About hrgem

HR type. Fellow of the CIPD. Writer, speaker and blogger on all things HR and work. Author of the 'Putting Social Media to Work' book series. Believes that HR is all about doing good people stuff. Blogs at www.hrgemblog.com. Tweets as @HR_Gem.

The fragility of flexible work

This week we have see the tumultuous events taking place over on Twitter following the Musk takeover. One of his first actions was to end remote work, telling employees that they were now expected to be in the office full time if they were physical able to do so, and those that did not turn up in person would be deemed to have resigned. He also stated that only he would approve requests for homeworking.

Many Twitter employees have worked remotely for years. During the pandemic they responded to the emerging desire for increased remote work by telling employees that they could work from home ‘forever‘.

Musk has long been a critic of remote work. He’s been quoted as saying those that work from home are just pretending to work – a common flex falsehood. I’ve tweeted my thoughts about why men (and it is almost always men) like Musk rage against remote; it is usually about control, power, and bias. His actions however serve to highlight an important point: the fragility of flexible work.

Those who have access to flexible work may often do so at the discretion of a particular manager or leader. Prior to the pandemic flexible working adoption was progressing at a snail’s pace. In the UK, requests for flexibility were typically made through the statutory process. An agreed flexible working arrangement therefore became a contractual right. Now, with the advent of hybrid working, many arrangements are informal or part of experiments or pilots. When arrangements are informal or situated within a policy framework, they can be changed or removed at will – or on the whim of a manager.

It may look like in the last couple of years we have made progress around the flexible work agenda. In some respects we have – more people are working remotely and this is expected to continue. We are also seeing increasing conversations about time flexibility too. But, as the recent Twitter example tells us, flexible work is fragile. There is certainly the potential of a ‘great reversal’ – what has been done can be undone, and continued flexibility is not certain.

Flexible work needs to be good work

Flexible work needs to be good work.  It should go without saying… but it doesn’t.

Flexible work has a history of challenges.  Part time work is sometimes referred to as ‘career death’ leading to pay and progression stagnation. It can also lead to exclusion on a practical level.  The meetings when you aren’t in (unless of course you join anyway even though it isn’t your working day).  The stuff no one remembers to update you on.

Then there is there is the issue of work intensification. Trying to fit in what is really a full time job into part time hours. Or working harder just to prove that you are still as committed and motivated even though you want or need to work flexibly.  To overcome the bias and the prejudice.  Remote work brings its own challenges.  Longer working days are a problem for some, for others, blurred boundaries, reduced work life balance and increased work/home conflict.  It’s also been found to have a negative impact on progression and earnings.

Let’s not forget the gender issues too.  The fact that women who work flexibly generally end of doing more of the domestic labour and childcare; as Professor Heejung Chung says in her recent book, flexible working all too often results in self-exploitation of the person undertaking it.

The pandemic has moved the dial on flexible work, especially in relation to remote work.  Interest in other forms of work flexibility, such as a four day week or non-linear working day, is rising too.  But if flexible work is also to be good work, we need to do more than implement them and hope for the best. The four day week for example is an admirable aim (who wouldn’t want to work a little less?), but brings with it real risk of creating a new range of problems. The caveat for implementation is often the requirement to maintain productivity, the burden of which is likely to fall on employees unless organisations make significant change to ways of working or technology. And if they don’t, the only way to compress 5 days’ work into 4 is to work harder and with greater intensity.

We know the demand for flexible work is high. We know employees are prepared to move jobs to secure it.  But we need not to just provide flexible work, but ensure that it good work too. 

Good flexible work will allow employees to progress their careers just the same as those who work in a traditional way.

Good flexible work will not lead to reduced wellbeing.

Good flexible work will not place excessive pressure on employees or result in burnout.

Good flexible work should not be hard to find, or difficult to gain access to.

Good flexible work will be provided on trust, without the need to prove anything.

Good flexible work does not come with remote supervision built in.

Good flexible work will provide employees with autonomy and choice.

Good flexible work will allow a better work life balance – not a reduced one.

Good flexible work considers time and place.

Good flexible work is something we should all work towards.

On remote monitoring

The CIPD have released a new report that considers perspectives on the remote monitoring of remote workers.  They found that more than half of managers agreed that there was at least one reason to monitor employees, including identifying the risk of burnout, the amount of laptop time per day, employees working outside of the normal working day or to track billable hours. 

Image: Pixals.com

On the same day I read this new report, I also read this, taken from a paper on remote work (or telecommuting as the academic folk like to call it): ‘it appears that management apprehensions about loss of control… are currently the pacing factors in the adoption of telecommuting’ (Jack Nilles).   This paper was written in 1988.

As I have said before on this blog, reluctance toward remote and flexible work has always been rooted in attitudes and beliefs rather than practicalities or technologies.  We are hard wired to prefer the status quo, as well as to believe that our own experiences and perceptions are the objective truth. For some managers this objective truth is that the office is best and flexible work is a risk.

The desire to monitor employees is rooted in this same reluctance. Too often, leaders want to monitor their remote employees because they don’t trust them not to take advantage, they believe that employees will not be as productive (what Microsoft calls ‘productivity paranoia’, complex fears about loss of status and control – or maybe just a lack of skills. 

The problems with monitoring are many.  It is a clear signal of distrust. It works directly against one of the main motivators that many employees have – autonomy.  Perhaps even more problematically, what we are able to monitor is not a good measure of very much at all.  It is a blunt tool, capable only of measuring faux productivity, and faux engagement.  Whilst some jobs can indeed be monitored through key performance indicators or easily quantifiable measures, this is not an option for a significant amount of knowledge work.  So instead we end up measuring something else instead – just like some of the measures in the CIPD report.  Time spent online. Time spent in meetings. Time spent working out of hours. Emails written and sent.

No mention here, of value, contribution, outcome, or of creativity, innovation or learning. Time spent connection, sharing or building relationships.  And despite the report suggesting some manages are really only trying to check up on employee wellbeing, employees may well feel, with some justification, that this is not really about their wellbeing at all, but a new form of heavy handed supervision.  

Some organisations will make the decision to monitor remote workers regardless of the (few) benefits or risks to engagement and morale.  Where monitoring does take place we must ensure that it is transparent, fair, and above all, that it is actually measuring what we want and need to monitor.* 

Otherwise, it’s nothing more than micromanagement.

*Yes, you should have a policy that sets out what you will do, how you will do it, who has access to the information and how it will be used. Employee privacy concerns must also be taken into account, and protocols put in place to ensure that monitoring is not overly intrusive or likely to cause harm. This is the minimum standard.

Where is all the part time work?

I undertook a highly unscientific piece of ‘research’ recently.  I took a look through a big old list of jobs on LinkedIn.  Some of these were jobs that LinkedIn thought I might be interested in based on my profile, so there will have been a bias towards work in HR or Higher Education.  I also took a look at jobs in my local area on popular job boards. 

Something very clear stood out.  There were lots of references to hybrid and remote work (good). But there were very few (if any) part time opportunities in professional roles. Not so good.

We have, for the most part, realised over the last couple of years that it is entirely possible for knowledge workers to work from somewhere other than an office.  We have seen the myths and misconceptions about work and place exposed for what they are, and a significant amount of organisations have adopted hybrid working approaches as a result.

So why aren’t we similarly recognising that work doesn’t need to be full time?

Although the four day week is making some progress (something which I will confess I have my concerns about) we are still not seeing enough progress around part time work.  For years, part time work has been seen as career death, leading to pay and progression stagnation.  A particular form of flexibility stigma, if you aren’t putting your nose to the grindstone for 37+ hours a week, you can’t possibly be [insert relevant bias of your choice]. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Where is all the part time work?  And why is part time work so often only of the low paid variety?  I can find part time work in retail, in hospitality, or in caring professions, but I can barely identify any in my own profession should I be looking for a new gig.

This problem is far from new.  But just like we didn’t have to all traipse to the office five days a week like most of us did pre-pandemic, why can’t we recognise that you can do awesome work in two, three, or four days a week?

If we want better working lives and positive change for the future, we cannot focus only on meeting the demand for remote work.  We cannot only separate the idea of work and place.  We have to also separate the idea of work from 37 hours a week.   HR professionals in particular have to challenge every hiring manager who opts for default full time recruitment.  Otherwise we are missing out on crucial talent and denying opportunities to those who cannot or do not wish to work on a full time basis.

We are experiencing a remote work revolution. The hybrid work era has begun. Maybe it’s now time to fight for the part time work era too.

Barriers to remote and hybrid work: productivity paranoia and lack of trust

Microsoft have released a new report in their excellent series in work trends.  One of the headlines tells us something that we already know: managers have a trust problem when it comes to working from home.  Microsoft refer to it as ‘productivity paranoia’.  They found that 85% of leaders believe that shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.  Their research also found that while 87% of employees say that they are productive, only 12% of leaders have full confidence that this is true.

This is, and always has been, one of the most significant barriers to flexible forms of work.

I am currently working on a doctorate in remote work.  I’ve got a little obsessed of late in tracking down old thought pieces and articles on remote work.  Did you know that the very idea of remote work (then defined as ‘teleworking’) was first identified in the mid-1970s?  Before any of the tech that currently supports it even existed?  Charles Handy wrote about it too, in his 1984 book about the future of work.  He argued then that technology might well mean the end of the ‘gathered’ organisation, replacing it with a dispersed one.  There’s been plenty of other predictions along the way too, about just how many of us would be working remotely at certain points in the future.  The earliest I can track the conference favourite ‘work is a thing that we do, not a place that we go’, is 1995.

And yet none of these predictions came true until homeworking was forced upon us by global events.  Throughout that time we have seen many signals of this lack of trust.  From business leaders to politicians, a strong cry that office is best, often with a does of flexshaming thrown in for good measure.  We have seen too, organisations manifesting their lack of trust in remote monitoring, leading to digital presenteeism, hybridteeism or ‘performance theatre’.

There is a significant amount of evidence that employees are productive when they work remotely.  I know, I have read all the papers.  But this isn’t about evidence.  It is about belief, and it is about bias.  The evidence will never convince those that have a deep seated belief that remote work is problematic, or that do not trust the people that work for them.

Microsoft argue that ‘productivity paranoia risks making hybrid work unsustainable’.  I agree with them.  A lack of trust seeps into the entire employment relationship.  When managers have productivity paranoia, it leaks into the way that they behave with and towards their people. It leads to poor management decision making, employee disengagement, and ultimately, retention issues. 

This tension, that has existed for as long as remote working has, is not going away anytime soon.  This might be the biggest challenge that hybrid work faces in the months and years to come.

Choose Life

As we all know that the Covid-19 pandemic forced many knowledge workers to work from home – as many as 700 million people across Europe, many of whom were doing so for the first time.  It led to a quick, consistent and very loud employee demand for more flexible forms of work in the future.

But remote and hybrid work isn’t the only things we have been talking about this last couple of years.  We have also talked of the ‘great resignation’, or as others call it, ‘the great rethink’.  Microsoft research found that employees had a new ‘worth it equation’ when it comes to what they will sacrifice or put up with, in the name of work.  More latterly, the idea of ‘quiet quitting’ has made headlines.  The idea that employees will do the minimum that they can to keep their roles, refusing to go above or beyond or make discretionary effort.

On the fact of it, they might look like different stories, but they are all different sides of the same coin. 

For some time now, I have believed that ‘I want to work from home more’ is surface stuff.  Underneath, is ‘I want a different life’.   Recent research from Gartner alludes to this too, finding that employees are seeking more purpose and meaning, and in particular rethinking the place that work should have in their lives.  ‘I want to work from home’ is part of it but not all of it.  As I have said in earlier blog posts, if you are only offering employee’s some location flex, you are not going to be satisfying all their needs.  We need to develop new Employee Value Propositions that take into account all of these different elements if we want to attract, engage, and retain in the now of work.

Employees aren’t choosing to quiet quit, resign greatly, start a portfolio career, have a flexcation, work remotely, work flexibly or work abroad.

They are choosing life.

It’s not about the days

Early on in the pandemic, when the idea of hybrid work began to emerge, the conversation was all about the days. The ratio between office and remote.  For a short while it seemed that we’d settle at 3/2.  A concession from leaders that not all work needed to take place in the workplace, and that employees could work from home for some of the time.

As time went on, this idea seemed a little less settled after all.  Surveys showed that employees wanted more.  Pre-pandemic, when the adoption of flexible working was described as glacial and managers repeatedly turned down requests for homeworking in favour of face to face supervision, two days a week at home would have been a dream scenario for many employees.  But not now. 

Employees want more remote time.  They have resisted the return to work.  Sometimes by challenging their employer, sometimes by simply not doing so despite company demands, and sometimes by voting with their feet.  It seems that employees want to attend the workplace – just not all that often and certainly not as often as their bosses want them to.

Even Apple, a desirable employer to many, found themselves on the end of an employee revolt (and resignations) when they declared a three day office week with designated days. They have relented a little – but not enough for some.  Now you still need to come in three days a week, but (whoo hoo) employees get to choose one of them!

Here’s the thing. If you are focusing on how many days employees should be spending in the office, you are focusing on the wrong things.  If you are only doing location flex (hybrid) then you are missing part of the puzzle.  If you are mandating days and office time (unless you have an evidence based reason that is going to fly with your workforce rather than a vague ‘we think it is good for culture) then you failing to understand the reason that people are demanding flexible forms of work. 

There’s another problem with the fixed days approach. It assumes one size will fit all. In anything but the smallest and simplest organisation this will not hold true. Complex situations (and this whole hybrid thing is complex) cannot be addressed with easy responses. The more different roles and functions are involved, the larger the organisation or the more complex, the more hybrid solutions need to adapt to take into the context.

Above all, ‘I want to work from home’ means more than what it suggests on the surface.  For many, it really means ‘I want a different life’.  Employees want autonomy – as much as they can get.  They want time flexibility too, with many rating this just as important as location flex. They want more meaning and purpose. They want more time. They want choice.

If all you do is allow employees limited flexibility, then you will only reap limited benefits.  Mandating days, especially without a clear rationale, is just faux flexibility.  And this isn’t going to satisfy the wants of top talent. We need to move beyond this debate, and look broader, more holistically. We need to experiment and learn, respond and adapt to this shifting situation.

There is more than one answer to these questions.

Organisational culture in hybrid and remote teams – steps to success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOSO (Fear Of Skiving Off)

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

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

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

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

Working from home = Fear of Skiving Off.

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

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

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

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

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

Using anchor days to support hybrid work

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

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

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

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

Image: pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring perspectives – questions to ask

What is going well about hybrid work for you personally?

What is going well about hybrid work for your team?

What is going well about hybrid work for the organisation?

What is not working well for your personally?

What is not going well for your team?

What is not going well for the organisation?

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

  • For you
  • For your team
  • For the organisation

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

  • For you
  • For your team
  • For your organisation

What barriers are we experiencing to effective hybrid work?

What steps can we take to address these barriers?

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

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

Questions focusing on specific risk areas:

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

What more can we do to make hybrid work inclusive?

What more can we do to make hybrid work healthy?

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

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

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

Healthy hybrid: it’s complicated

Wellbeing and remote work has a complex relationship. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: pexels.com

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

Key questions about wellbeing and remote work include:

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

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

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

Hybrid Work: still more questions than answers

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

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

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

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

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

Managing hybrid

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

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

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

Trying to be across every detail.

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

Requiring people to come into the office just because.

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

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

Meetings as the primary vehicle for getting stuff done.

Training in a classroom as the default for learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privilege

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

Confirmation bias

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

Status

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

Fear

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

Trust (or lack of)

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

The lazy worker stereotype

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

Sunk costs

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

Hard wired beliefs

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

Poor management

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

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

As it ever did.

Radical autonomy

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

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

I want to propose something else. 

Radical autonomy.

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

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

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

We need a mindset, not a framework.

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

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

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

Intentionally, hybrid

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

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

Time together.

Communication.

Being in the office.

Time management.

Organisational culture.

Onboarding.

Collaboration. 

Social connection and relationship building. 

Team cohesion. 

Meetings. 

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

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

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

Intentionality. It’s a hybrid thing.

The perfect ratio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid work and recruitment

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

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

Image: Pexel.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flexible Work: opinions as fact.

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

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

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

We desperately need more people to understand this. 

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

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

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

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

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