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.