Organisational culture in hybrid and remote teams – steps to success

It is often said that culture is the way that we do things around here. There’s something a little too passive about that terminology for me.  Like it is something that just is, rather than something we have influence over or strive for. Organisational culture is a social construct.  It doesn’t exist in reality, only within the meaning that we ascribe to it.  It is a shared belief.  We often use the phrase ‘organisational culture’ to mean different, hard to describe things.  It is an imprecise term – but an important one.  A recent Microsoft survey put ‘positive culture’ at the top of their want list when searching for a new role.

There are other definitions of organisational culture.  Many reflect on shared beliefs, attitudes, values and assumptions.  This one, from an article on HBR, I particularly like: Culture is a carrier of meaning. Cultures provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is.”  Culture is about the organisational story. 

I am often asked questions about organisational culture in remote and hybrid working environments.  How to build it and how to sustain it.  If we follow the traditional definition, then of course you already have a culture.  It’s the way you do things in that remote or hybrid environment. Is it however, the one that you desire, and the one that will support the organisation’s aims and objectives? 

The cultures that organisations had before the pandemic no longer exist.  It is the way that you used to do things around here.  There have been few businesses untouched in some way, large or small, and you cannot go back to something that no longer is.  But it is possible to create something new.  To evolve culture, in a way that sustains new models of work.

It is entirely possible to build and maintain a positive and resilient organisational culture in a fully remote or hybrid working environment.  The starting point is determining what we mean by that, and what it is that we truly want to achieve.  From there, radical intentionality.  Placing sustained attention, effort and focus on that desired culture.  Building it into every single that is done – and not expecting it to come to life on its own, or because it has been defined and described.

At the heart of culture, is people.  They are the ones that bring organisational visions, values and mission to life.  They are the ones that exhibit the behaviours, share the beliefs, tell the stories, develop the meaning.  To do these things in the past we have often relied on people being in the same physical space to do these things (whether that was a successful strategy being a whole other discussion).  We can’t do that now.  So we need to do something else (better) instead. 

For the purpose of this blog post I am going to define a ‘positive’ organisation culture as one which is healthy (in terms of working practices and people management), clearly articulated and understood, and lived every day.  To achieve this, in a remote or hybrid working environment, there are steps that we can take.

  • Clearly articulate your values and organisational purpose.  This doesn’t mean a list on the wall of aspirational words like ‘innovation’ or ‘respect’.  It means surfacing what really matters, sharing the organisational story and being clear about the direction of travel. Who are you, why do you exist?  Share this everywhere, and embed into people practices like recruitment, induction and performance management.  Be clear on what you expect from people (not by giving them a behavioural framework please).
  • Focus on meaningful work.  This is another imprecise term with multiple definitions.  Research suggests that it includes helping to see the greater good or contribution of the work, work that is aligned with self-identity and personal values, and work that has intrinsic value.  Help people to find the meaning in what they do and how they contribute – or help people to find it through additional activities through opportunities to give back outside of work tasks.
  • Reflect your desired culture within the employment lifecycle.  In who you recruit, how you induct them, train, reward, promote and recognise.  This serves to continuously reinforce desired culture. 
  • Create meaningful face-time and connect people. During the pandemic we have lost some of our connection with others, and there is a need to rebuild social capital.  We also need to provide ongoing connection between employees and across teams.  We are hard wired to be social creatures.  Support people in building deeper connections.  Give permission to spend time on this, making it clear this is valued by the organisation.  Create moments of connection, appreciation, celebration.  Bring people together with purpose.
  • Include wellbeing. Employees want to feel like they matter.  That they are cared for and valued.  An organisational culture that respects and prioritises wellbeing will further enable productivity, motivation and commitment.
  • Leaders have to focus on relationships, not tasks. In remote working environments managers and leaders who focus on the soft hard skills like empathy, emotional intelligence and trust will create a more positive culture (and better results) than those who focus mainly on task and hands-on management.  More than ever we need leaders to get their role in culture – and be great role models for the behaviour that we want to see at work.  Poor managers undermine positive organisational culture.
  • Create principles for your hybrid and remote ways of working – and make people accountable for upholding them.  The FutureForum calls these guardrails.  This helps to reinforce that your culture is hybrid and remote, and how it will work in practice.  Principles and guardrails help to translate your desired culture into the way that you want people to behave and engage. 

There are no quick fixes or silver bullets in developing culture in hybrid and remote organisations. It will take intentionality and ongoing effort.  It is however, an essential criteria for success. 

FOSO (Fear Of Skiving Off)

Twenty something years ago, I began my HR career as the HR Officer in a warehouse.  Back then, warehouse employees worked an eight hour shift.  They were entitled to a 30 minute lunch break and two ten minute cigarette breaks.  In those days, pretty much everyone smoked.  The warehouse managers engaged a great deal of energy ensuring no employee took more than their permitted ten minutes.  The assumption that they would if they could, came built in.  These employees were the type that needed to be watched. 

Fast forward a few years.  Here comes the internet.  Clunky and slow it might have been, but it was on our actual desks.  Only I had to provide my employer with a list of the websites I might need for business purposes and everything else was blocked.  Time on those websites monitored too. Just in case anyone spent a few precious paid minutes of the working day browsing the world wide web.

A little later again comes social media.  Organisations worried about that a lot too.  Blocking Facebook and Myspace (remember that?) just in case we poked someone whilst on the clock (younger readers, this is not a euphemism).  

Today, it’s working from home.  Politicians, certain ‘newspapers’ and some senior business leaders alike.  Still concerned that flexible working or working from home must mean skiving, time wasting or just being too darn lazy and uncommitted. 

Working from home = Fear of Skiving Off.

So we mandate fixed working days and set up remote monitoring tools and force people to come into the office when they don’t need too.  Counting heads.   

Here’s the thing. This obsession isn’t about working from home, any more than it was about social media sites, the internet or a crafty fag.  It’s about two things.  It is about a certain type of manager who does not trust people, and managers who are unhealthy obsessed with making sure that no one ‘skives’.  For some people it almost feels personal.  That the employee is somehow getting one over on them.  They simply cannot tolerate this idea.  For them, work isn’t about value or contribution or outcomes, but what is seen to be done.  They will only tolerate the ideal worker.

It is fear driven, status driven.  It is built on distrust, suspicion.  It comes from a place of believing how you work is how everyone works (or should work).  It is about an unwillingness to go out of  your comfort zone. It smells of bias.

Of course, we all know that being in the office is no guarantee of productivity and constant focus on work anymore than blocking early versions of Facebook was.  There are skivers in every organisation.  There are underperformers too.  But they are, in my experience, always in the minority.  And just like with those who took a too long morning break, engaging in excessive Googling or tweeting, the answer lies always in dealing with those specific individuals. 

The say that the hybrid working era has begun. And so it has, in some organisations.  In others, the struggle for true acceptance goes on.

Using anchor days to support hybrid work

Confession time, this is absolutely not my idea, but it’s one I have come across recently and I thought it is worth sharing.

Some of the big concerns about remote and hybrid work is the social connection stuff.  Ties, relationships, bonds.  We know that these things matter at work, both at an organisational and individual level.  We also know that for some, remote work can lead to loneliness, weakened ties and feelings of isolation.  The early stages of hybrid work generated other frustrations.  People going into the office to find that no one else was there and they were spending the day in online meetings.  The difficulties of co-ordinating schedules across teams. 

Questions remain about the best balance of office to remote, how to build and maintain relationships when hybrid, how to preserve organisational culture, and make in-person work meaningful.  The one thing that is clear however, is that employees do not want to go into the office just because.  It needs a purpose.  It needs to be worth it.

One way that we can possibly make it worth it, is introducing anchor days.

Image: pexels.com

Anchor days are days that every team members comes into the workplace.  Monthly, quarterly, a few times a year – whatever fits for the team or organisation.  No rota or schedule, everyone comes together in the workplace for the primary purpose of being together.  These are days that focus on relationships and connection.  This doesn’t have to mean organised fun or team building activities (think of the introverts!) but it should mean meaningful face-time.  This is very much not the same as mandating fixed days in the office – this is about something else entirely. It’s like the old school away days, only in the office. 

Anchor days can serve as points of connection, both with each other and the wider organisation.  An anchor keeps something in place.  It is a device to hold things steady. In this case, relationships and belonging. 

Here are some thoughts from me about creating good anchor days.

  • Anchor days should focus on meaningful face-time.  Encourage people not to schedule routine or online meetings on that day.
  • Explain to people why you are having them.  That it is about supporting effective relationships in order that hybrid can work effectively.  Make sure that employees understand that this is important. 
  • Add in some opportunities for learning and development, whether that’s formal or informal.
  • Include food. All good employee engagement strategies involve food.  Put on some decent coffee, lunch, a good selection of biscuits (lots of biscuits).
  • Think about the space.  If your usual office environment is small individual rooms, then hold your anchor days somewhere else.  Find a big room, an external venue or book a co-working space.  Get people in the same room, but provide them with spaces that they can break off for 121s.
  • Schedule anchor days with plenty of notice so that people can arrange childcare or travel.
  • Make sure to communicate with new starters / during recruitment activity that attending anchor days is part of the job.
  • The whole day doesn’t need an agenda.  Create the space and let people work, chat, engage.
  • Encourage people to engage with new starters in particular.  Schedule a few coffee ‘dates’ for them to help them meeting new colleagues.
  • Seek feedback from employees about what they want from anchor days in order to help keep them fresh and useful. 
  • Mix up where you hold them – if teams are spread across different buildings or locations, move them around.
  • Invite guests such as people from others teams, or ask senior leaders to drop by. 
  • Take the opportunity to use anchor days for appreciation or recognition. 

Anchor days are a simple device that can help keep teams connected – and avoid the Zombie office!

Reviewing your hybrid work so far – questions to support organisational reflection and learning

I’ve recently worked with several organisations who are reviewing their experience with hybrid work to date. Hybrid at scale is new, and many organisational approaches were developed in the abstract whilst we were still working mostly from home. This is therefore a time for learning, reflection and adaption.

If hybrid work is to be successful (however we choose to define that) it is important to continue to listen to our employee voice and measure the outcomes of hybrid work. If this is a process that you considering in your organisation, I’ve detailed below some the questions I suggest asking, either through surveys, focus groups or workshops.

First things first. We need to consider hybrid work progress through three lenses: the individual employee, the team (including manager perspective) and the organisation itself. Not all of these lenses and perspectives will always align – in the resulting actions, compromises and trade-offs might be required.

Exploring perspectives – questions to ask

What is going well about hybrid work for you personally?

What is going well about hybrid work for your team?

What is going well about hybrid work for the organisation?

What is not working well for your personally?

What is not going well for your team?

What is not going well for the organisation?

What do we need to do more of, to support and enable hybrid work?

  • For you
  • For your team
  • For the organisation

What do we need to less of, to support and enable hybrid work?

  • For you
  • For your team
  • For your organisation

What barriers are we experiencing to effective hybrid work?

What steps can we take to address these barriers?

What quick wins are available to us, to support effective hybrid working?

What three things can we do now to further enable effective hybrid work?

Questions focusing on specific risk areas:

To what extent are we achieving our goals and aims relating to hybrid work?

What more can we do to make hybrid work inclusive?

What more can we do to make hybrid work healthy?

What more can we do to keep connected when working hybrid?

What more can we do to communicate effectively when working hybrid?

I hope you find these questions useful in your reflections. Good luck!

Healthy hybrid: it’s complicated

Wellbeing and remote work has a complex relationship. 

For some people, remote work is good for wellbeing. Remote work typically provides autonomy, which can positively influence wellbeing (and the opposite, high degrees of control, is a potential cause of work related stress).  Some employees are able to use the time that they would have spent commuting or being in an office for activities that support their health and wellbeing, such as exercise or eating well.  Commuting in general has been associated with stress, reduced life satisfaction (especially in the case of long commutes and commutes on public transport in particular) and high financial costs. Since the pandemic enforced shift to remote work, many surveys have reported improved wellbeing as a positive outcome. It’s a key reason behind the strong preference to retain remote work in the future.

This experience however is far from universal.  Whilst some people benefit, others find that remote work leads to blurred boundaries, work life conflict, work intensification, longer working days, reduced work life balance and isolation.  For those that have a poor homework station, there is physical wellbeing to throw into the mix.  And then finally, the wellbeing impact of digital, screen based, electronic notification driven work.  Zoom fatigue isn’t just an internet joke – research has established it to be very real.

Why is there such variation in experiences and outcomes?  Well, it’s complicated.  

There’s a lot of research into remote work and wellbeing, and it provides a mixed picture of benefits and challenges, good and bad. It has been associated with positive emotions, job satisfaction, autonomy and reduced levels of emotional exhaustion.  Somewhat paradoxically, it has also been associated with reduced social support, longer working hours, anxiety about career prospects and work intensification.

Some of these differences are likely to be down to personal factors – preferences and style.  The work life balance literature suggests that in terms of our boundaries, we range on a spectrum from integrators (happy with few boundaries, relaxed when work spills over into home) and separators – people who really need a clear line between work and home for their mental health.  Age, sex and seniority are often at play here too.  Women when they work flexibly tend to mix it with more domestic labour and childcare.  Younger people are more likely to be in housing that doesn’t allow them to create a comfy home office. There are people that thrive when working with others, and others that prefer to work alone.  The introverts and the extroverts if you will – and you can probably figure out for yourself which of these will (potentially) find the more isolating nature of remote work a problem.   All of these personal factors matter when considering the impact of working from home.

Some of the influence of remote work on wellbeing is related to organisational factors.  The manager and their behaviour and style.  The organisational culture – especially in terms of what is considered acceptable or what is likely to get you promoted (or not). The support provided (or not), job design or working practices.

The remote work question is further complicated by the fact that wellbeing means different things to different people.  There are many different definitions of wellbeing. Some focus on mental, physical or social health.  Others consider flourishing, bouncebackability, or happiness and pleasure (the hedonic tradition).  The eudemonic approach (which we can trace back as far as Aristotle) in contrast focuses on self-actualisation and meaning.  I think this is what the young people call ‘living your best life’.  Wellbeing is so very personal. What enables it or detracts from it, varies from individual to individual.

Image: pexels.com

Whilst remote work is nothing new, hybrid at scale most definitely is. This will raise new questions about wellbeing, and organisations will need to pay close attention to how we make hybrid healthy. When looking to the future we also need to consider how much has changed. Will the remote work of the future – which is set to largely be hybrid (part-remote) – change now that we all have the tech and mostly know how to use it, it is more common, we have learned new ways of working, managers are more skilled……. Only time, and future research, will tell.

Key questions about wellbeing and remote work include:

  • What are the wellbeing benefits and challenges of hybrid work – and how (if at all) do they differ from the remote work that took place before the pandemic?
  • How does the level of hybridity (days remote v time in the workplace) impact upon wellbeing at work?
  • Is there a wellbeing sweet-spot – a workplace to remote ratio that provides wellbeing benefits without the detractors?
  • Where (fully) remote work has been found to lead to poor wellbeing outcomes, can this be moderated by being in the physical workplace some of the time? If so, how often do people need to be in the workplace?
  • What can employees do for themselves to support wellbeing when working remotely – and what are the skills and knowledge that enable them to do so?
  • What can organisations do to support healthy hybrid work? What do managers need to know? What work practices do we need to establish?

It is quite possible that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. The challenge for leaders and HR professionals therefore, will be to translate this complex picture into practical actions that organisations can take, so that we can aim to ensure hybrid is a force for wellbeing – and will not simply update old problems for the hybrid era.

The good news is, this is the subject for my doctoral research. I’ll update with more information in four years…..

Hybrid Work: still more questions than answers

Whilst remote work is not new, hybrid at scale most certainly is.  Many organisations have now begun to work in a hybrid way, and are busy learning what works and what does not on a practical level. The majority of operational plans for hybrid implementation were developed whilst essential homeworking was ongoing, and adaption of approach based on early learning is highly likely.  We are also now starting to see some helpful academic research emerging into remote (during the pandemic) and hybrid more specifically. 

Broad questions related to hybrid work are however yet to be answered:

  • What do we mean by successful hybrid work, from the perspective of different stakeholders? 
  • Will the concept of hybrid work endure post pandemic, or will the lure of old ways of working (and the deeply held cultural norm of office working specifically) prove too strong?  What form of hybrid will we end up with – optimal hybrid, or some sort of watered down version?
  • How will organisations adapt to hybrid work and what are the outcomes of hybrid work in practice on critical business issues including wellbeing, inclusion, productivity and leadership?
  • Given the many different ways in which hybrid can be implemented, what can we learn about which specific patterns of hybrid work are most successful in terms of outcomes for both employees and organisations?  Should employees choose their remote days or should managers control this? Is there a perfect home to office ratio?
  • Will hybrid work live up to the very high expectations currently placed upon it, and to what extent will employee preferences and organisational requirements align?
  • There have been many predictions about hybrid work (for example, if demand is not met the potential for a ‘great resignation’ and talent shifts).  Will such predictions be found to be myth, or reality? 
  • What is the impact of the technology that enables remote working, especially as this continues to develop?  How does it help or hinder, improve or detract?
  • How will managers and leaders adapt to the changing demands of hybrid teams?
  • What does hybrid mean for wellbeing, inclusion, engagement, and organisational culture? How can we ensure that hybrid is a force for good, and does not make old problems even worse?
  • How best to deliver elements of the employee lifecycle, such as induction and learning, when working in a hybrid way?

In 2009, an influential study concluded that at work, distance matters and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  ‘There will likely always be certain kinds of advantages to being together.’  In a post pandemic world, in which we are more competent users of the tech and more experienced in remote work than ever before, does this statement still hold true? What are those things that work best when we are in-person, co-located, synchronous?  And which are just watercooler myths?   

In the months and years to come, as they hybrid era truly begins, we need to be open minded and constantly curious.  We must ask questions and follow the evidence.  Only then will we be able to ensure hybrid delivers on its potential. 

Managing hybrid

According to recent data from the ONS, just under a quarter of employees are now working in a hybrid way. However, they are don’t all seem to be working the predicted 3/2 or 2/3 pattern – instead 42% of respondents to their survey said that they intend to work mostly from home and only occasionally from the office (don’t tell the Tories).  It appears that preferences and patterns are still settling, but there are increasing signs that employees want as much remote as they can get.  This has so very many implications, not least on every day people management.

These figures mean that there are a whole lot of people who need to manage differently, and be managed differently.  What we learned in the fully remote, crisis enforced, emergency homeworking period will only take us so far.  Hybrid needs something new.  When it comes to managing people, what got us here, won’t get us there, to coin a phrase.

There’s a whole load of management stuff that we took for granted in the old days (even if it didn’t work all that well then too), that just doesn’t work in a hybrid world:

Trying to be across every detail.

Managing performance through what you can see.  Task based leadership.

Requiring people to come into the office just because.

Expecting innovation, creativity, relationships, collaboration etc to ignite on their own, through watercoolers or casual interaction.

Assuming people will ‘absorb’ culture, and that new starters can learn enough by simply being with people and through observation.

Meetings as the primary vehicle for getting stuff done.

Training in a classroom as the default for learning.

Assuming a team culture and personal relationships (especially trust) will evolve naturally.  

As I have said before on this blog, everything that we do in a hybrid world, connection, collaboration, creativity, performance management, culture – requires greater intentionality.  Deliberate focus.  More planning.  Dedicated time and energy.  Here, managers have a critical role – and we cannot leave their skills and abilities to chance. 

We also cannot assume that every manager will make the transition easily.  That because they adapted to remote, they will therefore adapt once again. There is still so much to learn – for all of us.

I believe that there are five things organisations should be doing right now, to support their people managers as the hybrid era fully emerges:

  • Talk to managers.  Find out what they are finding difficult (or not) so far, and where they believe they would benefit from greater support. 
  • Do the formal training stuff.  How to manage in a hybrid way.  How to communicate, establish team norms or agreements, how to use the tech (and not just a virtual meeting).  Address any practical development needs as quickly as possible. 
  • Raise specific awareness of potential problem areas.  Inclusion and wellbeing are areas where, without careful implementation and ongoing management, old problems may be compounded by hybrid rather than solved.  Include guidance and training on making hybrid healthy, fair and inclusive – addressing head on the potential for unconscious bias and stigma.
  • Provide coaching or mentoring on hybrid management. Coaching is about helping people be resourceful, to find their own solutions to their own specific challenges.  Identify any experienced virtual or remote managers who can provide guidance and support, or facilitate 121 coaching to help managers explore new management practices that will work for them.
  • Create spaces for sharing. There is much to learn from each other as we navigate new ways of working.  Providing a confidential, relaxed environment where managers can come together to discuss challenges and how they are approaching them, can be a valuable source of support and shared experience.

Finally, share emerging thinking, new ideas and good practice with people managers. Barely a day goes by when I don’t add to my already significant reading pile on hybrid work. Bring the outside in as a regular activity, distilling themes and thinking, to support people managers now and in the future.

RTO V WFH: Why rumours of the death of the office are greatly exaggerated

Once again, the ‘return to office’ voice is loud, with those who continue to work from home being openly derided and blamed for all manner of workplace ills.

When everyone was forced to work from home during the pandemic, we were all in it together.  For a time, the stigma associated with flexible working decreased, partly I believe because the bosses were doing it too.  But now, the backlash is very much underway. 

What’s going on, beneath the headlines, the flexible working micro-aggressions, and even the crass notes sent by politicians?  I believe that there are several, often inter-related, issues at play.

Privilege

The office works well for some people.  Generally, these are the people at the top of organisations and who fulfil the ideal worker stereotype. Often, these are also white men. Because the office and all it entails worked for them, they are unable to see, or perhaps do not wish to see, that other employees may want or need to work differently, face different struggles to them, and do not have the privileges that organisational power brings along with it. So why can’t everyone just work in the office?

Confirmation bias

One of the big challenges facing flexible working adoption is the inability of some people (often managers) to separate how they prefer to work with how other people can / should work.  If they prefer the office, feel more productive there, enjoy the social connection and experience few challenges with the commute, the distractions and so on, they can’t appreciate that this does not work for everyone.  Confirmation bias kicks in, and they see only the evidence for their preferred working style, rejecting the needs and wants of others. 

Status

To some leaders and managers, the office is linked to status and power. Consider how, as employees rise through the organisation, this is often reflected in their physical workspaces. The corner office with the great view signals a certain kind of significance.  Giving this up to work remotely, or having fewer people around to witness their standing or rank, is a challenge to their importance and sense of self.   

Fear

Fear of change.  Fear of uncertainty.  Fear of loss of control. Fear about (in a manager context) whether they can make the personal change that they need to make, learn the new skills, adapt.  So much better to demand the return to the former status quo. 

Trust (or lack of)

Even after two years or so of increased remote work, even in the face of the evidence that says that most people believe themselves to be at least, if not more, productive when working from home as they are in the office, too many people just cannot bring themselves to trust the people that they work with, or that work for them.  We have a failure of trust in far too many organisations.  Generally, this says more about the individual who cannot trust than those that work for them – but this matters little when they hold the power to decide. 

The lazy worker stereotype

Flexible working has been consistently found to be stigmatised, linked to unfounded assumptions such as those that work flexibly are less committed or motivated. Before the pandemic, the standard objection to a work from home request was ‘how will I know that they are working’.  Well, we managed okay during the pandemic, but this stereotype is a particularly deep-seated one, engrained into many people’s viewpoints, latterly with the help of some of the media (often those with a particular lack of impartiality).  There is no evidence to support this myth.  Not before the pandemic, during it, or since.  Perhaps it is time to think about exactly who is served by perpetuating it. 

Sunk costs

The money on offices and all that lies within them has been spent – or costs are committed into the future with long leases. So we want people to use it, regardless.

Hard wired beliefs

We have certain beliefs about the office, many of which are routinely accepted, even without evidence.  For example, the office is good for new starters to help them learn, the office is better for relationships, collaboration, organisational culture, creativity.  These are things that we often hear, but rarely challenge.  Some of these things might be partly true.  Others are merely convenient tropes, helpful to those with a certain, office is best, drum to bang.  Unfortunately many of these beliefs lack evidence, and some of them are excuses for poor practice.  For example, we can put a new employee next to someone and let them pick stuff up in the office, or we can create a meaningful induction and learning plan that will support people wherever and however they work. 

Poor management

Of all the challenges to working from home acceptance, this is the one that I believe lies at the heart of the problem. It sits beneath many of the other issues discussed here. If you can only manage your knowledge workers, motivate them, or get them to be productive, through direct supervision, control or the shadow of your presence, you are not a good manager. No debate.

As we see the continued headlines about the rise of hybrid work and positive research outcomes, we should not be complacent. The case for flexible working is not made. The evidence will never convince some people. The desire for organisations to control their workers remains.

As it ever did.

Radical autonomy

I have come across the concept of radical flexibility a few times now.  Gartner in particular have discussed this idea, talking about an approach whereby employers seek to provide employees with full choice over where, when and how much they work. 

Without wishing to be too critical, I’m really not sure why this is considered especially radical.  Choice rather than control or micromanagement, the ability to decide for yourself where you do your best work, determining an appropriate workload….  I am less sure this is radical flexibility, but simply being treated like a functioning adult.

I want to propose something else. 

Radical autonomy.

As Lynda Gratton says, flexible working is what you give, but autonomy is what people get.  And we know how much autonomy matters.  Just ask Dan Pink. 

Autonomy is good for engagement, for motivation, for wellbeing. 

When we frame ways of working as flexible, regrettably the biases kick in.  We see it as something that employee gains, and just maybe the organisation loses.  It brings with it stigma, a sneaking suspicion that maybe this person just doesn’t want to work very hard.  Flexible working needs a process, a policy.  Flexibility has a legislative framework. There are decisions to be made, contracts to change.

We need a mindset, not a framework.

I am beginning to believe that we need to shift to thinking in terms of autonomy, not flexibility.  Bounded, as it must be, by the nature of the work to be undertaken and the specific needs of the organisation, but outside of that, striving to provide the maximum possible autonomy to every single individual. 

Autonomy.  The ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else. 

It shouldn’t be radical.  And yet, in many of our workplaces, it most certainly is. 

Intentionally, hybrid

I have been asked very many questions about hybrid work of late, and I have noticed how often the answer to so many of them is the same.  How do we maintain organisational culture?  How do we support new starters?  How best to communicate or collaborate?  How can we build teams and relationships, enable wellbeing and how best to manage hybrid teams? And so on. 

Here is that answer: everything needs to be more intentional.

Time together.

Communication.

Being in the office.

Time management.

Organisational culture.

Onboarding.

Collaboration. 

Social connection and relationship building. 

Team cohesion. 

Meetings. 

You can’t assume these things will happen by themselves, in a hybrid world.  Arguably they never did, but in a co-located environment it was perhaps a little easier to get away with it.

When working hybrid, you can’t rely on the ad hoc, the casual, or even the metaphorical, mystical watercooler.  You can’t just let the day or the thing happen, take it as it comes.  Everything needs more planning and more focus, if we want it to be successful.  We have to think about the best way to do something, carve out specific time, ask more questions, do the detail.

We have to apply our mind to the things that we do at work in a way that we didn’t when we all turned up at the same time in the same office.   We have to be more intentional.  In every single thing that we do. 

Intentionality. It’s a hybrid thing.

The perfect ratio?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been involved in a several conversations about the ‘best’ office/remote ratio in a hybrid work environment.  This week we’ve seen Google asking their employees to return to the office; their version of a hybrid model appears to require employees to attend work in person three days a week. Is this going to be the default approach?

Early in the pandemic the 2/3 or 3/2 model seemed to be the one that most people were gravitating towards.  Pre-pandemic research had previously suggested that three days in the office was optimal for maintaining relationships.  However, so much has changed in terms of the ways that we work during this last two years, we would have to seriously question any BC (Before Covid) data. 

Future research will no doubt try to draw some conclusions about a good hybrid ratio.  However, the answer, if there is any such thing, is likely to be highly contextual.  It will be influenced by industry, organisation, available technology, organisational culture and the specific role in question.  Within larger and more complex organisations there may be multiple versions of a ‘good’ hybrid ratio.  The specific manager, their competence, attitude and willingness to embrace flex will also be at play.  So will the extent to which the organisation has adapted to new ways of working during the pandemic, or simply operated in a holding pattern, waiting for things to return to ‘normal’ (whatever that is). 

With hybrid, the good practice is yet to emerge. With hybrid ratios, there may never be such a thing. Only what works, at our place, for our roles, in our specific situation.

We should take great care in following what other people do. Google for example, are an influential organisation, in some good ways and some less good ones. In the same way that not every organisation needs a slide in the office, neither should we assume their hybrid model is good for us too. They have made a business decision, not set some new best practice.

As a general rule, we should be aiming to provide as much autonomy as a particular role allows when determining the office/home split. This is when we will see maximum benefits for wellbeing, engagement, motivation and productivity. Few people will want to come into an office for a set number of days without a clear reason, because some manager or HR person said so, or just in case. Organisations face a balancing act between potentially competing organisational needs and employee working preferences. US remote work specialist and research Nick Bloom refers to this issue as compliance v choice.

Whatever decision is made, transparency and rationale are key. Where there is a genuine need for a rota style system or a certain amount of personal presence, coupled with a clear explanation, this has a reasonable chance of being accepted by employees. A required days mandate significantly less so. Talent retention implications may well follow.

Searching for the perfect hybrid ratio might just be the workplace equivalent of looking for a unicorn.

Hybrid work and recruitment

Hybrid work has influenced most aspects of the employee lifecycle to at least some extent – and recruitment is no exception.  HR teams and organisations need to think through the implications of shifting to a hybrid model on each step in the hiring process. 

Job Description: The job description is a non-exhaustive list of what a particular role requires.  A good one will cover title, duties, responsibilities, purpose and scope.  In a hybrid environment a clear job description is of critical importance – and it needs to include the necessary outcomes and outputs of performance.  First of all, what is the employee required to do?  What metrics apply?  What is the employee required to deliver, over what timescales?  Secondly, what is the employee required to be? What behaviour and competencies must they demonstrate whilst undertaking the role?  Finally, what is the desired result from the work? What should the employee influence or change? What should the consequence of the work be? When performance is less visible, this information provides clarity for employee and manager, and a benchmark on which to measure contribution at performance review time.

Image: Pexel.com

Advertising: Whilst it might have been seen as a little progressive before the pandemic, it is no longer enough to just have a statement on your careers pages that says ‘we support flexible working’.  Candidates want to know exactly what kind of flexible working they will be able to access if they get the job.  Even saying ‘we have a hybrid working model’ might not be sufficient.  Employers need to be specific, and clearly state how often employees will need to undertake in-person work, being transparent with policies and principles.

Day 1 Flex: Now flexible working is more normalised, the current UK statutory framework for formal flexible working applications looks increasingly out of date (not to mention out of touch).  Talented candidates are not going to wait six months to ask for flexible working – and take the risk that their request will be refused.  Any organisations that still includes this requirement in their policies and practices should urgently reconsider this position. 

Conversations during the process: Managers need to know exactly what information to provide about flexible and hybrid working opportunities. They need to know what they can agree to, and what, if any, requests that they need to clarify or take further advice.  They also need to have clarity on whether flexible working opportunities are contractual and permanent, or informal and temporary (for example, where organisations are undertaking a trial or pilot into new ways of working).

Interviewing: Hybrid work isn’t for everyone. Assessing candidate suitability for hybrid work should be part of the process. Where a role is hybrid, an ideal scenario is to build in both an in-person and virtual stage to the process. Is the candidate comfortable with the necessary technology for hybrid work? Can they present, collaborate, communicate and engage in both spheres of work?

Monitoring: Organisations need to know the outcomes of hybrid work on recruitment. Hybrid, and other forms of flexible work, can open up the labour market to those who cannot (or do not want to) work a traditional 9-5 office based job. How is hybrid work contributing to inclusion and diversity? How have candidate profiles changed as a result – who is applying now, compared to before hybrid work opportunities? Is hybrid work increasing applications – and specifically is it increasing the quality of those applications? This data can inform views on how successful hybrid work is in terms of attracting talent, but also identify areas for improvement.

Internal Moves: In some organisations, especially in relation to hybrid work, there might be just one form of flexibility available (eg everyone works a 2/3 home/office split).  In other larger and more complex organisation there may be multiple ways that employees can work flexibly both in time and place.  It is important to understand the impact of hybrid on internal movement.  Are employees applying for internal opportunities that give them greater access to remote or other forms of flexible work, including those that are not available to them in their substantive post? What does this mean for the organisation overall?

These are just a few of the practical considerations of hybrid work on the recruitment process; the employee led demand for hybrid work means that – for knowledge workers at least – flexible forms of work are now a firm part of the Employee Value Proposition. This needs to be reflected throughout policies, processes and practice.

Flexible Work: opinions as fact.

When I comment about hybrid or flexible work on social media, someone will inevitably come along to point out what I haven’t thought about or why I am wrong. This disagreement generally takes the form of telling me what they like about the office, the commute, not commuting, working fully remote, working hybrid, returning to the office, not returning to the office, why we should return, why we should never go back.  Etc.

This is a key problem when it comes to the adoption of flexible working. One person’s experience and preferences are just that. Their desires.  Their choice.  What works for them. The obvious issue is of course that this means absolutely nothing to or for anyone else.  It is merely an anecdote.  It is not evidence, or something from which we can draw a general conclusion. It cannot be extrapolated to a wider workforce.

Because when people say ‘the office is a great place to work’ or ‘remote working is fantastic’ what they often mean is ‘…for me’.

We desperately need more people to understand this. 

Unfortunately, some of the people who are unable to separate their own working preferences from how other people want or need to work also have the power to decide what flexible work opportunities others have access to – and this is a big problem for acceptance of and accessibility to flexible, hybrid and remote work.

How we like to work is highly personal.  It is, inter alia, about working styles, our circadian rhythms, our individual circumstances, the kind of work that we do, our social needs, our productivity, our home set up, our seniority……  For every person who is energised by an office environment there is another overwhelmed by it.  For each person who values the transition provided by a commute there is someone who is drained and stressed as a result.  And so on. 

If we can get people to understand that work styles are personal, especially people managers, then we can dismantle one of the barriers to flexible work.  We need to recognise that one size only fits one.

Productivity, engagement, motivation and wellbeing.  All of these things can be enhanced by autonomy.  Through providing people with as much choice as possible, in the context of what is possible in relation to the work that they do, we can maximise the benefits of flexible work.  When we can step back and recognise that how we personally like to work is simply that and nothing else, we can get out of the way of other people and allow them to work in the way that works for them too.

And if you find yourself advocating for a particular form of work, maybe take a moment to reflect.  Is what you are saying evidence based?  Or is it just your personal frame of reference?

Hybrid, re-started

After an unexpected and most unwelcome new variant paused many hybrid working experiments, the end of ‘work from home if you can’ guidance means that organisations are now once again re-opening their offices and dusting off their hybrid working policy documents.

While many barely got their hybrid working experiment underway, there were undoubtedly still lessons that we could learn from those early experiences.  I’ve blogged about a few of them here; this was a collection of my own perspectives and a reflection of the very many conversations I’ve been having with both organisations implementing hybrid and the people that work for them.

Even though hybrid is yet to be fully tested in practice, it is not too early to start seeking to understand sentiment and emerging issues.  In fact, having undertaken a little bit of hybrid followed by a pause may well have provided time for useful reflection.  If you are in the middle of a hybrid experiment, even if it was temporarily interrupted, you may want to think about asking some key questions of employees, or encouraging them to review their local arrangements and decisions. 

What worked well about our hybrid approach?

What didn’t work so well?

What challenges did we experience?

What was the biggest benefit, and the biggest problem?

What made a great day in the office? What worked better at home?

What type of work was most effective where?

What development needs did we identify?

What changes do we need to make to our approach?

How well has hybrid work so far met our expectations?

How is hybrid influencing wellbeing and productivity?

What do we need to stop, start or continue?

What is not in place that needs to be, for hybrid to realise its potential?

What do we need to do differently as a team or as individuals?

What ways of working do we still need to adapt?

The real test of hybrid is yet to come, many of its lessons still to be learned.  Asking questions along the way will provide us with ongoing insight into the employee, manager, team and organisational hybrid experience, and encourage a continuous listening and learning mind-set. 

Be constantly curious. 

7 Lessons From Hybrid Work (so far)

The desire for hybrid work arose while many of us were working from home.  Our approaches, policies and principles were devised there too.  Design took place in the abstract.  The return to offices was gradual, and has once again been disrupted.  Few really got going with their hybrid experiments, and we may need to wait a little while until we can start over.  But we have still managed to learn a few things about hybrid work in practice.  Here are seven things that we now know, and need to take into future thinking and plans.

Macbook Pro on White Table
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Return reluctance is real

I’ve already blogged about the issue of return reluctance.  Whilst some of this is undoubtedly related to the pandemic itself, it also appears that some employees are increasingly asking the question ‘why do I need to go back at all?’  Or at the very least – why do I need to go in as much as my manager wants me to?  A complex issue, but one thing that we do need to ensure when people come into the physical workplace is that their presence adds value – to them, their team or their organisation. 

Offices aren’t working

One survey suggests that fewer than a quarter of organisations have made changes to their office environments in order to support hybrid work.  This is in my opinion part of the ‘return reluctance’ problem.  People feel that there is no point going into the office to sit in an empty or single person room and spending their time on Zoom.  At the same time some evidence suggests that during homeworking our professional networks (especially in terms of our weaker ties) reduced*.  To tackle both of these related issues we need to get much more intentional about space, providing offices that support meaningful face-time (including building relationships), collaboration and social connection. 

Watercoolers aren’t enough

I have often complained about this tired metaphor.  Few people have amazing discussions around watercoolers – and if you are relying on this for your innovation or creativity then frankly you aren’t doing it properly.  Instead we must support people to come together for meaningful conversations, deeper interactions and high quality collaboration.  There might be a little serendipity happening by chance – but generally we need to create the conditions and not hope they happen by chance.

Equality and inclusion needs more focus

As we planned for hybrid a lot of focus was on policies, principles and guidance.  There were many practicalities to think through and plan for.  We know that flexible forms of work can support inclusion – but without care in the implementation they may also compound old issues and create new ones.  We can learn here from research into remote work during the pandemic, including the potential for out of sight to mean out of mind when it comes to career profession and pay, and the problems of flex stigma.   Identify and monitor the EDI outcomes and raise awareness of unconscious bias.  Watch out for hybrid work stigma and take prompt action on emerging issues. 

We are neglecting other forms of flex

Research has indicated that whilst homeworking has naturally increased, the same cannot be said for other forms of flexibility.  In fact all other forms of flexibility have declined.  We need to remember that there is more to flexible work than working from home – and hybrid will be at its optimised when employees have true autonomy, over time and place. 

We still aren’t embracing asynchronous work

Despite the very many issues with remote meetings being widely acknowledged, including but not limited to Zoom Fatigue, few organisations seem to have truly embraced asynchronous work.  Not everything needs to be a meeting.  We still need to pay much more attention (and potentially provide much more development support) around using online platforms for more than the meeting functionality.

We are still figuring out how to be productive

During the so-called ‘great homeworking experiment’ a significant number of employees reported feeling more productive whilst working from home.  Returning to the office led to complaints from some that their productivity had taken a hit.  We can assume that some of this might be related to simply seeing people we hadn’t for a while, but the productivity drain of the commute may also play a part  Future research will inevitably tell us more about productivity in the hybrid world.  We are clearly still figuring out how to adapt our routines, deciding what work is best done where. My guidance on how to do this is here.

One other important challenge, and this is linked to many of the points here, is that during the pandemic we all learned new ways of working.  Admittedly, one of those things is how to have a lot of online meetings.  In the same way that in March 2020 we tried to take our office routines into our homes, we are now trying to take our new home routines back to the office.  The former didn’t work and neither will the latter.  The office is a deeply entrenched cultural norm; to make hybrid work effective we have to unlearn some of the old stuff, evolving almost all of our ways of working to adapt.  Hybrid is more than just a shift in location, it is a shift in… well, almost everything.

Above all, the big hybrid lesson is about how we need to be more intentional.  No more letting the inbox drive us, defaulting to meetings, bumping into people at the watercooler or sitting at the same old desk.  We need to be intentional in the hybrid world. 

With every single thing that we do.

*This note relates to a survey by Microsoft. There are some issues with the research; it is limited to one organisation so it may not be replicable to others, and it was undertaken during the early part of the pandemic during 2020.

Hybrid, interrupted

Introducing hybrid working models during a global pandemic was always going to be messy.  Both the practical implementation and employee feelings and attitudes were always going to be influenced by the ongoing nature of the pandemic. Reluctance to return, ongoing challenges with issues like childcare, requirements for self-isolation and rates of infection – these many challenges mean that we have yet to experience ‘true’ hybrid working. 

Now, in the UK, many employees are once again looking at an period of working from home (timeline unknown) in order to slow the transmission of yet another new variant.  Uncertainty is back.  Even though some employees will have to continue to attend their offices and might do so in a flexible way, this still isn’t likely to be hybrid working in its truest sense.

What does this mean for our current hybrid work experiment? 

This is not the end of hybrid, just an interruption.  We don’t know what the immediate future will bring in terms of restrictions or how long the new work from home guidance might last.  For now, we need to focus on supporting employees that are anxious or vulnerable, and where necessary re-establish any working from home protocols and processes.

As for hybrid models, we can take this time as an opportunity to reflect.  What have we learned to date about what is going well and what is not?  What challenges arose that we did not foresee?  How are people feeling?

We can reflect too on how managers are finding leading a hybrid team.  How it has been so far for issues like work life balance, inclusion and team cohesion.  

The employee voice asking for hybrid was both consistent and loud.  We need to start to understand if, even during this messy period, hybrid was beginning to deliver on its promises and potential. 

Then we can take these lessons forward when the time is right. 

Red Stop Road Sign Under Blue Sky
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Hybrid work and reluctance to return

A feature of many of my recent conversations about hybrid work and the return to workplaces is reluctance.  A recurring employee question arising: why should I come into the office?  There are many reasons an employee might want or need to go into the office, and equally as many reasons why their employer might require it.  For more thoughts on this subject, I recommend this blog post by Neil Usher.   

At the heart of this emerging reluctance seems to be four not entirely unrelated elements:

  1. Pandemic related reluctance.  The fear of infection, especially for those who have to undertake crowded public transport commutes, further compounded by the uncertainty of the new variant.  Over time, this particular form of reluctance may reduce – or depending on the future prevalence of Covid it may not.  Return to the office for these employees, equals risk.
  2. Remote preference reluctance.  For some employees, working from home is their overwhelming preference and they would rather not return to the office at all, or if it cannot be entirely avoided, would prefer to attend for the minimum amount of possible time.  For them, return feels unnecessary. 
  3. Productivity reluctance.  Some employees are finding the return to the office is causing a personal productivity problem.  From research during the pandemic we know that many employees feel at least if more productive (one particular survey putting it at more than 80%) when working from home compared to the office.  For these employees, the distractions of the office and other people equals reduced effectiveness.
  4. Can’t see the point reluctance.  During the pandemic we found new ways to work – unfortunately many of these still centre around the synchronous meeting, only now it is online rather than face to face. We are now taking these ways of working back into a physical workspace, leading to the (fair) challenge – why am I going into the office to spend time on Zoom?  For many employees, this is the worst of both worlds. A commute and a day of online meetings. 

As employers, we have a job to do if we want a hybrid future – and this includes working through employee reluctance both on a psychological and practical level. 

A few thoughts from me…..

  • We need to give people a good reason to come into the office.  Part of this is helping people to recognise that being in the physical workspace isn’t just about them, but about the wider organisation and team experience.  We go into the office for ourselves, but also for others. To connect.  To support new starters with learning and assimilation.  To create serendipity.  To contribute to the energy of the work space. We need to answer the question, ‘what’s in it for me’, as well as helping people to recognise its about what’s in it for everyone else, too. And if we can’t think of a good answer* to the ‘why’ question, well that needs some reflection too.
  • We need to think about meetings. 18 months on and I am still hearing so many stories of people spending hours and hours on Zoom or Teams. This was a problem during the pandemic from a productivity and wellbeing point of view – now it is a barrier to hybrid success in itself. Because there is no point in going into a physical work place to undertake virtual work. To sit next to someone else doing their own online meetings.  Pointless, and impractical too.  Getting serious about asynchronous work is long overdue.  Time to replace that meeting with something less fatiguing instead. 
  • Linked to the previous point, we also need to think about our work spaces.  We need to create spaces in which people can undertake forms of work that are different to the way we worked pre-Covid.  Shared spaces where people can come together to collaborate or just work next to each other, and spaces where people can do those online meetings – because they are here to stay. 
  • We need to help people think about their productivity differently. I’ve written about this on an earlier post.  Some people will adapt naturally to hybrid, others might need some coaching or support.  Managers need to be equipped to have this conversation with their teams.  When undertaking hybrid work we need to be much more intentional about what work we do where – and when.
  • Learning from what is working and what is not.  The shift to hybrid was always going to be an experiment, and there was always going to be a need to adapt en route.  Now many organisations are a few months into their hybrid shift its time to start the conversation.  What is good about coming into the office?  What needs to change to make it more useful and effective? How is the office being used?

As I write this post the implications of the new variant remain unknown.  Set against a backdrop of nearly two years of pandemic life, and its repeated opening up and locking down again, we can also hear the fear and approach this with empathy.  Not all reluctance is rooted in opposition but genuine concern for self and family. 

This early period of hybrid implementation was always going to be messy as we still try and live and work with Covid. We are still not experiencing anything like true hybrid, any more than we experienced true remote when working from home during the pandemic.  This is all part of the learning – but learn we must.  If we do not adapt then we may end up with undesirable outcomes – at one end of the scale empty, energy-less offices or at the other, mandated full time return. 

Low-angle Photo of Four High-rise Curtain Wall Buildings Under White Clouds and Blue Sky
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Hybrid, inclusion, and the risk to women’s careers

You may have seen the recent comments, picked up in a variety of media articles, about the potential career impact on women of working from home.  In short, it will harm their career, or so the thinking goes.  If you missed it, here’s a summary (with some comments from me) by People Management.  Whilst these particular comments were made by a Bank of England economist, they aren’t the first of late to suggest we all need to go back to the office if we don’t want our careers to stall.

On one hand, comments like these make me want to howl.  I am so frustrated that we are still having this conversation, echoing these warnings.

But on the other hand…. Yeah.  It’s probably true.  

And that is what makes me even more angry. We know from research prior to the pandemic that working remotely (or more flexibly in generally) led to a whole range of issues for those undertaking it. From career stagnation to reduced opportunities for reward and recognition and on to marginalisation, flexible work is stigmatised. Those undertaking perceived as less committed, less motivated, less ‘ideal worker’.

Stereotyped gender norms are at play here, where women are still expected to be primarily responsible for childcare and domestic labour, while men go out and do the breadwinning. In the hybrid world this results in women wanting to work from home more often than their male counterparts to allow them to balance these different priorities. Then the negative career consequences follow.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.  It really doesn’t. 

But it might be – if we don’t take action. 

This isn’t only an issue for women, but anyone who cannot play a role in the 9-5, office based performance.  The culture war is in full swing.  Get back round the watercooler, off your Peloton, and so on and so on.  Those that benefited from the old ways, the office structure, want it back. Those that want something else…. well they get to face the consequences.

If we want change, we need to take action.  Collectively, urgently.  This is far from an exhaustive list (and there is no quick win, silver bullet to be found) but just a few of the things that we can do to try and ensure that hybrid work does not result in the issues – and exclusion – of the past.  

  1. Take a zero tolerance approach to hybrid ‘banter’.  This is not that much different to the banter that flexible workers were subject to before the pandemic.  It’s the sarcastic comment, the raised eyebrow, the throwaway comment that implies you aren’t pulling your weight, might be doing the housework or sitting on the sofa whilst working remotely.  Undermining and insidious, there is no excuse – and everyone can take responsibility for calling this out when they see it.
  2. Talk to people about unconscious bias against flexible and hybrid workers.  Train people managers and meeting facilitators.  Include this into your existing training programmes.  We need to be aware of the potential for proximity bias, presence disparity, how in and out groups can emerge, and how for some remote workers out of sight really does lead to out of mind – especially when it comes to promotion and reward time.
  3. Talk to people about their early experiences of hybrid work, with a focus on the inclusion aspects of it.  Are any difficulties or challenges arising already?  One organisation I work for is holding focus groups with newly hybrid workers to identify their initial perspectives or concerns.  Don’t wait for problems to arise – get ahead of them now so that prompt can be taken on emerging issues.
  4. Train meeting facilitators in effective hybrid meetings.  They need to know how to create equality in the space, deliver opportunity for everyone to be heard and to contribute – whether in the office or at home.  In an effectively run hybrid meeting no one joining remotely should be marginalised. 
  5. Set up robust monitoring systems on pay, promotion and recognition to identify whether any differences are emerging between those who are more regularly in the office versus those more frequently at home. 
  6. Stand against presenteeism in its every form. Going into the office to be seen.  Managers asking people to go in to the office just in case or because they are there themselves.  Rewarding long hours cultures.  Expecting immediate responses.  Gut instinct performance assessments.  Digital presenteeism and leavism too. The performance of work helps no one – and further works against those who have other responsibilities.
  7. Stand against presence / office bias too in its every form.  Leaders and managers need to own this. There should be no circumstances in which decisions are made only by an in-person crowd.  Where meetings take place even if there’s a problem with remote colleagues joining. Where meetings don’t have a join remotely option. Where training is only available in-person. Look hard at where this might show up and make the necessary amendments now before the negative career implications begin.
  8. Promote every form of flexible work, from time location to Shared Parental Leave, to every single employee.  This stop’s being a woman’s issue when it is everyone’s issue. 

Without action we will end up with that predicted two track workforce.  The in-person worker idealised and recognised and rewarded, and the remote worker marginalised and demonised. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Thinking about hybrid offices

Last week I spoke at the CIPD conference on the subject of the hybrid office.  I called the presentation ‘beyond watercoolers’…. largely because I am tired of that particular, overused metaphor.  I was asked to think about what changes we need to make to office environments to fully enable hybrid work.   This blog post is a summary of that presentation.

In recent years it has been a common at HR conferences, especially when talking about future of work, to say that work is a thing that we do and not a place that we go. This comment can be traced back to a paper from the mid-1990s, but this idea only became close to realisation in March of 2020 – and even then for around half of the working population. We have had the ability to work more remotely for a long time, but this did not become reality until it was forced by crisis. And now that we knowledge workers can return the office our first thought seems to be….. how do we change the office– rather than, do we need it at all? Because if the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is that the location of work matters much less than we thought.

But first let’s deal first with the hybrid office.

We do need to adapt offices to support hybrid work. We need spaces that enable and encourage face-to-face, informal conversation. But this is about so much more than hanging around watercoolers, which is after all just a way of describing casual and unplanned interactions. We also need to support deeper interactions, more valuable interactions. Coming together with purpose. Our work spaces play a part in this. But – and we cannot overlook this, so do online spaces too.

The goal of the future office surely must be to create a place where employees can do their best work. Where they can be effective doing all forms of that work. We can say this should always have been the goal of our offices, but too often we had a one size fits all mentality. The hot desk, the open plan office, the cubicle – take it or leave it.

Instead of assumptions, we need to begin with talking to people – asking them what do you want to come into the office for? How do you want to work when you get there? We need to understand how people intend to use the office – and then what happens in practice as hybrid moves from something that is abstract to reality.

From a design point of view hybrid demands the office to have a variety of different spaces within it that can adapt to these different needs. Although one of the key ideas of hybrid is allowing people to focus on collaborative work whilst in the office and focused, independent work at home, in reality it will never be this neat.  So first of all we need to create spaces that support both.  Spaces for teams to spend time together, and places for people to spend time on Teams.  Large spaces for big groups and smaller spaces for 121s. 

Our design should begin with the principle of meaningful face-time (see my hybrid working model elsewhere on this blog).  We need spaces that support collaboration, networking, relationships and both intentional and accidental conversation.  We definitely need to include in the mix rooms that support hybrid meetings, including all the relevant technology (along with good facilitation) that can ensure these meetings are inclusive.

All of these elements necessitate new design and possible investment.  Some of these changes will be needed in the short term; others may only become known and needed as we introduce hybrid at scale and our understanding of it deepens. 

In my conference presentation I borrowed an idea (and a graphic) from Neil Usher, author of The Elemental Workplace.  Before the pandemic Neil discussed what makes a great workplace.  This included comfort, choice, inclusion. Somewhere to get a decent cup of coffee, store our things and have access to natural daylight. A sense of control over that space.  I suggest that nothing about these important elements of workplaces has changed post pandemic.  All of these things still matter in the hybrid world – and a lot more than we sometimes recognise. 

But of course in the hybrid world we cannot forget that we now have two work spaces – we have our home and we have the office.  We need each of these elements in both of these spaces too. We cannot focus just on office environments but need to ensure our employees can work effectively, comfortably and inclusively in both places. 

This leads me neatly to my next point…..

In my presentation I reflected on ideas from a 1990s academic paper in which the writers drew a distinction between work places and work spaces.  They defined a space as a physical space.   In contrast, a place is where we act – how that space is used.  Place includes digital spaces.  It is a broader definition; in this idea of workplace two people, both working from their respective homes, are still working in the same work place. 

Now, we add the home to this list.  Maybe in the future we will also see more third spaces like co-working hubs being included too. 

In a hybrid world I believe that we need to be careful of distinguishing between home and the office too much.  Because they are both about one place.  Digital, office, home…. But one organisation.  One purpose, vision or values. 

If we think only of redesigning offices we might be focusing on the wrong thing.  We need to think about it holistically.  Effectiveness in both places.  Ease of connectivity, connection with others, purpose and engagement.  In ALL our working places and spaces.  Maybe then we won’t be talking about flexible work, or hybrid work or even asking ‘where are you today’. 

A successful hybrid office will respond to the needs of those who use it, and will adapt as those needs evolve.  A successful hybrid workplace will connect people wherever and whenever they are working. It will have purpose and focus on contribution and outcomes, not hours at a desk.  A successful hybrid workplace will enable wellbeing, productivity and inclusion.  

It will also, probably inevitably, include a fair few watercoolers.

The three possible futures of hybrid work

I’ve been thinking about hybrid work.  Again.  About what are we seeing, so far.  About how people are feeling now it has moved from the abstract to the reality.  It is of course still early days and there remains much to learn.  But there are early warning signs that are already giving me cause for caution.

Tales of ‘banter’ about flexible working.  Banter of the ‘getting your washing done in between Zoom calls are you?’ variety.  I am hearing too of people wondering why they are going into the office at all as they are not finding any value from doing so.  Of managers insisting people come in on certain days, because they are in the office themselves, or ‘just in case’.   And of offices environments unchanged but expected to support very changed working practices.

I believe that the future of hybrid is not certain.  That we cannot assume that hybrid will endure, or that the case for flexibility is made.  Hybrid working is guaranteed to be the future of work. 

There are, in my opinion, three possible futures for flexibility:

  1. Hybrid as envisioned, as hoped for by employees. This is the form of hybrid that resulted from those very many surveys undertaken during the pandemic which indicated – consistently – that employees wanted to spend some of their time in the office and some from home.  This form of hybrid is the 2/3 day split, delivering what we hoped it might.  A reduction in commuting, greater work life balance, work mostly organised around whether tasks need to be completed in person or independently.
  2. Unrealised hybrid.  Hybrid that starts off with good intentions but increasingly fails to deliver upon its promises.  It becomes too complex, too messy, and hard to manage.  The ‘get back round the watercooler’ narrative becomes too strong.  The office and all its habits, draws us back in.  Monday-Friday dominates once again, and those that can perform this ideal worker norm reign supreme. 
  3. Predominantly remote hybrid.  We realise that even more work can be done from home than we first thought, that the need to spend time co-located with others has even within they hybrid model been overstated, that we need offices less and less. Slowly, work becomes ever more remote, and we find new ways to fulfil our need for social connection and to collaborate.  The extent to which this future is possible will to some extent rest with technology. 

The latter presents the greatest shift. Not just in work but in where and how we live, how we travel, what we own.  This stands in complete contrast with what we knowledge workers know best – the deeply held cultural norm that is the office.    

There may be additional possible futures that I cannot yet see or factors that I have not considered. Regardless, only time will which of these three (or more) possible futures will result.

Inverted E Letter
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