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. 

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