Return shock; navigating the complexities of the end of homeworking

In recent days, prompted by a number of experiences and conversations, my thoughts have turned to the return to work, and its potential complexity.  Of course by ‘return to work’ I mean a return to the office for those of us who have been working almost exclusively from home for the last year and a half or so.

In some respects the homeworkers have had it easier than others.  We may have battled with working from the dining table, Zoom fatigue and juggling work and homeschooling, but in other respects we have been protected from some of the greater difficulties experienced by key and essential workers.  But that separation from workplaces, combined with the ways in which our daily lives have also reduced as we followed the directives to stay at home, to stay away from others, leaves us vulnerable to the culture shock of return. 

A few weeks ago I went into my workplace for the first time since the pandemic began.  The day was filled with a strange tension between what was the same, and then what was so very very different.  My office itself, a time capsule. The desk calendar still showing March 2020.  A wall planner for an academic year that never really was.  The accessories of office life, just where I left them.  These relics belong to a world that no longer exists. 

Two other personal experiences have helped to shape my thinking.  One of these was my first time on a rush hour train. Discomfort at being around so many people. Even more discomfort at the lack of masks and social distancing.  The other experience was the simple return to an exercise class in person. Another ‘first time since March 2020’ situation and an utterly unforeseen emotional thunderbolt.  The refrain running around my head… the last time I did this, the last time I saw these people, heard this music.  It was…. Before. 

As we plan for return, we simultaneously once again have the creeping anxiety driven by rising cases and the fear of what might be to come. There’s plenty of evidence of the toll Covid-19 has taken on our collective mental health, and whilst there may be date for the end of restrictions, we cannot expect that we will somehow recover, or even being to process our experiences, along the same trajectory. 

The return will not be simple.  The return will not, psychologically at least, be fast. 

There is no return to normal.  Employees will be returning to vastly changed workplaces.  Many organisations will continue their own restrictions even if they are not legally mandated to do so.  The use of public transport will be a very particular area of concern.  People have been consistently told to stay away from others and that message will take time to unpick. 

Image: Pexels.com

What should we do as organisations?  First and perhaps most important of all, we need to be patient.  To recognise that, just like the rest of the pandemic, each person’s experience of return will be unique and contextual.  We need to provide the space for them to talk about their concerns and wherever we can, allow them to take the return at their own pace.  Take the time to hear the fear, and not assume that everyone will be the same and have the same needs. 

There is much that we can consider on a practical level too.  We can provide training and guidance for people managers on the potential challenges and how to identify those who might be struggling.  We can help managers to understand the impact of trauma, bereavement and anxiety, and how this will influence how their people will feel about return.  Clear communication about the steps being taken to support employee safety in the workplace, and reducing the risk of infection. Ongoing wellbeing support is a must. 

Finally, we can focus on connection and belonging.  Helping our people to get together again (safely).  To rebuild bonds and relationships.  Reintroducing that valued social side of work. 

The government say that the return should be gradual.  Indeed it should. Not just because of Covid-19 itself, but because of the potential for return shock. 

Why we need to stop talking about banning out of hours email

Should there be a ban on out of hours emails? 

This is the conversation that simply Will. Not. Die.

TL:DR: no. We shouldn’t.

For the longer version, please read on for my full list of reasons why this is a bad idea and why we need to stop talking about it.  Like, yesterday.

First of all, there is some useful research that suggests bans of this kind, whilst well intentioned perhaps, can lead to unintended consequences.  Such as causing more stress.  Like much around wellbeing, what works for one person will not work for another.  The research found that whilst some people find bans like this helpful, for others it will cause a stress response, reducing control over how they prefer to work.  As one of the researchers in this study suggested, people need to be able to deal with their email in the way that suits them best.

Suggesting a ban on out of hours emails serves to reinforce the idea that all work takes place in an office, between Monday and Friday, 9-5.  In fact, office dwellers make up only about half of the UK working population.  Some of them are part time – when should they not get emails?  Some of them also (shocked face) work flexibly.  If we put in an artificial ‘out of hours’ ban – exactly what hours are we talking about – and who works them?  A ban could work against flexible workers rather than support them. 

A ban such as this one also completely fails to recognise that many organisations are global, and have employees working across multiple time zones.  That some people also work weekends.  And we can quickly see, no ban could be practical or workable. 

Some people term this debate differently. Instead of being about hours and emails, a right to disconnect.  This is something that many of us need a little more of right now.  But disconnection is a joint responsibility.  Individual and organisation.  It cannot be about banning stuff and removing choice and autonomy.

We don’t need parent-child policies, we need meaningful discussions about rest and recovery. We need people managers to understand these subjects too, and who can act as good role models.  We need to challenge the beliefs and attitudes that lead to presenteeism, both in person and digital. We need to build organisational cultures in which it is okay not to respond and switch off, not because a law or a policy says so but because it is the right way to live and work.

Or (radical suggestion coming uo) we could always, you know, just try and reduce the amount of email we send.

So can we please stop the conversation now?

Pretty please?

Edit (because it is often suggested): the answer is also not using ‘delay send’ tools. Delay to when? 9am the following morning is the default. I will make the same arguments here that I make above – this just perpetuates the idea that this is when we do/should work. Not to mention the fact that if everyone does it, all we will do is create a huge flood of emails being sent at once. Hardly good for the stress levels.

Measuring hybrid

As organisations have begun to develop and communicate their new hybrid approaches, based on my conversations of late thoughts are clearly turning to a new challenge: how do we measure success? 

Of course, this leads to another question.  What does success look like, for you, in your context? If you started your hybrid project with some clear aims and objectives, you already have that answer. If not, it is time to think about your own, unique definition of success.

I believe that we can look at measuring the success of hybrid working in several ways.

Close-Up Photo of Yellow Tape Measure

Practicalities

Let’s start with the practical stuff.

  • How many people are working in a hybrid way in your organisation?
  • If you are using a category type approach, how many employees are working within each category?
  • How does this compare with the number of people that can undertake hybrid work? If there is a disconnect here, is this because fewer employees than expected want to work partly remotely, or because they are not being given the opportunity to do so?
  • Is hybrid working resulting in grievances, complaints or requests for mediation?
  • If included in your approach, are employees appealing against any decisions relating to hybrid working?
  • What are employees saying in any exit interviews or surveys? 
  • What trends are visible in sickness absence?  Down, does not necessarily mean good here, as remote working can go hand in hand with digital presenteeism and underreporting. 

Sentiment

Currently, many perspectives and preferences about future hybrid working are being made from the position of still living and working through a global pandemic.  Hybrid is still a relatively unknown concept that most have yet to experience, and we should be open to the fact that preferences and attitudes may evolve over time.

A mix of pulse surveys and focus groups will help to get a rounded picture of how people are feeling about hybrid work.  Make these regular, and hold separate focus groups for people managers. 

Some areas to explore with your people:

  • To what extent has hybrid working met their expectations?
  • Have they been able to access their desired level of hybridness / hybridability (off to patent these terms right now)?
  • What is working well?
  • What is not working well?  What challenges have arisen? 
  • What needs to be better?
  • In their new hybrid team, how do they rate connectedness, communication and collaboration?
  • Is hybrid supporting their wellbeing, or detracting from it?
  • How do employees rate their personal productivity when working in a hybrid way?
  • Overall, what benefits are they gaining from working in a hybrid way?

And from a manager perspective:

  • How easy are they finding it to lead and manage a hybrid team?
  • What is working well?  Where do they need more help or support? 
  • What development needs have they identified in themselves?
  • What needs to be better?
  • How productive are their team when working in a hybrid way?
  • In their new hybrid team, how do they rate connectedness, communication and collaboration?

Importantly, how do these different perspectives align or differ?

Outcomes

Looking then at the bigger picture:

  • Is hybrid working driving supporting talent acquisition or retention? 
  • Is it driving internal movement, as employees seek more hybridness or roles that support more flex?
  • How is hybrid working contributing to employee engagement (or not)?
  • How is hybrid working supporting inclusion (or not)?
  • How is office use changing?
  • What are the costs to the organisation of implementing hybrid working, or what savings have been made?

This data needs to be collected on a regular basis as these new arrangement roll out and embed.  As you learn, and as these different data points provide useful information, keep an eye on any policy, principles or strategic aims that you documented at the outset.  If things need to change, change them.  Don’t wait for an artificial review point.

There is still much to learn about hybrid. Measurement can help us retain our focus, and set us up for success.

Trust. The heart of flex and hybrid.

I have been thinking about trust. 

Trust is at the heart of flexible working.  It is the very opposite of presenteeism.  I put it at the centre of my hybrid model because that is what I believe matters more than anything.  More than policies or training or the tech we provide to facilitate it.

Model: The Work Consultancy

Presenteeism is performed by individuals, but driven by organisational culture and a certain management style.  Unfortunately it is pervasive, and too often our people systems and processes reinforce it.  Unconscious bias plays a part too.  Research tells us that when we see someone working, especially if we see them working long hours, regardless of whether we even know what they are doing we ascribe certain traits to them. Traits like committed and motivated.  In working long hours we are fulfilling the ideal worker fallacy.  As employees, we soon learn if, within a particular organisation, the key to recognition and opportunity is being seen doing stuff regardless of whether it is good stuff.   

When someone works outside of the office, 9-5 (ish) default we need to trust them.  Before the pandemic, the oh so typical answer to ‘can people work flexibly?’ was ‘how will I know they are working?’.  Trust was in short supply.  The inbuilt assumption that given the opportunity everyone would be watching back to back episodes of Homes Under the Hammer or having an afternoon nap. 

The so-called ‘great homeworking experiment’ has exposed that weakness and inaccuracy of that viewpoint.  We know that many people feel that they are at least if not more productive at home.  There has been no tidal wave of skiving.  But does this mean we now trust?

What does trust really mean, in the context of flexible and hybrid working?  In aiming to answer my own question, I went back to the dictionary definition of trust: a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. Belief in reliability. That sounds about right.

At an individual level, flexible working trust looks like this.

  • I don’t need to monitor your hours
  • I can’t see you but I believe that you are at your desk or doing something useful
  • I won’t check up on you
  • I will set you objectives and believe that you will complete them
  • I won’t demand progress updates unless I need them
  • I will not check that you are online for no reason
  • I know you will do what you will say you will do, even if I can’t see you, or you aren’t in the office when you do it
  • I don’t need you to work at the same time, or in the same place, that I work
  • I recognise that not everyone likes to work the same way that I work
  • I will get out of your way and let you get on with it.

It is often said that people need to earn trust. That it is built over time when we get to know someone and our relationship becomes established.  In the Trust Equation, trust is seen as a combination of factors; reliability, credibility, intimacy (in terms of feeling safe and secure) and the extent of our own self-orientation (the greater it is the less trustworthy we seem).   Another approach is Ken Blanchard’s ABCD model. Here, trustworthy people are able, believable, connected, dependable.  In ‘5 dimensions of trust in sales’, trust is seen as related to expertise and likeability. 

What do all these models, and that old adage, have in common?  The onus is on the individual to prove themselves trustworthy.  To demonstrate certain traits before they can be trusted. This reminds me a little of the current UK law on flexible working.  You might be able to have it, but only after we have taken 26 weeks to decide that we like the cut of your jib.   There is no presumption of trust within. It is not the starting point.  

It is easier to talk about building trust than to actually do it.  It is perhaps also easier to identify what destroys trust, or signals its absence.  Micro management, overbearing supervision, demands for physical presence, checking up rather than checking in, an ever present requirement for synchronous work. None of these things say ‘you are trusted’.

Trust demands more of us.  It requires us to let go.  To step back.  To get comfortable with not knowing or controlling all of the things.  To not require someone to prove themselves first.  Above all, it requires us to reject so many of the structures and traditions of work.  So much of how we work today has its roots in the factory system and in the principles of Taylorism.  In there too, a belief in built that people aren’t to be trusted, they will skive if we aren’t watching, the clock is what counts. This will be the task of people managers in the months to come. Some will succeed. Others will find this an impossible shift.

At an organisational level, trust looks a little like this. Deloitte’s statement this week that there will be no set office days, only personal choice. Choice and autonomy are linked to motivation. The lack of them, to stress. Choice on where to work and when to work is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of trust.

If trust is so important to the success of flexible working and hybrid, how do we actually achieve that?  We can provide choice and autonomy. Maximum flexibility. This is of course an option that will not necessarily be available to everyone, depending on the organisation or the work to be undertaken.

In thinking about trust, there are no simply answers, only questions.

What does trust mean to you, in your context?

If you have high trust in your organisation, what does that look like in practice? What would you see, feel, hear or know? What would employees say or believe?

Do your managers treat people like they trust them?

Do your policies, processes and systems support or signal trust?

How much choice do you provide?

Hybrid working – balancing different perspectives

For many businesses, the conversation about hybrid has begun. Policies are very much in development.  However, it is inevitable that not everyone will agree on the shape of the future, as a recent argument at Apple demonstrates. 

We know that the employee voice about remote working (and hybrid in particular) has been loud and consistent.  Many organisations are responding positively, but even within those that do there will be differences of opinion.  There are surveys already that indicates employees  may vote with their feet if they cannot get their desired level of flexibility – the potential for a period of ‘great resignations’ has been mooted.  Whether employees will resign, or indeed whether new opportunities will be available to them if they do so, remains to be seen. 

As those policies and approaches are laid out, how then to address internal issues?  The employee that wants 100% remote versus the manager that wants everyone back in the office.  Or perhaps less extreme, the employee that thinks they can do a lot of their work from home but the manager thinks it should only be an a once a week maximum thing. 

Essentially we are talking about a balancing of perspectives, wants and needs.  Individual, team, manager, organisational.  What the role will allow. Sometimes these will align.  Sometimes they will not.  It may not be possible to provide every employee what they personally want.  Difficult conversations will result. 

In aiming to balance these different perspectives, consider:

  • What form of hybrid working does the individual prefer?  What suits their working style and personal circumstances? 
  • What form of hybrid is most appropriate for the role and responsibilities of the job?  Where the organisation is using a category approach – which hybrid category is most appropriate for the role itself?
  • What needs to be considered from an organisational perspective?  Consider culture, values, aims and objectives. 
  • What will work best for the team as a whole, including effective relationships, collaborative working and team cohesion?
  • Where there differences in perspectives, how can these be balanced?  Are trial periods appropriate?

Employees may not always agree with decisions that are made about future flexible working.  We can however work to consistency of process, if not outcome.  One thing we can absolutely strive for is transparency.  Providing clear explanations to employees about what options are available to them and why.  How decisions have been reached and how these decisions support particular aims and objectives. Where perspectives and preferences have been balanced, why and how?

Finally, when completing this balancing act we should be open to challenge.  Hybrid is new, and we may not have it right. 

With thanks to my colleague Meg who helped me to shape my thinking on this.

Return

I guess every former office dweller has a story about their last day at work before the pandemic.  From possibility to inevitability, and then the confirmation.  We were to go and work from home, indefinitely.  The anxiety in the air, palpable. 

I remember packing up those things that I thought I would need for a month or two of homeworking.  With hindsight, desperately naïve. Saying goodbye to my office mate, awkwardly bumping elbows, hugs already off the agenda. 

With my bags stuffed full of day to day of office life, I jumped on a bus to the train station, without thought that this casual use public transport was just one of many things I took for granted but would soon be on the list of not to dos. At the station, there was a stall that sold pastries and cakes.  I stopped to buy a couple of things I neither wanted or needed, passing a few words with the seller. He told me that almost everyone who had stopped today had told the same tale.  They were to go to work from home, with no idea when they might return.  I have often thought of him this last 15 months, with his entire livelihood based on us office commuters.  Who could have believed there would be a future when we all simply disappeared? 

At home that evening, I set my work apparatus at the dining table and there I have remained ever since.  Few of us I think could truly have imagined the duration of this so called ‘great working from home experiment’.  Compared to most, I have had it easy.  It has been hard to live and work in one room.  The Ikea dining chair has done terrible things to my neck and back.  Teaching online has been a disheartening experience. But I have been lucky to have been able to work from home in relative safety all the same. 

But tomorrow, I go back to the office for the first time.  The old routines, both now oh so familiar but alien at the same time, will begin again. My laptop bag is packed.  I have charged my watch and located my lanyard.  I have even found some proper shoes. 

My workplace remains closed and tomorrow is a one off visit, for now.  I wonder what it will be like to get on a commuter train. To walk through the ticket barriers and grab a coffee, just like the old days.  I wonder how it will feel to walk through that still mostly empty building.  To see a colleague face to face and not through a screen. I wonder if it will feel like normality, or something far removed.  I wonder if it will seem enormous, or insignificant.  I wonder if will cry. 

I wonder. 

The skills for hybrid working

The employee voice is shouting loudly.  Depending on which survey you read, somewhere between 60-80% of employees want to work in a hybrid way in the future.  Employers have listened, and for the most part are responding positively.  New policies and ways of working are being developed and tested.  This in turn raises the question of skills.

Hybrid and remote are not the same.  Although many people have been working for home for well over a year now, we cannot assume that these workers have necessarily have developed the skills to work in a hybrid way.  When an organisation moves strategically to remote working in a non-crisis situation much thought would be given to identifying and developing the skills that employees would need to be effective.  This wasn’t the case for our shift to pandemic related homeworking.  We need to do better with the next step, and we need to go back and retro fit some of the skills and development that people didn’t get in the emergency of March 2020. 

So just what skills do people need for hybrid?

Let’s start with people managers.  First of all, the good news. Leading and managing in a hybrid way does not require a whole new skill set.  What it does require however is adaption of approach.  Some of those things that we have always said are good practice, like timely feedback, regular performance conversations, effective communication and clear objectives, become even more important than they have ever been.  Other areas such as inclusion and team building need a heightened focus – and so does helping managers become aware of any of their unconscious biases.  What managers therefore may need is a skills refresh on some of those key areas; good people practice with a hybrid twist.

For example, if you already support leaders with developing their performance management skills, the overall messages about how to do this well are the same as they ever were.  What hybrid adds to the mix is a heightened need for performance to be measured on the basis of evidence and data, and not on presence or proximity.  The manager conversation needs to be about how do to this in their particular context.

For employees it’s a similar picture.  Some of that stuff that we have always known to be important – but did not necessarily always prioritise – becomes more important.  This includes establishing good work life balance through boundary management and good digital habits.  Also on that list is being an effective communicator (including using technology for communication and collaboration), time management and self-motivation.

There is one thing however that is largely new, and that is helping people to think about restructuring their work for productivity and effectiveness and then building the skills to support this.  In the old, pre-Covid days a significant chunk of the workforce went to the office as default.  There, we did whatever work needed to be done or had landed in our diaries and inboxes on that particular day.  Taking the same approach to hybrid will be sub-optimal.  What people need to do is think strategically about what they do where and when.  Remote days will suit focused and independent work.  Days in the office should be about maximising facetime, relationship building and social connection.  If we travel to a physical workplace to do mostly virtual work, we are missing the opportunity of hybrid work.

We need to bring focused attention to thinking about our own effectiveness.  Consider:

  • When and where are you most effective? 
  • What aspects of your work can be undertaken most effectively at home?
  • What aspects of your work can be undertaken most effective in the office?
  • Where do you gain value from being in the office?
  • How should you organise your work accordingly?

And a few further thoughts on those other things that are so important when working remotely:

  • How can you maintain your focus and productivity whilst working at home?
  • What are the skills that you need to develop or enhance to support the work that you do from home?
  • How effective is your time management when working from home?  What are your personal time management challenges that need to be overcome? How can you do this? 
  • How well do you balance the work and non-work aspects of your life? 
  • To what extend are you actively managing your boundaries?  How much separation do you need between work and home to support your wellbeing?
  • What do you currently do in order to maintain your wellbeing and ensure you can recover from work?  What more do you need to do?
  • What steps do you need to take to ensure you are using technology with wellbeing in mind?

For some, the move to hybrid will come naturally. For others it will be more difficult. Talking to people about what skills they believe they need to help them make the most of hybrid is a key first step.

Reflecting on remote working

Next week, a project I’ve been working on for about three months goes over the line.  I am declaring it a good job, well done.

But it serves an example for something else too. 

There are five of us in the project team.

Three of the team started during lockdown.  We have never met face to face.  Nor have we sat together in a meeting room, been for a coffee, or stood round a flip chart with some post it notes.

Three of the team are part time, including me.  We don’t all work the same days, crossing over fully on only two working days of the week.

Two of the team have other gigs when they aren’t at that workplace.

Two of the team have young children that they juggle alongside their work stuff.

Relationships are harder to build online, or so says the conventional wisdom.  You can’t read the body language.  You miss those serendipitous encounters.  It is harder to be creative or to ask a quick question. Sometimes you need to be face to face.

I think our team, our project, proves this wrong.  

All our work together has been online, remote.  We have proper meetings and quick check in catch-ups type meetings. Shared files and online collaboration spaces.  A team chat to keep us connected and everyone up to date (it also see a significant amount of Line of Duty gifs too). We may never have seen each other standing up, but we are a pretty kick-ass team all the same.  This big and complex piece of work is comprehensive and creative.  It is on time and on budget.  It is going to make a difference to people. 

Strong work relationships don’t need to form in meeting rooms and corridors.  Good work, creative work, doesn’t spontaneously derive from buildings, being in buildings, being co-located.

Culture is people.  Teams are people. And the right people, working well together, with motivation and enthusiasm can do great work. Wherever, whenever they are.

We don’t need no watercoolers.

Hybrid Working: the questions every team needs to answer

There’s no single way to do hybrid working.  Each organisation, even each team within it, will need an approach that fits them and their own unique context.

The solution is not policies and procedures but co-creation.  Teams working together to determine the answer to the critical question; what does hybrid mean for us, here and now?

In order to do this, we need to encourage exploration and reflection everywhere.  To invite people managers to engage with their teams to discuss and decide. Because we know that when we create something for ourselves, we place a higher value upon it than something we are merely told to do or that is given to us.

To guide these conversations, ask them to work together to consider some or all of the following:  

When we worked from home during the pandemic, what worked well for us?  What should we retain?

What worked less well, or what should we stop when we are able to?

What aspects of our work can effectively be undertaken remotely?

What aspects of our work should we undertake in the office, together?  Where does being together add value?

In the future, what do we want to come into the office for? What will a successful day in the office look like, for us?

What aspects of our work are most effective when and where?

What technology (or skills) do individuals in the team need to work remotely?  What skills did people not gain whilst working during the pandemic that we now need to address? 

How might we need to change our working practices in order to work effectively in a hybrid way? 

How might we want to organise our work in the future? 

Are there any potential challenges for our team associated with working in a hybrid way – and how can we overcome them?

Are there working practices we need to consider in order to help people maintain their wellbeing?

Who else do we need to engage with or consult about our team’s approach to hybrid working?

How can we ensure that we work in an inclusive way, whist undertaking hybrid work?

How should we meet, and what for?  What can we do as an alternative to meetings?

How can we communicate effectively when working in a hybrid way?  How can we ensure that everyone receives the information that they need to do their job properly?

What technology do we need to work in a hybrid way?

What team rules do we need to make hybrid working, work?

Together, the answer to these questions forms the basis of a practical plan. Because hybrid working will succeed or fail in how we choose to bring it to life, every day.

Moving to hybrid: the 6 types of manager

As organisations start to seriously consider not just whether hybrid is desirable but how to make it work in practice, it is time to think about the stakeholders. And right at the top of that list, is people managers.  Before the pandemic, managers were just one of the barriers to flexible working acceptance and availability.  But where are we now and what are managers currently thinking? 

I’m suggesting that there are six types of manager when it comes to flexible and hybrid future working models. When it comes to planning for whatever comes next, we need to take into account each one of them.

The ‘Get Back to the Office’ Manager

A die-hard micro manager, the last year has been very difficult for this particular manager.  They have hated every aspect of working from home and cannot wait to reclaim their office and all that they associate with it.  They need separation between work and home, and assume that everyone else works the same way that they do.  Even if the company is saying hybrid, this manager is telling his team on the DL not to ask as it won’t apply to them.  Everyone in this manager’s team needs to join them on the 9-5.

The ‘Had a Revelation’ Manager

Formally flex reluctant and quite likely to have turned down a flexible working request or two in their time.  Previously worried about ‘setting a precedent’ or whether people would spend their working hours watching daytime TV, this manager is now the ultimate convert. They love working from home.  They have totally recognised the benefits.  They are converted. They are ready to implement new ways of working. Yesterday.

The Reluctant but Accepting Manager

Has read the all headlines and the surveys.  Isn’t personally a fan of flexible or hybrid working. Would really prefer everyone comes back to the office for most of the time.  Will follow the policies and processes.  If they have to. They might sigh a bit while doing it though.

The Flex Denier

Has seen the headlines about what employees want, but isn’t convinced it applies to their business.  Doesn’t believe that people will really leave their job to go work some place more flexible.  At least no one that works for them anyway.  Thinks that organisations are taking it a bit far, and all this hybrid stuff will blow over in a few months. Won’t move too fast.

The Hybrid Cynic

Knows people want it, knows the organisation wants to implement it, but just doesn’t believe that it can work in practice.  Concerned about the implementation.  The ongoing management.  The operational impact. How to make it fair, how to communicate, how to make sure that the jobs get done.  Will find the barriers, and may be a blocker. Likely to encourage their team to be in the office as much as possible.

The ‘What’s All the Fuss About’ Manager

Worked flexibly BC (Before Covid). Encouraged their team to do so.  Understands the benefits. Didn’t understand why some people were so against it.  Sees the move towards hybrid as natural and sensible. Will advocate, encourage and support.

This blog post is slightly tongue in cheek.  Slightly.

But each of these opinions and viewpoints exist to some extent in every organisation, at every management level in the hierarchy. The successful implementation of new ways of working depends on having a strategy for each of these perspectives, and the actions that will follow them. We need to hear fears and concerns, share benefits and businesses cases, challenge constructively, monitor and measure…. and perhaps occasionally move around the barrier.

We need to talk about presence

For many knowledge workers, work has largely been remote for more than a year now.  ‘Being seen’ in the current context mostly means appearing on a Zoom screen.  The somewhat less healthy side of being seen is of course the late night email, or the out of hours response to a Team message. 

Presenteeism has been a problem forever.  According to this research by Deloitte, presenteeism cost UK employers between £27bn to £29bn every year.  In that context, they are focusing on the costs of people attending work whilst ill, but it’s not the only form of needing to be seen that causes problems.  There’s leavism too – employees feeling like they need to keep in touch and deal with work matters when on some form of leave, whether that is holiday, TOIL or family leave. 

There’s also another form of presenteeism. A particularly problematic form of presenteeism, especially when it comes to inclusion and wellbeing. The one that is about face time in order to get on and progress. Needing to be seen in order to be thought well of, rewarded or recognised.

In flexible working research we often talk of the ideal worker norm. The right sort of chap (because it often is easier for men to comply) who puts the time in and does not have any of this pesky family or life stuff to call him away from his office based endeavours. Ideal workers can be seen; remote and flexible workers, not quite as much.

We are all talking hybrid right now.  And this ‘face time’ form of presenteeism is going to present us with new challenges.  All too often we conflate presence with performance.  We assume that those who are at their desk, putting the hours in, are doing good work. Unconscious biases are at play in how we judge the performance and attitudes of the people we work with.  Proximity bias is just one of them; our tendency to favour what we are closest too in time or space.  With proximity bias, there is the potential for managers to favour or default to those that are in the office, and exclude those who are working from home or working different hours. Maybe those in the office will get more information or access to better projects or opportunities. Maybe they will just be assigned ‘ideal worker’ status.

Pre-pandemic research has identified the problems that can arise when employees don’t get enough face time.  When they are not as seen or as present as others. This research was often undertaken in the context of completely remote employees, geographically distant from the main office location. The data shows that managers are influenced by who they can see, and unconsciously assign positive traits to them.  This is magnified when that visible presence takes place outside of normal working hours.  These workers are seen as more committed, dedicated, dependable. I especially like this quote from one of the research papers:

You only need to be observed at work.  No information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it’.  (Elsbach and Cable, 2012). 

What does this all mean for the potential future of hybrid work?  Bottom line, you get credit for being in the office.  There’s a risk therefore that those who are physically present in the workplace more regularly will be judged more favourably, especially when it comes to reward and recognition. New data out this week from the ONS also demonstrates this.  They found that people who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other workers between 2012 and 2017 and people who mainly worked from home were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared with those who never worked from home between 2013 and 2020.

We may end up with a number of inclusion issues in the future as a result of these particular biases and beliefs.  Those who cannot come into the office as much (possibly including those with caring responsibilities or employees living with disabilities) will lose out. So will those who request or need a very fixed hybrid pattern (such as parents, to accommodate childcare routines).  Being in the office might become a sign of dedication and commitment – with the accompanying rewards.

What is the answer to this? Unfortunately there is no simple or quick solution.  We can educate managers on the potential for unconscious bias when assessing the performance of remote and hybrid staff.  We can also monitor reward, recognition and promotion programmes to identify any issues that might be occurring.  Finally, we need to manage performance on contribution, outcome and results – and put this at the centre of manager training.  Where possible, include 360 degree or peer to peer feedback in performance evaluations too (but noting that bias doesn’t just reside with managers, but colleagues too). 

And finally….. if getting seen is the key to career and financial rewards, employees who work from home regularly should probably consider sending emails late at night, putting in some visible hours over the weekend, and responding promptly to messages and notifications, wherever or whenever they are, in order to demonstrate their commitment. 

Oh, wait……. 

The big talent shift? Another blog post on flexible and hybrid work.

There’s been a lot of talk about shifts this last year or so.  The shift to homeworking.  The predicted shift to hybrid.  The unprecedented (of course) shift to online meetings.

I think we should expect another.  The big talent shift. 

I’m going to go old school theory for a minute.  Henry Mintzberg in ‘Power In and Around Organisations’ said that every participant within a system has three options at any one time.  These options are:

Exit – leave

Voice – stay and change the system

Loyalty – stay and work as expected

So if we aren’t happy with our workplace lot, we can resign and go someplace else that might be better, advocate to make a change which may or may not work out, or stay and put up with it. 

In the past, there was a problem with adoption of flexible working.  The tech was there.  Remote working was perfectly possible.  The experts had been predicting it for decades (Charles Handy was talking about it in 1983, pondering at the same time why British Rail didn’t also put ‘terminals’ on trains).  Despite the many ‘the future is remote’ predictions, the innovation adoption curve was progressing at a snails pace.  We were stuck at the early adopter stage.  Employees who wanted flexible working therefore had the same three choices Mintzberg proposed.  Stay and put up with it.  Argue for change (good luck with that). And finally, leave. But the companies offering flex were then still few and far between, and the options elsewhere limited).  So most people went for the stay and put up with it option, perhaps hoping that one day they’d work for a more enlightened manager that might just step outside the 9-5.

Reader, like so much else since March 2020, this too has been disrupted.  Every day, another company is stating that their future is remote.  That their people will only need to come into the office for some of the week.  The ‘leave’ option just got much, much more realistic.

According to new research from McKinsey, 30% of respondents to a recent survey said that they would consider looking for a new employer if they were required to return to the office full time. This isn’t the only research looking at the possibility of future moves.  New data from Microsoft indicates that 41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46 percent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.

For me, this is part people wanting more flex, and part people wanting a whole different life.  I’ve blogged about this before.  How living through something so huge, so significant – and what the academic literature calls a ‘crucial life experience’, changes our intrinsic motivations.  How we may be fundamentally changed after the event, seeking new purpose and meaning from our lives and our work.  

I believe these forces may combine.  The personal desire for something different, the realisation that remote is not only possible but preferable, the possibilities delivered by remote in terms of where and how we live, plus the increasing availability of flexible working.  Together, these may lead to more leavers and movers.  A sizeable talent shift.  Even in the face of general uncertainty and economic instability, employees making new choices and deciding staying and putting up with it, is no longer an option.

Those companies that are not seriously considering remote or hybrid strategies, face a serious talent risk.

This is just one more thing for HR and business to add to the list of things to consider in the weeks and months ahead.  Retention, engagement, talent acquisition – and what these look like in a post pandemic, more flexible, world. 

Blurred lines? Another post on flexible and hybrid work post Covid-19

I have seen a lot of talk about blurred lines of late. How the pandemic enforced homeworking has blurred previously clear(ish) distinctions between work and home. Although before Covid-19 there were plenty of people that had worked from home at least some of the time, those that worked remotely permanently were in the minority. Homeworking had never taken place on the scale it has since March 2020.

Although we are all living through the same pandemic, we are experiencing it differently. How, or to what extent it impacts upon us varies, both personally and professionally. Work life balance is just one example of this. For some, the absence of a commute has led to overall work life balance improvement, with more time for exercise, family or life in general. For others, the grind of trying to balance work and family (especially for those undertaking home-schooling) has led to significant wellbeing and balance issues.

The idea of blurred lines between work and home is nothing new. Technology has been driving this trend for years, ever since office equipment went portable and we all got ourselves a smart phone. The potential of homeworking to lead to reduced work life balance is nothing new either – prior to the pandemic research suggested that it could lead to work extensification (longer working hours, with a tendency by employees to work during what would have been their commuting hours) as well work intensification – employees working harder at home as they felt that they owed their employer additional effort as some sort of thank you for flexibility.

Laptop On Bed Near The Balcony
Image from pexels.com

There are a number of factors at play right now, related to these blurred lines. One is that we have more people working from home, many of whom had never worked from home in the past. This means that they had little knowledge of those work life balance techniques that can support healthy homeworking. We also have to contend with a huge rise in online meetings, leading to what we now refer to as ‘Zoom fatigue’ (interesting research on that here). Thirdly, many of us do not currently have a commute to support the mental transition from one state to another (work to home, home to work). Even though commuting can long and stressful, commutes also serve a purpose. They provide a gap, a space, in which we can decompress. We also use them to engage in other activities; reading, listening to music, calling a friend. This is lost when the transition amounts to closing a laptop. Finally, we are back to tech again. Working tech is ever present in our homes. Frankly, before the pandemic lots of people didn’t use all the tech that was available to them. My working from home days in the pre-pandemic world used to be meeting free because many colleagues had never heard of Zoom or used MS Teams chat. Increased skills, more channels in use and more people using them – this all leads to increased interruptions including those outside of so-called normal office hours.

When it comes to blurred lines, these are more of a problem for some than others. There’s some interesting research into work life balance (here’s an example) that talks about the different types of working styles and preferences. At one end of the spectrum there are those that need significant separation between the work and non work aspects of their lives. We can assume that those folk have found this last year long and hard, and the great work from home experiment may well have led to increased levels of stress. At the other end are the integrators. Those that generally have the work and non work stuff combined most of the time anyway. They might have their work email on their personal phone, check emails on holiday or be relaxed at swapping between work and family activities. These individuals may well have been much more comfortable with enforced homeworking.

So when we talk of blurred lines, we should not assume that this is something everyone is experiencing.  We should also note that there are many issues at play when it comes to working from home, and the idea of blurred lines may itself be blurred by mixing the concept with related challenges such as too many online meetings and too much tech. 

As many businesses contemplate a more flexible future, these issues need to be in the mix.  We went to work from home in an emergency, without many of the things that would have been planned for and organised if remote had been a intentional business strategy.  Helping people understand how homeworking can lead to poor wellbeing outcomes (for some) and how to avoid those outcomes, how to manage transitions and boundaries, and how to effectively and mindfully switch off – these are skills that we now need to retrofit.   

We should also remember that working from home does not necessarily lead to blurred lines, and blurred lines do not necessarily lead to reduced wellbeing.  Like most work stuff, it is contextual – and very personal. 

The foundations of hybrid working

I’ve been thinking about hybrid working. Again.

In this post I am going to collect my thoughts about what needs to be in place organisationally for hybrid to flourish. This is of course in addition to having a policy or set of guiding principles. I have written about that here.

I’ve collected these thoughts into this model.

In the centre, trust.  When it comes to hybrid working, this is the heart, the bedrock. Without it, hybrid will never truly deliver.  Before the pandemic too many people believed that remote working was not possible.  That the outcome would be reduced productivity our outright skiving.  We have learned differently this last year. That does not however mean that the desire for control within organisations has disappeared.  We should trust the people we work with unless we have a very good reason not to – but this is often not our default position. From the days of Taylor we have monitored and measured. We’ve been Theory X and not Theory Y.  It is time to trust.

Supporting the centre….

  1. Communication.  With intention, with purpose. Moving beyond watercoolers.  Tailored to the needs of each team – agreements on when, where, how and what to communicate. Default online for meetings.  A shared responsibility for everyone.
  • Technology.  Hybrid is only viable if employees are equally effect in the office or at home.  Ease of connection to between people in different places.  It’s not the specific platform that matters, but making the most of it, and managing it too.  Helping everyone to use it fully. Absolutely must include asynchronous tools.
  • Outcomes based performance.  Not rewarding presenteeism.  Assessing performance with data, based on outcomes, results and contribution. Frequent conversations, clear objectives, regular feedback.  What we should have been doing all along, basically.
  • Inclusion. Making the most of hybrid to support inclusion.  Challenging flex stigma and bias. Including everyone, wherever they are.  Focusing on fairness.
  • Energy and wellbeing.  Managing boundaries and balance.  Considering digital wellbeing and healthy screen habits.  Helping people to work productively, using their energies and the right time, and in the right place. 
  • Meaningful face-time. Being intentional about going into a workplace – not carrying a laptop just to do virtual work in a physical location, but using this time for collaboration and relationships. Redesigning spaces to facilitate collaboration and support different forms of work.

Together, these elements create a new culture.  One in which hybrid working can flourish…. And we can make change for the better.  If I may paraphrase my friend Neil Usher… hybrid isn’t going to be easy. But it will be worth it.

Where hybrid goes wrong (and how to stop it)

When it comes to hybrid, we are all learning as we go.  There are few precedents of ‘true’ hybrid to follow, although there are plenty of experiences of 100% remote and folk who worked the occasional Friday from home in the old days (by which I mean before March 2020).  As the good practice emerges, what potential problem areas should we be mindful of?

Communication

Problem: People don’t know what they need to know, when they need to know it.  Those in the office have more access to information than people working remotely.  Knowledge isn’t being shared.

Solution: Hold all meetings online so that everyone can attend and contribute equally.  Include asynchronous tools in the communication mix – create online spaces or groups for collaboration and discussion.  Make it clear that communication is a shared responsibility for everyone.  Set team communication principles (how we share our location and presence, what channel we will use for what, when and how we will meet).

Wellbeing

Problem: Wellbeing declines during periods of working from home.  Employees work longer hours, don’t take breaks, get Zoom fatigue or spend too much time on screen.

Solution: Provide training on maintaining effective work life balance, boundaries and healthy digital habits.  Send regular messages to employees about maintaining wellbeing when working from home.  Train managers on wellbeing too – and encourage them to be good role models.  Challenge that everything has to be a meeting – this is another reason to embrace asynchronous tech tools.

Technology (you are on mute!)

Problem: Some people are still finding it difficult to use the technology needed for hybrid working. The right technology isn’t available – or there is tech overwhelm.  Too much Zoom, too many notifications and multiple channels.

Solution: Don’t assume that everyone knows what they are doing now they have been working from home for a year or so.  Some people will have learned the minimum to get by, assuming they will go back to the office and face to face interactions.  Go back and do the training (or repeat it). The specific platform isn’t what matters, that will just change anyway as stuff moves on. It’s about helping people to use what there is.  Encourage teams to pick specific tech for specific tasks (e.g. Zoom for meetings or Slack for discussions) – and don’t let them proliferate.

Isolation or Exclusion

Problem: Some employees, especially those who are working more of their time from home, are finding themselves excluded from conversations or meetings, or simply lonely. 

Solution: See all the suggestions on communication and collaboration.  Ensure everyone has a voice, and don’t hold mixed meetings (partially face to face and partially remote) – they don’t work. Don’t call face to face meetings at the last minute (some will find them harder to comply with) and train managers on ensuring that hybrid working is inclusive. Challenge bias and negative language about hybrid work and hybrid working.

Reduced collaboration / relationships

Problem: There are no water cooler conversations taking place.  Relationships will suffer, connections are weakening.

Solution: Move beyond watercoolers (did you ever invent a new product there, or just make awkward small talk while waiting for the other person to move?).  Create time for people to get together regularly and make the most of that time. When people are in the office don’t just have them working in offices sending emails but set time aside for deliberate, intentional time together.  Support new starters with buddies and mentors. Where appropriate, build in some informal social stuff too.

Uncommitted Managers

Problem: Managers who want people to come back to the office pronto.  They believe people who want flex aren’t as committed to their jobs and send messages to ignore company policies about requesting hybrid working (or just turn them all down).

Solution: Start with a statement from the CEO / Senior Team – share your strategy for future flex and hybrid. Make sure that any new approaches are clearly communicated across the organisation.  Set out a policy or guiding principles for hybrid working, including a definition and eligibility criteria.  Include oversight in your operational plans and monitor requests (and their outcomes). Train managers in the new approaches – and make their responsibilities clear.  If you feel brave – declare roles (all or those that can) as suitable for hybrid, removing the request issue entirely.

Concern about the worst case scenario

Problem: Hybrid might not work.  It may have to be removed, or contractual changes reversed.  It will cause operational issues that cannot be overcome. Employees will be disappointed.

Solution: Treat hybrid as a trial, experiment or pilot.  Don’t change terms and conditions of employment and encourage employees not to make request for formal/permanent changes – yet.  Monitor successes and challenges – adapt and change your approach as necessary. Issue any policies, principles and guidance as interim documents and be clear with your people this is shared learning experience. 

Skiving

Problem: When people are working from home they will not do any work and watch Homes Under the Hammer instead.

Solution: Tell them not to watch Homes Under the Hammer. Introduce monitoring software that demonstrates you don’t trust your people. (Note: don’t actually do that. There is no evidence that people skive when working from home, in fact evidence suggests that productivity increases). Challenge this language when it arises, in every form.

There will be more problems to come from hybrid working (or our plans for it) – ones that we haven’t thought of yet or will only become apparent when these new ways of working we are planning for truly begin.  Be prepared to experiment and learn as you go.  Encourage feedback, share learning and address new challenges as they arise.  This is the key to successful hybrid working. 

Hybrid. When it’s a necessity not a choice.

Everyone is talking about hybrid working. 

It’s the subject of most of my working conversations these days – as well as my blogs.  Many organisations are thinking about their long term strategies for flexible and hybrid working, and starting the process of making plans.

Here’s the thing.  Whatever your long term strategy, you are probably going to get hybrid whether you want it or not, at least for a while. 

The government has set outside its roadmap for the end of lockdown.  Although the dates are fluid, there’s an indicative date of 21st June where the ‘work from home if you can’ recommendation will end.  I don’t think any of us expect that on that day we are all going to troop back to the office en masse, packing back onto trains and buses and tubes – but it may be the beginning of a slow, phased return, at least for some.

We are going to go hybrid by necessity rather than design.  This is both potentially good and potentially bad.

Let’s start with the good.  We can use this period to learn about what works and what does not.  There are few precedents about hybrid working – the ‘how to’ is yet to emerge.  We can adapt and experiment. It will also to some extent, force the issue with reluctant line managers who are personally opposed to flex because of their own prejudices or preferences. 

Now the problems.  This won’t be ‘true’ hybrid. Some people may not be able to come back to the workplace at all if they still don’t have childcare or remain vulnerable.  We don’t yet know the full implications of Long Covid; continued working from home may be an adjustment that some people experiencing ongoing health issues need.  We may well end up with a situation where some people are still fully at home and others mostly in the office.  There are real inclusion risks in this.  If there are going to be communication issues, this is when they will first show up. Managers are going to potentially be faced with the need to adapt to whole new ways of working a year after being faced with the need to adapt to whole new ways of working.

When it comes to this particular form of (hopefully interim) hybrid, we are likely to get what we expect.  Those who think hybrid isn’t a good idea and will cause all sorts of problems and issues, will probably find this to be the case.  This will handily provide the evidence they need to ask everyone to return to the default working model post pandemic.  Those who think hybrid is the future and is going to be awesome will likely have their beliefs confirmed too – possibly because they will put in the effort to make it a success. 

We know how to do fully remote, even though it was mostly learned in an emergency.  We certainly know how to office because we did it for long enough.  But hybrid is another huge shift.  We can’t just prepare for the long term stuff (although that is also essential), we need to think about getting it right in the immediate term too. Otherwise any short term problems may undermine future plans and intentions.

Manager briefings, support for communication, working out who will be in the office and when, ensuring homeworkers aren’t excluded from the conversation, training and tech.  The time to start planning, for both immediate and long term hybrid, is now.

And just in time… here comes a new guide to hybrid from the CIPD with some ideas. 

It’s not about working from home

We have all become familiar with the headlines in the last year.  That post pandemic, a significant number of employees want to work from home for at least some of the time.  Employer responses to the so-called ‘great home working experiment’ have been mixed.  From telling people that they can work from home forever to saying it is an aberration that must be corrected, we have seen both ends of the spectrum and a fair bit in in between.

Hybrid is the new thing replacing the last new thing.

But what is at the heart of this desire for working from home, really?

It’s not like working from home has been easy.  For many, especially working parents, it has been anything but.  Working from home was, especially in the early stages, an adrenaline fuelled emergency.  Learning new ways of working whilst living with the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, amidst the backdrop of constant, fear provoking news and restrictions.

As the pandemic continued, we endured.  From overwhelm to burnout.

Isolation. Zoom fatigue.  Back backs from the dining chairs. More school closures.

Bereavement.  Ill-health.  Long Covid.

Tiers and tears.

Opening up and locking down again.

The crushing complexity of a whole long year.

And still. 

Amidst all of that, we have found many benefits in working from home.  More time for exercise or cooking, quality time with family or significant other, avoiding stressful and expensive commutes, freedom from the 9-5, increased productivity.  The benefits we have found have been many. 

This is what stands out for me, every time I see another headline, another survey, another reference to hybrid.

Just why do we want to work from home, behind those initially identified advantages? I think that there a couple of things at play here.

The first, is perhaps that this is just a signal of how broken the default working model was BC (Before Covid).  Not just the Monday to Friday 9-5, but the reliance on the physical workplace – even if we went there to do mostly virtual work.  The way that we conflated (and still do) presence and performance.  How being seen equaled getting ahead.  Our hard wired beliefs too, about who is a good worker, the right sort of chap (a full time, long hours sort of chap of course).   The desire for hybrid is a push back against these ideas.  The sudden realisation that we had been conned all along.  That we didn’t need to go into the office all the time and for so many of us, so much of what we needed to do could be done from anywhere or any when.  Although we haven’t quite nailed the latter half of that sentence just yet.

But there is something deeper going on too. If you will forgive a little academic geekery, I have become fascinated by this paper (unfortunately not open access). My lay person’s summary of it goes a bit like this. When we go through a traumatic or other big life experience, it fundamentally changes us. It has the power to influence our values, our actions, how we think. It can force us to revaluate what we believe to be true. To deeply reflect. These crucial life experiences can lead to a turning point in our lives and our motivations. In particular, they change our intrinsic motivations – those things that we do because they are satisfying to us rather than because we may receive a gain in return.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink identified three basic intrinsic motivators; autonomy, mastery and purpose. There we see flexible working again. Because flex isn’t just about hours and location but choice. Choice that the office does not provide.

In the past few months I have heard about people leaving their secure job in the midst of economic uncertainty.  Starting a new business.  Deciding on a fundamental change of career.  Going back to studies. Deciding to hell with the office politics and their unsupportive manager and resigning.

I have a theory that we will see more of this.  More people in the months to come re-evaluating their working lives.  Rethinking those beliefs about work that we held to be true for so long.  Making big life stuff decisions and changes.

We want to work from home more; that is almost certainly true.  But I believe that this is a symptom.  It is how the desire to live and work differently is showing up in a practical action.  Something that is controllable, in the midst of much that is not. 

It is bigger than working from home.  Bigger than securing hybrid working or a little more flexibility.  It’s about purpose and about wanting more. More balance, more life. 

And for those of us in HR, when in the months to come, we look to devise our responses to the demand for flexible working post pandemic, we would be wise to reflect on this along the way. Hybrid working on its own will not solve all the problems of the old ways.

We need to think bigger, and better.

Flexible working post Covid-19: defining hybrid

There is no single approach to hybrid working.  As I have already talked about on an earlier blog post, each organisation will need to decide where it stands on the flexibility spectrum.  But it will need to go even further than that. Unless your workforce is homogenous and fairly small, you are going to need a category type approach that reflect different forms of hybrid working.

For example…..

In most organisations there will be some employees that can’t have hybrid working at all, and potentially many other forms of flexible working aren’t available to them either.  These are the roles that need to be undertaken in a specific location at a specific time. 

There will then be roles where there is room for some hybrid.  A significant amount of the work needs to be undertaken in a particular location (in non-pandemic, work from home if you can times).  Maybe employees can work from home on an occasional or ad hoc basis, but probably no more than once a week.

There will be roles where people can remotely without any need for pre planning or scheduling, and that lend themselves to total autonomy.  Conversely, there will be roles where this just won’t work for operational reasons, and instead will require structure or rotas about who is in and who is not.

Some roles will lend themselves to a 50/50 spit.  Others where the employee can work the vast majority of their time remotely and only come into the office one day a week or even less. Maybe there are even roles where a need to come into the workplace differs across the month or year. 

Finally, there will be roles that can be 100% remote and employees within them can truly work from anywhere.

If you want an example of a company who have already figured out their flexible working categories (which they call personas) check Zurich’s approach here.

When thinking about what you need:

  • Start by defining your broad hybrid categories.  What type of roles do you have? When do you need people in the workplace?  When and how do your people do their work?
  • Then figure out what specific roles at your organisation fit into those categories.  Include a broad range of examples to help people make sense of it and see how hybrid might work for them. 
  • Talk to your people to test your definitions and examples.

And then…. Challenge bias. 

Before the pandemic we had a whole load of assumptions and beliefs about homeworking, and this included (sometimes arbitrary) lists of roles that we thought could not possibly be done from home.  We need to make sure we don’t take this old thinking into a new future.  It would be all too easy to dismiss working from home as ‘something that happened during Covid’ and put employees into categories that are unnecessarily restrictive. 

The learnings from the last year are still emerging.  Hybrid (at scale) is also going to be about learning as we go.  Whatever categories you define may need to evolve, and the roles within them may flex over time too.

After categories comes a need for policies and principles….. I’ll blog about that subject very soon.

Flexible working post Covid-19: hybrid working policies

As I have already discussed in recent blog posts, it is now fairly well established that many employees want a more hybrid or blended approach to work in the future, with some time spent in the office and the remainder at home.  This will of course mean different things to different organisations and individuals.  There is no one single way to ‘do’ hybrid.  Even within one workplace there may need to be different forms and approaches depending on job role or operational requirements. 

If you are thinking about introducing hybrid working in the future, it is likely that you will need some sort of policy or a set of guiding principles setting out your intentions and providing information for both employees and people managers.

Organisational policies will need to reflect their specific context and circumstances but there are some areas that every policy needs to consider:

  1. Your own definition of hybrid working. Does hybrid mean a 50/50 split? Does it mean people can work from home on a Friday? Can it be used in conjunction with other forms of flexible working?  Does it mean that employees can decide for themselves each and every day where to work, or is this something that needs to be managed at a team level?  Start with defining what hybrid means for your organisation with your particular context.
  2. Eligibility. Who can have hybrid working?  Is it potentially for everyone, or are there roles where it just isn’t an option?  It is likely that in many organisations there will people that can work remotely and people that cannot.  Where people can, there will be further layers within this too.  Some roles may lend themselves to being almost entirely remote whereas others will demand a greater onsite presence.  Who will decide which role falls into which category?  Setting this at an organisational level will help to ensure consistency and fairness.  One option is a ‘job families’ type approach with clear descriptors. 
  3. Hygiene factors.  A policy or guidance should set out the organisation’s approach to the practical stuff.  Are you going to contribute to household expenses like heating and lighting?  Are you going to pay an employee’s broadband costs?  Will you be providing desks, chairs and screens?  Where an office or permanent workstation is also provided in the workplace an organisation may be reluctant to accept double costs. There are no hard and fast rules here, as long as health and safety requirements can be met. Once again, different approaches may be needed for different role types or teams. 
  4. Clear expectations. When it comes to hybrid working, everyone needs to know what is expected of them. When and how do people need to be contactable?  What are the requirements about when people have to come into the office?  What are managers expected to do around considering requests and managing performance?  Clarity at the outset will help to ensure new ways of working are successful. 
  5. Safeguards against bias.  Before the pandemic we know that people who worked flexibly were subject to a range of stereotypes, bias and stigma. I am sure that many readers will have known managers who turned down flexible working requests for their own reasons, including because they simply didn’t want people to work in that way.  Ideally, decisions about flexible working should be made by the employee’s immediate manager as they are familiar with the role requirements. However, there also needs to be oversight of decisions, especially when the organisation takes an informal approach to managing requests.  Without oversight employees may be unfairly denied the opportunity to work in a hybrid way.

The very varied nature of hybrid working mean that for the most part, the best approach will be to determine organisational wide principles, with teams empowered and supported to implement them as they see fit and for their particular needs.  There is much still to learn about hybrid working – keeping any new principles and ways of working under review is one more key to success. 

Flexible Working Post Covid-19: myth busting

The World Health Organisation has called this period ‘the great homeworking experiment’.  I call BS.  Experiments are planned for, controlled, organised. They usually also have an end date.  This is anything but an experiment in the true sense of the world.  It has however undoubtedly led to learning and reflection at both individual and organisational levels.  This learning, especially about remote working, has led to many organisations thinking about a more flexible future – and in particular how to meet the now established demand for blended and hybrid working. 

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring what is required if we really want to embrace flexible working post Covid-19.  In this post I will be exploring the role of myths and beliefs.  Since many of us went to work from home in March 2020, some of the old myths about work have been dismantled – namely that for the most it needed to take place at a specific location.  Other myths are unfortunately are being re-written for a new world.  I devoted a whole chapter to the myths and beliefs about flexible working in my book on the subject – I had hoped we might have moved past some of them, but my twitter feed and email inbox tells me we still have much more work to do. 

Here are the new and revised myths that I am hearing now. 

If we allow hybrid working, everyone will want to work from home on a Friday

Some people will want to work from home on a Friday.  Some will not.  This is a management and leadership responsibility.  Hybrid working doesn’t mean you have to create some sort of free for all where no one turns up to do the face to face stuff and no one communicates about where they are going to be and when.  This isn’t about creating a flexible working Wild West. You have to put the systems in place to make it work. This is part of the process and can easily be addressed and prevented. If we start from here, we are also suggesting we don’t trust our people to know and do what needs to be done.

It will set a precedent

Yep.  This is still being said.  This exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about people management, and about inclusion and fairness.  We don’t need to treat everyone the same. This isn’t some sort of legal get-out clause.  It doesn’t amount to equality.  This is the worst possible reason to refuse flexible working.  Lots of people might want something?  Great. There’s a lesson in that. So why not explore it?

And in other news.  People have been working from home for ten months at the time I am writing this.  I think this cat is out of the bag. The precedent has been set – in a good way.

I won’t know what people are doing and if they are performing

Over the last ten months or so I have spoken to many HR people.  I have presented at conferences, had conversations on Twitter and been to virtual networking events. I have not met a single HR person who says that their business is dealing with a tidal wave of skiving.  One or two performance issues maybe.  Some from people who were underperforming before all this.  But feet up on the sofa watching Homes Under the Hammer?  Not so much.

If you are unable to tell if someone is doing their job or not without watching them do it, this is a fundamental failure of leadership and management. 

Do better. Seriously. This myth deserves a hard no.

Too much remote working will have a negative impact on company culture

If cultures are weak, if efforts are not made to maintain relationships, if we ignore values and meaning and purpose, then maybe.  Culture does of course shift and evolve – it is not a static thing.  After all, culture is often described as ‘the way that things are doing around here’, and the way that things are done has for almost every organisation everywhere changed in some way during 2020.  But remote and hybrid working by themselves will not fundamentally kill strong organisational cultures.  Culture should be part of any remote and hybrid working plan.

It won’t work for our organisation / team / department

This has probably been said about every new invention ever. Six or seven years ago businesses were using this myth to explain to me why they didn’t need to use social media.  It is evidence of status quo thinking.  Sometimes, a fear response.  Fear of something unknown, different, maybe requiring new skills.  Same is safe.  It can be a route to mediocracy….or even extinction.  Two choices – hang back or get ahead.

You can’t build relationships effectively when everyone is remote

I have some colleagues I am currently working with closely that I have never met in real life.  They are entirely Zoom based relationships.  We are working together perfectly well – although I very much look forward to the day when we can finally go for a coffee in person and I can find out how tall they are. Relationships are about people, not places.

It benefits employees more than organisations.

This myth is a real problem.  Employees of course will see the personal benefits first and foremost.  They will see the financial savings, the reduction of draining commutes on shoddy public transport, more time for self or family.  The organisational benefits are also significant.  Inclusion, the gender pay gap, talent attraction and retention, employer brand, employee engagement – should I go on?  The case for hybrid working is not made everywhere yet.  Many managers want to reassert the old ways.  Clearly articulating the benefits of increased flexibility is part of the solution to this particular challenge. It also needs to be in the flexible working plan.

Everyone wants to work hybrid now

This one is a new myth.  It’s also not true.  Lots of people want to go back to the office and never work from home ever again.  That’s okay too. 

Some organisations will have their own myths. This stuff is often hired wired to our fundamental beliefs about work. What is is, how it should be done, what it means to be a good employee. Tackling myths means unpicking beliefs too. It also means changing our language, and calling out behaviour. Can we start with ‘only part time’?

If you want to embrace flexible working, myth busting needs to be on your plan. Start with the myths detailed here for many are universal, and then look out for the specific ones that arise at your place.

Finally, for anyone who wants to read more about the stigma or myths that existed around flexible working pre Covid, this academic paper is a good place to start.