Ashley Still is Adobe's Senior Vice President of Digital Media – Marketing, Strategy & Global Partnerships.
When COVID-19 hit, we were forced into a fully digital mode of business operation. Overnight, we adopted available remote work tools — even if imperfect, they were the best tools for the job.
That is no longer our reality. We've lived, we've learned, and there are clear best practices rising to the top that we must embrace.
While economies are reopening, people are traveling and in-person office time is becoming more common, seven in 10 U.S. white-collar workers are still working remotely. Employee mindsets are shifting — many are eager to return to the office, but a strong cultural shift has left others preferring remote work. This is our new normal, and it's time for businesses to take a step back and build a more intentional and thoughtful model for hybrid work.
There are some big-picture questions we should be asking ourselves: How do companies reduce digital burnout and focus on removing the day-to-day annoyances of getting things done that are exacerbated in a hybrid environment? How will remote employees contribute and collaborate as seamlessly as those who are together in person? How can we ensure that remote workers have the same opportunities and are given the same consideration as those who come into the office regularly?
Here are some guiding principles that will help address these questions.
Invest in automation
This year, employees had an opportunity to reflect on the importance of their work and the reality of their day-to-day. This proved to be a wakeup call for many — that a lot of their time was being spent on mundane tasks that could be automated or simplified with the right tools. In a recent Adobe study, 86% of enterprise workers said that [mundane] tasks interfere with their effectiveness, and one in two employees would switch jobs if a different role would give them access to more effective digital tools.
This may sound extreme, but it makes complete sense — employees who remove tedious, time-consuming obstacles are empowered to focus on fulfilling and substantive projects. Who wouldn't change jobs for that? This is a call to managers to understand the mundane or unwanted projects their employees face, and what work excites them. As we've witnessed with The Great Resignation — or as I like to call it, The Great Re-evaluation — it's increasingly important that workers feel connected to the work that they do to achieve career satisfaction. Automation is effective for streamlining work and reducing inefficiencies, but it can also help employees feel more passionate about their role.
Don't over-index on one kind of virtual connection
As many companies transitioned to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, endless video meetings and emails soon followed. We were all struggling to maintain effective communication in our new virtual reality, and lost out on all the different touchpoints we have in a physical work environment, like the water cooler conversation after a big meeting or the ideas exchanged in a hallway pass-by. Even in meetings themselves, some found it more intimidating or difficult to make their voices heard.
Over time, we've observed that diversifying the tools we use for virtual connection can actually create a much richer dialogue and foster a more inclusive environment than putting all our eggs in the videoconference basket. That's not to say video isn't a meaningful way to connect — we just use it sparingly and put up some guardrails to avoid fatigue. Our company policy is to schedule meetings in 25- and 50-minute blocks so people are saved from back-to-back meetings without even a few minutes of reprieve. We also encourage employees to keep meeting chats alive after the meeting itself wraps. This allows everyone to share ideas without fear of being interrupted, and it captures a record of the thinking for everyone to see.
Leaders should understand and embrace the evolving nature of communication. For example, is a brainstorming meeting really the best way to generate ideas, or could a virtual chat in which people can share ideas as they have them be more efficient? One could ultimately take up only five minutes from each person and create more thoughtful dialogue while the other could take up a longer block of time from each person without inspired results. Productivity and connection can arise through new and seemingly bizarre methods of communication. In a world where emojis and GIFs are becoming increasingly common, rejecting cultural shifts in communication would only hinder progress in the new hybrid world.
Make co-editing a standard practice
Collaboration is still a struggle for many businesses. According to a recent Adobe study on the future of marketing, collaboration (38%), asset sharing (26%) and version control (23%) are the top three roadblocks for creative and marketing teams working together. Digital documents can be key to bridging this divide.
In my experience, the beauty of a digital document lies in the fact it's no longer static. It's dynamic, alive and ever-evolving. Nowadays we have living PDFs in which multiple people can come together to edit, ask questions and redact — all at the same time. Consolidating collaboration within a document makes it easier to share and refine ideas. While digital documents, like Google Docs or even Word, were a fixture in a pre-pandemic world, in-person feedback or meetings meant the collaborative nature of the documents was underutilized. As people have made a more conscious effort to reduce time spent in unnecessary meetings in a hybrid world, digital documents have offered an efficient alternative for collaboration and become more accepted as the new normal. As we refine an ideal hybrid work environment, co-editing can still simplify the in-person process and encourages continued collaboration.
I'm excited to see how we collectively build an updated framework for how we interact with, share and think about the work we do. Our CEO, Shantanu Narayen, summed it up well in a quip: Even as we return to the office, the digital genie is not going back into the bottle. That means we have a unique, generational opportunity to reshape the world of work in a way that can work better for all of us.