboration and creativity reign. And every voice will need to be heard.

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Again, technology can help, by gently nudging leaders to ensure that those smart, creative introverts get an equal chance to share their ideas. And asynchronous connections—with shared transcripts and recordings for those not in the meeting—need to be encouraged.

CORNER OFFICES LOSE THEIR CACHET

Fancy corner offices were historically a status symbol. Get ready for a physical office space that’s all about creativity, flexibility, and equality, with a variety of spaces but no real assigned desks. Collective brainstorming will flourish in the open, while also enabling spaces for “me” time when you need to slip off to think or create on your own. You could also choose to stay home such days to avoid the commute and still have an immersive collaboration experience when you need it.

And even if you can’t get into the office ever, technology will support any workspace you do use. That’s because technology is becoming all but invisible. With communication so natural, voice-activated, and AI-empowered, instigating a virtual conversation is easy.

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Work will always be, well, work. But at its best, it’s creative, stimulating, and fun. We’re still in the infancy of shaping the future of hybrid work.

I look forward to the next stage when people aren’t just working from anywhere, but having a truly great experience along the way. In this next stage, there will be no guilt or stigma attached to hybrid work because leaders encourage it, and digital innovations support it. That way, everyone can feel fulfilled and share the same opportunities.

The technology is getting better all the time. Now it’s up to us—the organizations, the leaders, and the workers—to dream big and create a future of work that’s exceptional (no matter where you happen to be).

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Jeetu Patel, EVP and General Manager, Security & Collaboration, Cisco.

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