Disruption Optimization: Hybrid and Remote Working Don’t Work Without Workflow

If you are reading this article, it says a few things about your outlook on innovation and business process improvement. It asks a question that should be top of mind to those managing communications, data, processes, and people within an organization: Is it possible, in 2022, to disrupt ideas about hybrid or remote working and the vital role workflow plays in that equation?

Let’s face it, as a global society we likely all feel disrupted. So, this is an excellent time to discuss the idea of disruption so we can set the table for why disruption is still required in organizations like yours today. To achieve this, we should consult an old standard, Merriam-Webster. Since 1828, this dictionary has guided our understanding of terms and meaning. The entry on disruption states: “the act or process of disrupting something: a break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity, process, etc.” 

A break or interruption in the norm feels like the daily journey we embarked on back in March 2020. However, that doesn’t mean that we have optimized the impacts of the past disruption or continued to disrupt. This is foundational when talking about both hybrid and remote working methodologies. The year 2020 disrupted our norms of working, especially for those in production-oriented or people-intensive processes within an organization.  

These disruptions span everything from accounting and customer service agents sending and receiving communications to teams that create communications and those that manage and deliver both printed and digital varieties in a production environment. The disruption was that teams co-located together on a daily basis were in a matter of days transitioned to remote or hybrid working arrangements. Talking to people over the past couple of years reveals that the disruption left its mark — sometimes in a good way and other times in a less positive way. This brings us to today, where now we have expectations in our culture to be able to work remotely or work in a hybrid manner. What does that really mean? And what does it require of workflow? 

Why is disruption so disruptive?  

It seems advantageous at this point to address what our global work environments mean by remote and hybrid working. As some of you read this, you will be in an office (even today), while others will be reading it on their tablet at their home office, and another group may read this while traveling to and from sites where they have business. Promoting a common understanding of the terms is key before you can promote change and improvement. 

Working from Home (WFH): Owl Labs defines this as

“WFH means an employee is working from their house, apartment, or place of residence, rather than working from the office. Many companies have a WFH policy, or remote work policy, that allows their employees to work from home either full-time or when it’s most convenient for them.” 

Note that you may also see Work from Anywhere (WFA). This is similar with a twist; Huler defines it as: 

“Work from anywhere (WFA) is a flexible approach to working, where a company or organization empowers their employees to work productively and autonomously from anywhere, while remaining aligned and connected with company culture and goals.” 

Hybrid Working: Webex defines this (and the four flavors of hybrid working types) this way:  

“Hybrid work is a flexible work model that supports a blend of in-office, remote, and on-the-go workers. It offers employees the autonomy to choose to work wherever and however they are most productive.” 

This perceived disruption to the work environment has also come with limitations that organizations have had to find solutions for to fill the gaps. For example, in the printing side of communications, we like to say operators couldn’t just take a production printing press (the size of a bus or small train) home with them. There are also limited ways to contact production environment workers for security and productivity reasons. When you push workers to remote or hybrid models without workflows that are defined and managed by technology, you have gaps in visibility, knowledge, and potentially loss of productivity, quality, and on-time project completion. This challenge isn’t unique to print or production environments. This is a challenge for customer service organizations, content creation departments, operations, and logistics. Anywhere there is a manual process or a person who has to physically touch the process to move it to the next step, there is a bottleneck, or worse, a blind spot where a point of failure could appear.  

These are why disruption is still needed in organization workflows, especially in addressing the islands of workflow processes within an organization. However, before we try to solve all the workflow challenges in an organization, leaders (like you) can positively impact your area of responsibility and influence those above, adjacent, and below you. Why? Research from Slack says that 72% of those workers surveyed prefer a hybrid remote-office model, with only 12% preferring to always work in an office setting. PwC also found that 72% of respondents would like to continue working from home at least two days a week if asked to return to working in the office. In the communications creation, delivery, and receiving industries, remote versus hybrid considerations will depend on what you are doing in an organization. However, the uptick in hybrid expectations is driving the need for workflow technology in the form of automation, visibility, and auditability. It is just as much a requirement if people aren’t in the environment every day as they may have once been prior to 2020.  

Risks versus rewards—obtainable benefits 

Since the start of rapid, forced change in 2020, there have been many articles on how automation and workflow can positively impact your organization, especially in specific departments. In the March issue of Workflow Magazine, several features discussed this concept, including as Dan Johnson’s article on Common Solutions for Unique Challenges. That issue also saw insights from Scott Dabice at Ricoh USA on Outcome-Driven Workflows Meet the Unique Needs of Vertical Markets. And to circle back to the idea of the forced change that came like a tidal wave for some organizations, Amanda Ulery from Hyland Software shared inspiration for how to go From Forced Evolution to Strategic Leader. Each of these articles aims to show how organizations can benefit from an increase in software technology and intelligent (or software-integrated) equipment that reduce the requirements for manual intervention and on-site or in-person monitoring by employees.  

This is the intersection of people, processes, and technology. Organizations and department leaders not actively looking at this topic are missing a significant risk to costs, throughput, quality, and sustainable business practices. The risk is high because the labor market is still difficult, which I am sure resonates with many of you trying to find both skilled and unskilled labor for your organizations. There was a time not too long ago when you could fill gaps with the addition of labor, especially in our print, digital delivery, and digital transformation industries that handle high volumes of communications and product output. The risk of not having a workflow that is automated and optimized is the loss of business, the failure to meet customer expectations, or the reduction in the margins due to mistakes, delays, or variable operational costs. Workflow technology solutions are less sensitive to the market variabilities giving them a strong return on investment (ROI) that can be estimated prior to the selection and implementation in your organization.  

To show some examples of this, I would like to share some workflow stories from the customer communications management, print service provider (PSP), and in-plant markets that influence my perspective daily. As mentioned, 2020 and the resulting changes since then have challenged organizations and customers in delivery and engagement with print communications as well as digitally-delivered communications. DataProse, from Dallas, Texas, found that the changes in how documents came into their environment caused bandwidth issues when processing or bringing in work—sometimes completely stopping the print or digital delivery process. Manual intervention was required to try and solve the problem. The impact on the business was a reduction in capacity, which limited the acquisition of new customers. The impacts of remote working and hybrid working were exacerbated as there were limited people on hand who could manually handle workflow challenges.  

This situation is found across organizations, whether you are scanning, composing, storing and retrieving, or printing and delivering. DataProse knew they needed to make a change. They used workflow software technology to add a piece of modular software to their environment. The technology reduced PDF file sizes, reducing storage requirements, reducing internal network traffic, and most importantly, significantly improving e-presentment load times for consumers. 

Another example is the State of Colorado IDS (the State printing environment), where they found they could leverage workflow technology to enhance and automate many of the workflows brought over from the 22 divisions within the Department of Revenue due to changes to hybrid working models. All of this and more with only adding one head count on the team—who can work in hybrid mode.  

The bottom line is, disruption is required today for healthy and sustainable business in the future, especially around workflows and remote and hybrid working models. Your next task is to optimize that disruption for positive business improvements. Ask your vendors, subject matter experts, and friendly organizations to review your workflows (especially manual) and start your risk mitigation today for a positive ROI boost.  

Jonathan Malone-McGrew is the Senior Director of Engagement at Solimar Systems, a US-based business that enables global organizations to onboard, make ready, enhance, manage and deliver print and digital communications. He can be reached at jonathan.mcgrew@solimarsystems.com.