The desire for hybrid work arose while many of us were working from home. Our approaches, policies and principles were devised there too. Design took place in the abstract. The return to offices was gradual, and has once again been disrupted. Few really got going with their hybrid experiments, and we may need to wait a little while until we can start over. But we have still managed to learn a few things about hybrid work in practice. Here are seven things that we now know, and need to take into future thinking and plans.
Return reluctance is real
I’ve already blogged about the issue of return reluctance. Whilst some of this is undoubtedly related to the pandemic itself, it also appears that some employees are increasingly asking the question ‘why do I need to go back at all?’ Or at the very least – why do I need to go in as much as my manager wants me to? A complex issue, but one thing that we do need to ensure when people come into the physical workplace is that their presence adds value – to them, their team or their organisation.
Offices aren’t working
One survey suggests that fewer than a quarter of organisations have made changes to their office environments in order to support hybrid work. This is in my opinion part of the ‘return reluctance’ problem. People feel that there is no point going into the office to sit in an empty or single person room and spending their time on Zoom. At the same time some evidence suggests that during homeworking our professional networks (especially in terms of our weaker ties) reduced*. To tackle both of these related issues we need to get much more intentional about space, providing offices that support meaningful face-time (including building relationships), collaboration and social connection.
Watercoolers aren’t enough
I have often complained about this tired metaphor. Few people have amazing discussions around watercoolers – and if you are relying on this for your innovation or creativity then frankly you aren’t doing it properly. Instead we must support people to come together for meaningful conversations, deeper interactions and high quality collaboration. There might be a little serendipity happening by chance – but generally we need to create the conditions and not hope they happen by chance.
Equality and inclusion needs more focus
As we planned for hybrid a lot of focus was on policies, principles and guidance. There were many practicalities to think through and plan for. We know that flexible forms of work can support inclusion – but without care in the implementation they may also compound old issues and create new ones. We can learn here from research into remote work during the pandemic, including the potential for out of sight to mean out of mind when it comes to career profession and pay, and the problems of flex stigma. Identify and monitor the EDI outcomes and raise awareness of unconscious bias. Watch out for hybrid work stigma and take prompt action on emerging issues.
We are neglecting other forms of flex
Research has indicated that whilst homeworking has naturally increased, the same cannot be said for other forms of flexibility. In fact all other forms of flexibility have declined. We need to remember that there is more to flexible work than working from home – and hybrid will be at its optimised when employees have true autonomy, over time and place.
We still aren’t embracing asynchronous work
Despite the very many issues with remote meetings being widely acknowledged, including but not limited to Zoom Fatigue, few organisations seem to have truly embraced asynchronous work. Not everything needs to be a meeting. We still need to pay much more attention (and potentially provide much more development support) around using online platforms for more than the meeting functionality.
We are still figuring out how to be productive
During the so-called ‘great homeworking experiment’ a significant number of employees reported feeling more productive whilst working from home. Returning to the office led to complaints from some that their productivity had taken a hit. We can assume that some of this might be related to simply seeing people we hadn’t for a while, but the productivity drain of the commute may also play a part Future research will inevitably tell us more about productivity in the hybrid world. We are clearly still figuring out how to adapt our routines, deciding what work is best done where. My guidance on how to do this is here.
One other important challenge, and this is linked to many of the points here, is that during the pandemic we all learned new ways of working. Admittedly, one of those things is how to have a lot of online meetings. In the same way that in March 2020 we tried to take our office routines into our homes, we are now trying to take our new home routines back to the office. The former didn’t work and neither will the latter. The office is a deeply entrenched cultural norm; to make hybrid work effective we have to unlearn some of the old stuff, evolving almost all of our ways of working to adapt. Hybrid is more than just a shift in location, it is a shift in… well, almost everything.
Above all, the big hybrid lesson is about how we need to be more intentional. No more letting the inbox drive us, defaulting to meetings, bumping into people at the watercooler or sitting at the same old desk. We need to be intentional in the hybrid world.
With every single thing that we do.
*This note relates to a survey by Microsoft. There are some issues with the research; it is limited to one organisation so it may not be replicable to others, and it was undertaken during the early part of the pandemic during 2020.