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
Image: Pexels.com

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
Image: Pexels.com

Hybrid Work. How is it going so far?

Over the last few months hybrid work has moved from the abstract, in many cases planned from home by former office dwellers, to reality.  As offices slowly return to life, we are beginning to understand what works, and what does not. 

So just how is it going so far?

There is one early challenge coming through loud and clear.  A question on more than a few minds of late is just what am I going into the office for anyway?  All of those very many surveys that took place during the pandemic were clear – people wanted to work from home more in the future but they wanted to go back to the office for some of the time too.  They wanted that social connection, to see their colleagues.  Or did they?  Increasingly I am talking to people who, now that the moment has come, don’t want to go into the office quite as often as those earlier surveys suggested they might.  Many people are quite content to work mostly remotely after all, and are actively seeking to minimise the need to go into the workplace.

This issue appears to be related to a second challenge  When people do go into the office, that thing that they are doing there they believe that they can do just as well from home – further compounded by the fact they often aren’t feeling that effective or efficient when they get there.  Why? Because some of those people that they would want to connect in person with are working from home.  After the commute, they are spending their time doing virtual work in a physical workplace – predominantly online meetings and emails.

In March 2020 when we went to work from home in the heart of the crisis, too many of us lifted and shifted the ways that we used to work in our offices into our homes.  Some of that stuff worked okay and some of it didn’t.  We learned to adapt – and learned new technologies and behaviours too.  Now, I believe we are doing the same in reverse – we are trying to lift and shift the ways that we have worked this last 18 months back into the office.  And it doesn’t fit. 

We need to learn new ways of working, all over again.  Fully office based work is different to fully remote which is different again to hybrid.  We are learning those subtleties and nuances in the moment. 

Consider some of this emerging hybrid wisdom (so far):

  • Unless there is a specific need for hybrid workers to be in the office, such as to provide a face to face service at a certain time, don’t mandate people to come in for set days or possibly even any days – unless there is value to be added from doing so.  Otherwise that ‘why am I here’ feeling will build and frustration will result. 
  • Think about meetings.  Meetings are all too often a problem regardless of where people are working – and this is a largely cultural issue.  In most organisations there are too many of them, they are too long, and they don’t achieve as much as they should with half of the attendees having no idea why they are there.  By tackling poor meeting cultures we can help to free people from the need to spend all their time talking to screens.  In turn this enables the bringing together of location and time flexibility – making hybrid truly optimal. Asynchronous work is part of that solution – the rest is about a focused effort towards addressing poor meeting culture.
  • It sounds like a neat solution to focus on meaningful face-time when in the office and independent work whilst at home – but this isn’t likely to be an option all of the time.  If for no other reason than one person’s office based, relationship focused day is another’s working from home one.  We need therefore to think about our offices spaces and provide solutions that support both maximising in-person collaborative work with spaces for quiet work too. 
  • Plenty of folk are having ‘we didn’t see that coming’ moments with hybrid, with issues arising that were not identified as potential problems.  Create space for people to raise these, and for managers in particular to explore them together. Schedule some hybrid work ‘how is it going for you’ feedback sessions with no fixed agendas – just let people come and share their experiences and how they are tackling any issues that arise. 
  • There are equality and inclusion concerns bubbling too, although these are largely theoretical – for now at least.  Will those who work from home more regularly experience career penalties or flex stigma?  Will we end up with offices full of men while our female employees from home more around their domestic labour?  Will remote work help open up the labour market to those who cannot work the traditional 9-5, office based role – or not?  Start looking for these issues now – and engage your people in the conversation.
  • Give people a reason to come into the office. If those connections aren’t naturally re-building, create them.  Free coffees, team lunches or events.  Help people to answer the question ‘why am I here?’ and find the in-office experience valuable.  And if you can’t answer that yourself – maybe there’s a message in that, too. 

Hybrid working at scale is new, so for a while it might be a little bit messy. This particular version of it, as we work around continuing Covid cases and all the challenges that brings, will perhaps be the messiest version we will encounter. Sharing our ‘how is it for you’ stories can benefit everyone. I’d love to know your experiences so far – so please do feel free to comment on this blog post.

The shaming of home and flexible workers

Earlier today I gave a quote to People Management magazine in response to an article about a drop off in remote work job advertisements. I said that I was concerned flexible working stigma would return with a vengeance. I didn’t realise how quickly I would be proved correct. 

Flexible working is associated with a range of stigma that can cause serious negative consequences for flexible workers.  There was plenty of research on this pre pandemic (check out the work of Professor Heejung Chung if academic papers are your thing). She found that 35% of all workers agreed with the statement that those who work flexibly create more work for others and 32% believed that those who worked flexibly had lower chances for promotion.  Other research found that people who requested flexible working were judged more negatively than those who did not – and that this judgement was particularly harsh when it came to people who wanted to work from home compared to time flexibility. 

Pre Covid working flexibly often gave rise to concerns – mostly unsubstantiated ones – that flexible workers are somehow less committed or motivated than their non-flexible counterparts and would be difficult to manage (for this read, might skive).  Add to this the career death that is part time work – the most common form of flexible working – and the fact that working remotely has been found to lead to fewer career opportunities and reduced financial rewards….and we have a toxic mix of bias, stigma and stereotypes.

During the pandemic some US research predicted that homeworking would stick.  They gave four reasons for this position, and I agreed with three of them.  The fourth, with which i disagreed, was that the stigma of flexible working had reduced.

I disagree.  I think it reduced temporarily while everyone was doing it, and while it was framed as a necessary sacrifice to reduce the spread of Covid-19.  Now, the ‘go back to the office’ narrative is in full swing.

We have seen homeworking referred to as an aberration, dangerous to your career, and a risk to the fortunes of Pret.  In the last few days working from home has been blamed for the HGV driver shortage (lazy civil servants working from home and not processing licences fast enough), referred to as ‘woke’ (don’t ask me) and then today the PM has apparently suggested that we should go back to the office or risk being gossiped about.  And finally today, Twitter tells me that the Conservative Party Chairman has told people to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’. 

Putting aside the fact that I believe Pelotons are entirely incompatible with taking part in a Zoom meeting, these flippant remarks lack any supporting evidence.  In fact research from before and during the pandemic shows consistent benefits from working flexibly, including increased productivity.  84% of people have said that they are at least as productive at home, if not more so, than they are in the office.

But this does not fit the lazy shirker mentality.  This does not fit the save the City landlords imperative.  Homeworkers have just become one more group to blame for things going wrong that are nothing to do with them.

And yet these comments are heard by employees, by young people entering the workforce, by managers and leaders.  They will shape opinions and behaviour.

We have the chance, with hybrid working, to tackle some of our big challenges about work.  We have the potential to reshape and rethink.  To break away from much that was problematic about the old models.  Instead we run the risk of returning to old ways to exclude and marginalise people. 

We need to stop shaming home and flexible workers.  We need to challenge and call out every act of bias and stigma, every untruth and every piece of banter. 

Because if we do not, the 9-5, the Monday to Friday (add your favourite type of commute) and the office is the future of work, as well as the past.

Hybrid working: where did it all go wrong?

It’s late 2024.  Everyone is in the office today.  And every day. Occasionally someone remembers the great hybrid working experiment.  How it started so well, and then crashed and burned.  It was a shame really, people would say, around the watercooler.  It could have made all the difference perhaps. It was nice not commuting every day, and being able to have time for productive, focused work without the distractions of the office environment.  It was good to have more autonomy and flexibility, and a better work life balance.  A few companies made it work for them, and getting a role with one is now seen as the ultimate career win. 

Hybrid was good, while it lasted, which wasn’t that long at all.  So where did it all go wrong?

I was recently reminded of the concept of the pre-mortem (thanks Kay).  Where we assume that the thing we are trying to do has failed, and then try and figure out why that was.  This can help us to identify our threats, our weaknesses, the problems we haven’t noticed yet or properly attended to.  So if we do get to 2024 and hybrid is a distant memory, this much promised future of work already assigned to the past as temporary aberration, just what did go wrong?

Hybrid Work – reasons for failure

Slippage: it all started well but there were just one too many ‘can you just come in even though you were going to work from home’ conversations and three months in everyone was essentially full time office based again.  The habit of the office, so ingrained, was just too hard to beat. 

Managers who undermine it: too many managers didn’t really believe in hybrid, insisted their team came into the office when they did, mandated attendance on certain days and generally made it too difficult to work remotely.  So everyone ended up back in the office. 

Inclusion: or rather exclusion.  Hybrid working led to reduce career outcomes for those working remotely, women working from home more than their male colleagues and preferential treatment of those who came into the office more regularly.  Flexibility stigma became rampant, with constant jokes and comments about those who wanted to work from home. 

We mandated set office days / didn’t mandate set office days: no one knew what was the right thing to do when hybrid began, and we got it wrong. 

Terrible meetings: meetings get worse not better, with hybrid meetings leading to poor employee voice, exclusion and such poor experiences everyone gave up and has to go into the office every time something was discussed. (See also ‘slippage)

New starters: it proves too difficult to induct people effectively into the organisation and help them to learn.  This was especially problematic for early career professionals.  Induction had to flip to full time in the office for them and the people training them. 

Team conflict: cliques developed on certain days as people came into the office on the same day as their friends, strengthening some bonds and weakening others. Arguments raged between the hybrid haves and have nots, with those more often in the office feeling unfairly treated.  No amount of online Zoom quizzes could fix the issue. 

Reluctance to attend the office: remote workers could not see the point in travelling to work to spend the day in online meetings that they could do from home, and did anything they could to stay at home.  Offices were empty save for the non-hybrid workers and managers became frustrated, mandating in person attendance.   

It didn’t live up to the hype: everyone said that they wanted hybrid when they were in the middle of the pandemic, as it seemed like a way to hang on to something that might help improve their lives and some of the stuff that they disliked about work (and getting to work).  Only the work day got longer, no one got the benefits they hoped for, it became even more difficult to manage in reality and everyone gave up, filled with disillusionment.

It lived up to the hype (too much): when everyone said that they wanted to work from the office some of the time because they wanted to see colleagues whilst working from home the rest of the time, they didn’t mean it.  Not that many people like their colleagues very much, and they only said that as they thought they would never got 100% remote, leading to a range of unintended consequences.  (See ‘reluctance to attend the office’).

The offices weren’t up to it: the offices of the pre-Covid days weren’t designed for the sort of meaningful facetime that hybrid workers need to focus on when they are co-located.  They also weren’t designed for joining online meetings from the desk.  Not having the right spaces for collaboration and communication caused too many challenges, so defaulting to the old ways of working seemed like the only option.

We didn’t do asynchronous working: when we went remote in 2020 we lifted and shifted our old ways of working into our homes.  We tried to do the same with hybrid (the 9-5, everything based around meetings).  Just about sustainable when everyone worked remotely, this turned into a disaster when some people worked in different ways, and we failed to adapt to technologies that could enable better approaches. We didn’t think about disrupting time of work as well as place. 

Productivity: it tanked.  Managers didn’t know what was going on, employees were skiving all over the place, and performance just could not be managed effectively in a hybrid team. Employees too found it difficult to manage their schedules and workloads effectively, leading to stress and tension between employees and managers. 

Communication: it also tanked.  Those working remotely were out of the loop.  Information was known by those in the office, or those with certain relationships.  Knowledge was unevenly shared with people depending on where they were and when.  Communication was not seen as a central activity of a hybrid team, nor a shared responsibility. 

Wellbeing: the complexities of remote work of Zoom fatigue, blurred boundaries and longer working days were not solved, they merely shifted into something new.  Even more online meetings with added complexities, autonomy reduced, we added back in commuting… and employees felt under even more pressure on their remote working days to be digitally present. 

The pre-mortem requires us to think about which of these are most likely, which of these are the most problematic and might derail the new thing completely, and which of these we can or cannot prevent.  There are some items on this list that I instinctively don’t believe will be the case – but this may well be a symptom of my own beliefs and biases.  Overall, having compiled this list I am struck by how long it is.  How much might be against us, in this attempt to do something new and different. The future, as they say, is already here.  But can we sustain it?   

There will I am sure be potential problems or reasons for failure I have not considered here.  Please do add your thoughts into the comments.  What we identify today, we may be able to address tomorrow. 

6 signs you are suffering from Hybridteeism

Today I went into the office.  I had one main reason for doing so; I wanted to catch up with some colleagues and thought we’d benefit from just hanging out in the same space.  My other, less positive reason though?  I hadn’t been in for a week or so and thought I probably ought to.  I could not really say why.  I guess no one wants to be that person do they?   The one that everyone thinks never bothers coming to the office. 

You have heard of presenteeism and leavism. Are we going to see yet another form of performative work in this new hybrid world?

  1. You go into the office even though all your daily meetings are online and there is nothing that you specifically need to do there. 
  2. You feel like you ought to go into the office because you are worried people will think you are avoiding people / avoiding coming in / shirking from home.
  3. You go into the office even though no one that you need to collaborate with is there, and you spend the day sending emails and replying to messages (that you could have done from home).
  4. You have set yourself a minimum standard of ‘days I need to be in the office’ which is not based on the actual work you need to do and where you can do it best.
  5. You are worried that if you don’t go to the offices on a regular basis it will have negative implications for your career. 
  6. You go in the office because your boss is in. 

This is a slightly tongue in cheek blog post – and yet underneath it there are some hard wired beliefs about work and what we have to do to be seen as a good worker.  Hybrid is not the answer to everything, despite the current hype. It does however have the power to improve some of the old problems associated work work and working lives. But not if we just create a whole new range of associated problems and brand new flex stigmas…. of which hybridteeism* is potentially one.

*patent pending 🙂

Hybrid meetings – the next #HybridWorking challenge

Meetings are always a contentious topic in the workplace.  There is a reason that the statement ‘that meeting could have been an email’ is an internet joke.   The situation only declined during the so-called ‘great working from home experiment’ when a long day on Zoom became our norm.  What was previously problematic about meetings in the office was lifted and shifted into our homes, with the added bonus of shouting at people to mute or unmute, plus the potential to spy into our colleagues bedrooms.  I have yet to talk to an organisation that has positively shifted their meeting culture during the pandemic – and now we have hybrid meetings to deal with too.

There are problems with hybrid meetings.  First of all is something called presence disparity.  You might have experienced this even if you haven’t heard the term.  It is what occurs when we join a meeting as a remote participant when most of the other participants are together in a room.  You can’t see half the attendees or the flip chart, you can’t get your voice heard and if you are really unlucky everyone forgets that you are even there.  And you don’t get to enjoy the biscuits.

We tend to be biased towards people we are in close proximity to.  We also tend to attribute positive behavioural traits to people we can see working – in a way that might work against those who aren’t as visible as others. This is another potential issue in a hybrid meeting situation.

There are issues about voice and fairness in hybrid meetings – people being able to get heard and put their views across in the same way as those who are co-located can.  There is also a critical issue for longer term hybrid working; concerns are rising about how hybrid work might cause other equality issues.  For example, people who live with disabilities may find that that hybrid work can open up opportunities for them in the labour market – but if they are always the remote participant in the meeting, how do we ensure they have an equal voice?  We also know that there is a greater desire from women to work from home more than their male colleagues – largely because they intend to structure their work around childcare and domestic responsibilities.  How might a culture of hybrid meetings therefore further reduce their visibility and all the associated issues this brings?

What else happens in hybrid meetings? People start to chat before the remote meeting opens. The conversation begins over the coffee, or carries on in the corridor after the meeting finishes. Visual aids in the room aren’t accessible to every participant. Side conversations can’t be heard by everyone. Body language, harder to read in an online meeting, is further reduced if remote participants can’t see everyone in the physical room. These issues risk making meetings harder than they were before the pandemic – something none of us want.

Can you have hybrid meetings?  Yes.  But in my opinion you should only do so if you have a bloody good facilitator who is skilled at ensuring equality in the space and understand the biases and issues that can arise.  You should only have a hybrid meeting if you can be sure that everyone who attends can have an equal voice and fully participate.  Only have hybrid meetings if you provide training to meeting chairs on how to facilitate a hybrid meeting properly.

Only have a hybrid meeting for the right type of meeting. If the purpose of the meeting is mostly providing information then hybrid can work (although so might not having a meeting at all and using another medium entirely). If you want a deep discussion, need to reach agreement or converge on meaning – it might not be the best solution.

If you can’t get through this gates or guarantee these criteria can be me, defaulting online is better for everyone. 

For more practical tips on hybrid meetings take a look at this guidance from the CIPD that they kindly asked me to contribute to.

What work, where?

We all know how to office.  In the last year and a half we have learned how do to remote.  Now we have to learn all over again; how to do hybrid. 

This involves thinking differently about what work we do, and where we do it.  We are used to just dealing with what drops into the inbox or talking to whoever we happen to bump into around the long fabled watercooler.  But if we are to be successful hybrid workers we need to think more intentionally about structuring and planning our working days and weeks.  Working flexibly, in time or location, allows greater personalisation of work.  We can tailor it to our personal circumstances but also our internal rhythms and energies, in a way we cannot when forced into the regimented 9-5, office fits all situation.  We can link our working time and practices to our personal productivity. 

Over the course of the pandemic the questions that people have asked me have evolved over time.  The current big question is this one – how do we make sure we can be effective and productive when we are splitting our time working in different places.  There are two elements to this planning and organisation requirement  The first, is how are we effective as individuals.  The second, is how are we effective as teams.  This blog post addresses the first question. 

These questions about productivity in a hybrid world  have arisen so often in my recent conversations I have written a series of prompts in the form of self-coaching questions to aid reflection and planning.  Feel free to reflect on some of these yourself or share them with others. 

  • What time of the day to you feel most energised? What days of the week do you feel most energised?
  • What time of the day do you feel most creative?
  • When do you feel tired or lacking in energy?  What makes you feel tired or lacking in energy?
  • When do you do your best work?
  • Where do you do your best work?
  • Where or when do you have your best ideas?
  • Who are you with when you do your best work?
  • When does your body tell you it needs to rest?  How do you know when you need to rest – what signals do you receive?
  • How often do you need to take a break? How long does a break need to be for you to feel properly rested?
  • How long can you work before your lose your focus?
  • What working practices support your wellbeing and energy?
  • Where do you waste time? Does this happen in more in one place or time than another?
  • What influences your personal productivity, positively or negatively?  How does your productivity change over the day, weak, or even the time of year?

Use these reflections to consider what are your most productive, creative or ‘peak’ hours.  What opportunities do you have to align your working hours and location with your personal productivity? What do these reflections tell you about how you should best structure your hybrid schedule?

Also think about the different aspects of your role, and the different duties and activities you undertake. 

  • What are the outputs you need to achieve and by when?
  • How do you measure your performance?  What is a productive day for you?
  • Do your productive times differ, in the office compared to at home?
  • Which of these are best done in the office or co-located with colleagues, and which are best done independently?
  • Which tasks need focus with no distractions?
  • What tasks require collaboration? 
    • Does collaboration mean in-person, or can it also mean online?
  • Which activities improve or are enhanced from being together?
  • What tasks or activities can only be done in the office environment?  What tasks can be done anywhere?
  • What work can be undertaken asynchronously (at any time, regardless of when others are working)?
  • Which tasks and activities can be completed at home or in the office more quickly?

If you have found it difficult to answer any of these reflective questions, consider keeping a reflective journal for a day or two.  Note down when you stop and start tasks and your perception of your energy and focus levels and what activities work best in which location of work.   Look out for any patterns that might emerge.

If you are thinking about your personal productivity and hybrid schedule, or helping others to do the same, I hope this helps!

Asking for flex

A slightly different blog post from me.  This one is for the folk who want to work flexibly, and yet, even after the last 18 months of successful remote working, are finding it difficult to make the case or get the access. 

Before the pandemic the progress towards flexible working was descried by the CIPD as ‘glacial’.  We know that many people couldn’t access flexible working, or the particular form of it that they wanted and needed the most.  The reasons behind this were many and complex.  There was what I call the Homes Under the Hammer myth – the idea that those pesky homeworkers would just skive and spend all day watching daytime television if permitted some autonomy.  Then there was the old standby; if I offer it to one person I will have to offer it to everyone (Newsflash – that might not actually be a problem).  Combined with the desire of some managers to micro-manage, to want everyone where they can see them, and then with an added dash of flexibility stigma on top, we have a toxic mix of beliefs and myths that all led into the end result: a lack of flexibility.

During last few days my Twitter timeline has shown me that, as expected, the old narratives are starting up again.  Get back to the office if you want a promotion.  Get back to the office if you want to innovate or show your commitment.  And my own personal favourite so far – stop asking for flexible working if you are a women because you will deter employers from hiring other women. 

But whilst I can criticise these attitudes, and I can complain that we are starting up all the old ways that didn’t even work in the old days, that does nothing for the individual with the unwilling manager or unwelcoming employer. So, for those who want to work flexibly and whose company is not embracing hybrid (or flex in general), here is my advice.

Flexible woman doing yoga in studio
Image: Pexels.com
  • Do make a formal request.  You can ask informally for flexible working, but I believe that this is one of those times when it is better to follow a formal process.  The employer is then required to respond in a given timeframe and follow a set process – including a list of statutory reasons that the request can be denied.  You are creating, should it be required, a paper trail. 
  • Think about your manager. Make a list of what they are likely to be worried about if you work flexibly or in a hybrid way, regardless of whether you think those worries are reasonable.  Then in your letter of application (and there is no reason this cannot be long and detailed) set out every single way that you will mitigate these issues.  Pre-empt their objections and head them off. 
  • State in your application that you will be willing to undertake a trial period if your request cannot be immediately accepted.  Suggest a timeframe over which success can be properly assessed. If a trial period is refused, ask why.
  • Take a colleague or trade union representative with you to any formal meetings, or ask for a HR representative to be present to take notes of the discussions.  It is more evidence for the paper trail – and HR should ensure the manager is sticking to policy and the law.
  • Set out the benefits.  Some managers and organisations see flexible working as primarily something that the employee benefits from, therefore assigning themselves as having ‘lost’ something by saying yes.  Include in your application how the organisation and the manager themselves will benefit if you work flexibly.
  • Don’t forget to include mitigations.  From time to time a flexible working request will lead to knock on implications for others, even if it is simple as changing the time or date of a regular meeting right through to the recruitment of a job share partner.  Show that you have thought about this; show how these changes can be managed and the part you will play in doing so. 
  • Appeal if you don’t get an agreement at the first stage of the process.  Sometimes people don’t want to do this, and I understand why.  Worries about rocking the boat or putting yourself in the firing line are common. But it gives you access to another decision maker who might just be more open minded.  If the request is being unreasonably denied, it might just surface that too.
  • Finally…. in your request ask for exactly what flexibility you really want. All of it. Don’t compromise by asking only for what you think the organisation might tolerate.  Compromise through your discussions meetings if you need to.  You know what they say. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

None of these tips will necessarily guarantee a successful outcome.  For those who remain unable to access the flexible working they want and need, the only other solution may be to join the ‘great resignation’, and find someplace…… a little more 2021.  Good luck.

Trust, again

Trust has been in the HR headlines again of late.  New research suggesting that, despite a year and a half of remote work for a significant swathe of the working population, we still don’t trust people and want them back in the office pronto. 

Where we can see them.

Where we can control them. Make sure that they are working.

Or so we pretend.

These surveys about trust align with own my anecdotal information and the conversations I have been having with people of late, both IRL and on social media.  Reports of people being told, sometimes in direct contrast to organisation wide new policies and published ways of working, to come back to the office.  Come back to the 9-5. Because this is ‘better’.

The promised mantra that ‘work is a thing that you do, not a place that you go’ remains unfulfilled.

The question arises: just what are we so afraid of?

Just what do these managers think that employees will do, if we give them autonomy?  If we give them the ability to manage their own time, to have choice, to work asynchronously?

If the evidence of the so-called ‘great working from home experiment’ is anything to go by, the answer is…. they will work quite hard, perhaps overwork, and their productivity will increase.  There has been no epidemic of skiving, this last 18 months.

Why are we so unbelieving, still, about remote work?

Why do we still see those people who want to work from home as less committed, less motivated, less career orientated or ambitious?

Why are we so unwilling, still, to simply trust people?

Why do we so badly want to reassert the ways of the office, the old normal?   

Somewhere, the ghost of Fredrick Winslow Taylor must be smiling proudly to himself, as we continue his work, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.

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.