Is the focus on hybrid working a red herring for leaders?

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In this blog, which was originally featured in Influence, I talk about the changes in the workplace and the overuse of the word hybrid. I was prompted to write it after a recent Clubhouse chat I was co-moderating, where we talked about the leadership skills needed in a hybrid world.

Since the pandemic hit there has been lots of chatter around the workplace, getting back to the office, and how it will work with some people at home and some in the physical office location.

In 2020 we saw the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Square declare that employees will never have to return to the office. 2020 was full of discussion around the purpose of offices, why we need them and whether we will need them again.

In 2021, there is a more balanced approach coming forward. Salesforce shared their categories for workers to choose how they want to work and Google have announced workers will be returning to the office. Hubspot have also said that one of their goals for 2021 is to have 70% of job roles location agnostic.

There are two things to look at here – the purpose of the office, and how people want to work. Location agnostic, hybrid workforce – just two terms being used to describe how the world of the work is changing.

The Clubhouse conversation got me thinking. There have been a lot of people stepping forward who have worked remotely for years, sharing their advice and guidance on how to do it successfully. But working remotely and working as a truly flexible organisation is very different.

Some have chosen a life of freelance work to fit around childcare, a change of pace to work (there are lots of reasons people choose a freelance career) and being able to work anywhere. Others who remain working inside organisations don’t always get that luxury. There has been a lot (not enough in my opinion) of discussion about the polarisation inside organisations that will be as a result of the pandemic.

The knowledge worker vs the frontline worker is now a very different world and friction between the two groups has been a challenge for organisations since the second half of 2020.

But all of this has got me to the conclusion that hybrid is a bit of a red herring focus for leaders.

I don’t think we should be focused on hybrid working and how to operate a hybrid business. The ability to work anywhere has been the case for years. Maybe not embraced by all but it’s not completely new. I think we need to look at the bigger picture. The reality of life in 2021. How work has changed in the last 50 years and how the socially imposed boundaries of working time hasn’t reflected that shift.

I’ve talked previously about socially imposed boundaries and zeitgebers – how the changes to our routines have made it hard to find our own rhythm. The pandemic provides an opportunity – an opportunity to explore how we can work differently in a post-Covid world.

But this isn’t new. In my last role working in an organisation we were split over two floors and there was a hot desk policy throughout the organisation. This never really works as people gravitate to the same space and teams like to sit together. But I will always remember a colleague calling me and saying: “I have done two laps of both floors and established you’re not here.” He was correct, I was working at home.

So, while all this talk of hybrid working is taking off, we have to look at the whole thing. The technology, the ways of working, the patterns, the rhythm of the organisation and how it all interlinks together.

For many knowledge workers working at home has been an option for a while. Even if I think about those in my friendship groups none of them work the same hours, patterns or days as each other. So, this view that there has been rigidity in place is a bit of a myth. Sure, there are some organisations where this is going to be a real change (hopefully not chaos though!) but for many, this is simply highlighting the things that have been ignored for so long.

In a recent article I was reading it commented: “However, in a future of work without boundaries, employees will expect a safe, productive and seamless experience that satisfies personal and professional needs wherever work happens. The hybrid-first model must meet this requirement.”

‘Wherever work happens’ is important because for years, work has been happening on trains, planes, in cars, coffee shops and more. Freelancers who chose to break away from the constraints of office life have worked in cars outside piano lessons, next to hospital beds etc. Work has not been confined to an office for years. Not since the use of technology that has enabled such a shift to the way work gets done.

So rather than getting caught up in the latest buzzword of hybrid organisations, can we focus instead of the need for flexibility. Flexibility that reflects the reality of life today. A way of working that engenders trust and operates on an adult to adult basis. Now is the time to focus on the output of the work, not where and when it is being done.

This is about a fundamental shift in what we see as the working day in society. It’s about having the ability to focus on our priorities. To focus on what is important with balance and boundaries. To accept that what works for me might not work for you and that that is ok.

In our Clubhouse conversation we talked about what is needed for the future. Here are some of the bits of advice we covered and a few more for you to consider:

  • The need for skilled facilitation of online meetings – do not underestimate the need for someone to chair the meeting properly, to have clear boundaries on when the meeting will finish etc.
  • Have formal and informal conversations. Pre-covid we could do this in an office with those watercooler moments and meetings. Now we need to find a way to bring informality to formal channels. It cannot be all work, work, work
  • Every formal work gathering should have purpose. If you’re asking people to travel or make time, the reasons and outcomes needs to be clear
  • Get to know your team. It’s a core part of our work to help organisations build resilient teams. There is no separation between work, home etc. anymore. This ‘context collapse’ that started in 2011 with social media has been expedited by the pandemic and becoming more focused on people will bring better relationships at work and an ability to get things done more efficiently
  • Integrate technology and people – not robots – but make sure that as things become more flexible there is the ability for people to know where people are or how they are working with ease. If things are too difficult, people will find a way round them
  • Look at the rhythm of the organisation. I blogged about this last year as the pandemic gave us the chance to look at how we work. This still needs to be done and exploring how things get done in the workplace is the only place you can start when it comes to looking at the operational model of the business

If you’d like help becoming a more flexible organisation or navigating chaos, we can help; take a look at our Diagnosing what’s wrong services.

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