The last couple of years have been challenging for businesses in so many ways. Many leaders ask “When will things go back to normal?” and “How can we get everyone back in the office — safely?”

The short and perhaps obvious answer is: Things will never return to the way they were.

The pandemic forced the speed of progress and brought the future of work to the present. Suddenly, we find ourselves in that place we thought we had time to debate and plan for. It’s been a shock to the system for many, but as business leaders, we have to recognize that this is a good thing in the long run — for employees and employers alike.

Rather than worry about where their employees work from, businesses should focus on how to best harness the intellectual capital of digital workers and provide a hyper-collaborative environment to help them deliver their best, no matter where they are. This has been our reality at Cisco for years, and now the pandemic has sped up that digital transformation for everyone else.

The key to success for business leaders is to recognize that planning the future of work cannot be assigned to one person or department. It is not a project or an option. It’s a fundamental shift in business and an imperative for survival and sustained growth that requires everyone’s involvement.

Start with a clear understanding of hybrid work models, get buy-in from management across the board, and identify the technologies that will facilitate what you want to accomplish. Then put together the policies, including the financial model, that will be the backbone of how you do business.

Remote Work

In the first phase of the pandemic, everyone who could do so worked remotely. With lockdowns and quarantines, there wasn’t a choice, and businesses had to shift to a digital work environment quickly.

We’re now in a different phase and we have more choices, yet we can’t forget what we’ve learned. We all proved that remote work works. It works really well. Productivity peaked in 2020 when people were working at home, while many were also caring for children forced into remote learning or taking care of elderly family members.

In 2021, when some employers tried to force employees to return to their previous commutes and offices, many people chose to quit their jobs instead. A societal shift happened during 2020. And today, more than 50% of talent in the job market say they would not consider a job that didn’t give them some flexibility to work remotely. LinkedIn data recently found that employees satisfied with their company’s flexibility with time and location were 2.6 times more likely to report being happy and 2.1 times more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work.

The pandemic proved that work isn’t where you are, but what you do — and leaders need to recognize that remote work needs to be an “and,” not an “or.”

Hybrid Work

“Hybrid work” has become part of today’s business vernacular. Companies may give the term slightly different meanings, but in general, hybrid work empowers people to work from wherever they need to be. Sometimes that’s from an office, and sometimes from home or a coffee shop.

Hybrid work allows for remote work when desired or needed, but it also considers that people sometimes need to come together for those moments that matter. Rather than offices, we should think of these places as experience centers that can facilitate collaboration and innovation.

The key to a successful hybrid work model is making sure everyone can contribute and feel included and engaged. The right integrated hardware and software platforms can facilitate successful hybrid work environments that allow everyone to contribute optimally — no matter where they are.


To facilitate an optimal hybrid work experience, companies need to make sure they’re set up for what that looks like. Even if you think all your employees will be in the office for meetings, I can assure you your customers will not.

We see, on average, that at least one person in every meeting is joining virtually. Yet historically, only 6% or 7% of meeting rooms are video-enabled. That’s a problem.

In the future, a worker who is planning a day at the office will need to be able to easily find out how many people are in the office that day, what the air quality is, what spaces are available to book for a meeting, how many people can safely be in each room, and what technologies will be available to facilitate collaboration.

People need to be able to choose their level of acceptable risk. The more data we can provide to workers so they can make optimal personal decisions about safety, the better.

Because we can’t know what the future holds, we have to plan for flexibility if we want our businesses to continue to thrive — no matter what.

A year ago, we thought everything would go back to “normal” as soon as vaccines were available, but it didn’t. We can’t even say any longer that we know what “normal” will be next year, let alone five years from now.

Companies embracing rapid change are leaders in their industries, and business leaders who push back against new ways of doing business and managing their workforce are taking huge risks. As business leaders, we have to remain agile and embrace that digital will drive the future of work. Digital transformation is an imperative, not an option.

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Cliff Thomas

SVP and General Manager, Global Enterprise Segment, Americas