Making hybrid work
Reading Time 10 mins
Whilst some organisations continue to uphold the mantra of “working from home is the new normal and we’re never going back,” others are voicing that “we want our people to be back at their desks”. And then there's the other group, who see benefits from both perspectives - those who are big supporters of a hybrid model.
In this article, James Rosenegk seeks to explore a better understanding of “hybrid working” and what leaders can do to optimise effectiveness in this way or working.
The term “hybrid working” has been used with regularity during the pandemic as organisations began to realise that there are some benefits to a mixed workplace model. By that, the advantages to allowing colleagues to spend some time working at home and some time working at the office. Benefits like increased work-life balance, reduced travel time, flexible working hours.
But there are also disadvantages: lack of access to colleagues through ad-hoc encounters and conversations, challenges to collaboration when working remotely, limited access to some corporate resources.
Is the solution just to go back to pre-pandemic habits? Probably not. So how do we make this work?
Place and time
In her recent HBR article, Lynda Gratton suggests that we need to consider our options on the two axes of place and time:
Place: should work be place constrained (namely, in the office) or place un-constrained (work anywhere)?
Time: is work time constrained (requiring synchronous working) or time unconstrained (being asynchronous)?
But it’s just not that easy, is it? Depending upon factors such as type of work, knowledge and experience, need for collaboration, home situation, our decisions and the right choices might differ.
For example, a new starter might need high levels of mentoring, introduction to other colleagues across the business, a solid grounding in an understanding of how the business operates. Some of this could be achieved remotely (place-unconstrained) and off-line (asynchronous) but a sizeable amount of this insight and connection is best realised from face-to-face and real-time interaction (place constrained and synchronous).
Whereas an experienced accounts clerk might thrive in a remote, out of normal-hours working environment (place unconstrained, asynchronous).
In considering these options, Gratton goes on to identify 4 key challenges that need attention and consideration when designing the hybrid workplace. They are:
- Jobs and tasks. Per the examples above, different jobs and tasks will naturally be better suited to office or remote location, synchronous or asynchronous working. Making sure that this is fully considered will provide and environment that best supports productivity and performance.
- Employee preferences. Some people need contact and connection more than others. Some have home working environments that are not conducive to effective remote working, for example poor bandwidth, babies and toddlers at home, cramped conditions. It cannot be assumed that two colleagues doing the same role will naturally want the same remote working opportunities.
- Projects and workflow. Pre-pandemic technology and workflows may no longer suit the hybrid environment. “Making do” may not be enough in an effective hybrid environment. Solutions may need redesigning and replacing, improved collaboration tools might be required, investment in new infrastructure may need to be brought forward.
- Inclusion and fairness. More on this in the next section, but the hybrid environment needs to be designed with colleagues rather than being left to management.
Creating a level playing field
Without an attention to inclusion and fairness, colleagues might become disadvantaged by their location and working patterns. Much of our pre-pandemic history relies upon long-established patterns of leadership and management that included paradigms and beliefs such as “if I can’t see you, you’re probably not working” or “how can you get promoted if you’re not seen around the office”. In the hybrid world, these leadership approaches will also need to change (see the next section).
Mortensen and Haas identify power differentials that can result from “hybridity” – working with employees who are co-located in the same physical space as well as employees working remotely. Not everyone will be in the office and not everyone will be working remotely and these power differentials can “damage relationships, impede effective collaboration and ultimately reduce performance”
To overcome that, they identify two sources of power:
- Hybridity positioning
- Hybridity competence
Hybridity positioning relates to resource access and visibility. Resource access tends to be enabled when in the office: access rights might be different, connections might be faster, support (both technical and emotional) might be more readily available. Visibility is an age-old barrier to be overcome and we need to find new ways of leading so that those working remotely are “seen” in other ways.
“If you are truly committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture… you need to remove the privilege or “brownie points” associated with presenteeism and focus less on style and more on substance. People should not be rewarded or promoted for being in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing to the right people, but for actually adding value to their team and organization”
Hybridity competence is all about one’s ability to collaborate and network effectively across both remote and office-based environments. Those who can do this effectively will unlock access to resources, support and collaboration through their formal and informal networks whereas those who have low hybridity competence will be at a disadvantage finding that “they’re constantly out of sync with colleagues and managers”.
Linking these principles into Gratton’s work, we will need to find ways to support those who work remotely and who are low on hybridity competence if we are to avoid creating a new paradigm where only those with high hybridity competence are recognised and rewarded.
What does this mean for leaders?
We have all learned and adapted within these COVID times with greater success than many of us may have previously imagined. We have probably made some mistakes along the way too and yet our organisations have survived.
Although some believe that the 5 day office week will return, many are convinced that the hybrid working environment is here to stay. Believing the latter to be true, this has implications for leaders at all levels of an organisation.
In addition to the considerations described already:
- Place and time (Gratton)
- Fairness (Mortensen and Haas)
the Chartered Management Institute of the UK has published 7 rules and behaviours that will serve leaders well as we move forward into this brave new world. Here are the 7 rules, and our comments on each:
1. Managing by outcomes brings out the best in people.
Do we need to be at our desks all the time? Some people think better when they’re out on a walk. Does picking up the kids from school mean I’m not working hard? Managing by outcomes sets the goals to be achieved, how they are delivered becomes the responsibility of the individual creating a more adult-to-adult working environment.
2. Lean in on trust, it’s the bedrock of hybrid working.
What does it say about the belief in our people when we install productivity tracking software on their devices or insist on timesheets tracking almost every minute of the day? Your employees have mortgages, bring up children, support their communities and yet when they come to work, some organisations treat them like school children. Trust is often reciprocated, and you might be surprised at how much more effort some will put in when they are trusted to manage their day and workload for themselves.
3. Work is no longer where you go, it’s what you do
The office might become more important for group work, collaboration and innovation. Home might be the place where core tasks are completed. One of our clients recently commented that their people don’t need to be in the office to do their work – they proved that during lockdown – so the office is being remodelled as collaboration space for those times when getting together is important.
4. Focus on workforce planning and middle manager engagement
Co-ordination of work across teams: who’s in and out of the office, who’s doing what, what our current performance is, is even more important in a dispersed environment than when we are all co-located. Those ad-hoc conversations that provide task clarity don’t happen so easily, some may not automatically seek support and assistance. Middle managers must not only ensure greater workforce planning but also need to be fully engaged with their teams, keeping up to date with the status of work, knowing what support team members need. If you’re familiar with the concepts of “the inverted pyramid of leadership”, “visual management” and “workplace walks” then you’ll know already what we mean in this situation.
5. Listen intently, then communicate personally
Even pre-pandemic this was important and with the added dimension of remoteness this becomes even more critical. How much have you improved your understanding and appreciation of your team members over these months by becoming more aware of their personal situations, their families, their hobbies and interests, the names and ages of their children? How many of you have picked up on issues through focus on tone of voice and body language or have asked an insightful question on the hunch that all is not well? Great leaders are great listeners. Continue to listen, engage and communicate with your team members as individuals, providing positive reinforcement, coaching and support.
6. Be constantly attentive to employee wellbeing
Some of this has been answered already in point 5 above; and we need to remain alert to this. If you are managing by outcomes, are you aware of the number of extra hours being put in by some team members to reach those goals? Are the expectations too great resulting in a lack of division between work and home? The opposite could also be true. What has been the impact of months of remote working and no face-to-face time (other than over video) on individuals and the team? What about the extra stresses some are facing with partners who still are not working? We may not be able to solve all their issues, but we can show the human side of leadership and demonstrate that we care.
7. You’ll have to run meetings differently
In our own business we’ve seen the positive impact of scheduling meetings that finish 5 minutes before the hour. We’ve been training our clients for years on the need to design meetings for effectiveness: if a meeting only needs to be 30 minutes, then don’t schedule an hour, if you only need those 5 people then don’t invite the other 10. Not only should we be more aware of the time that people are spending in meetings but as we move into a hybrid world, we should also remain alert to exactly what used to happen in conference calls pre-COVID. Do you remember those days when you were on the train or in café, dialling into a conference call where most attendees were in the room? Constantly being unable to hear all of the conversations taking place and sometimes not knowing who was there? Our meeting disciplines should also change. I read recently about one organisation that has decided to run all meetings with remote participants from personal desktops so that everyone is equal and ensuring that there is no FOMO for those at the end of a laptop or phone.
If you believe that hybrid working is here to stay, then we must adapt our ways of working, our leadership, our systems and performance management approaches so that we get the best from our teams and enable success across the enterprise. Leaving things to chance has never been the best recipe for success and neither should you assume that because you have managed through the last months that success is assured into the future.
By thinking about these concepts:
- Place and time
- Inclusion and fairness
- Rules and ways of working
and taking appropriate action, hybrid working will be successful and we will reap the benefits of these new ways of working that will be with us for years to come.
James Rosenegk is Head of Organisational Excellence Operations at Gobeyond Partners. A dynamic and skilled trainer, facilitator, mentor and coach to all organisational levels from Board Room to Front Line, James has more than 20 years’ experience leading change and improvement within multiple business sectors; both public and private. Find out more.