Hybrid working has the potential to create a more level playfield for all workers to contribute fairly. Businesses that support hybrid teamwork can benefit from providing their employees with the manoeuvrability to collaborate ‘in or out of sync’ and the freedom to work at their productive best. Businesses need to focus on outputs and avoid bias traps where accomplishment is too easily equated to lengthy periods of physical presence in the office.
Many women feel that hard won advances in workplace equality have been put at risk by the Covid pandemic, setting them back in their careers despite public progress in addressing gender bias at a senior level in the UK.1 Women parents in particular tended to suffer disproportionately in terms of their productivity in role, bearing the bulk of the responsibility for homeschooling, caregiving and household labour. Ingrained provider-carer stereotypes of men and women seem alive and well.
The perception of work as a place and how we work has managed to escape material disruption for eons. Government-backed reviews of gender representation in UK-listed companies have successfully encouraged boards to appoint more women over the last 5 years, however, more recent initiatives to improve the ethnic diversity of UK boards have seen much slower progress.
Crises have a way of bringing to the fore issues that are easier to ignore when times are good. The Covid pandemic forced businesses to adopt a global homeworking exercise that threw workplace inequality and entrenched behaviours into much sharper relief in the space of a single year. If how we work should not be exempt from keeping pace with the broader process of evolutionary change and adaptation, Darwinism seems to be finally catching up with the workplace.
More flexible working patterns desirable
Now, after a year of remote working, people are actively voting to work more flexibly. Many employees are keen to keep the greater flexibility they experienced through remote working, but there are also concerns about the pressure that it has placed on young people and on women, both of whom are concerned about their career outlook.
The closure of schools during the pandemic was the variable that compounded the difficulties for women parents of combining working, household labour and supervising children at the same time. In countries like the UK and the US with cultures of long working hours and little government planning to help parents cope, women bore a disproportionate burden.
However, remote working brought families together; not in a way that made work easier, but this new way of working, however enforced, did enable them to see more of each other than existing working patterns would have allowed. Remote working also helped to accommodate some individuals’ differing circumstances. Those who found travelling to the workplace problematic or stressful due to a long commute or relatively poor physical health, were able to reclaim several hours of their day. Some were able to re-allocate work activities outside the standard ‘9-5’, protecting productive intervals by working at different times or ‘out of sync’ with the rest of their team.
Equipping the hybrid workstyle
Looking forward, companies adopting new working practices that embrace hybrid working (office and remote) and opportunities to work flexibly need to recognise that office hours and remote hours may not occur at the same time. As the workforce becomes more distributed, and managers and co-workers no longer work alongside each other every day, a system that was geared around office presenteeism, where work was a place you went to and worked a set number of consecutive hours, now conjures up the square peg, round hole conundrum.
With schools re-opened and people coming back to the office, they are going to be there for fewer days in the week than before. Some UK businesses are testing a ‘work anywhere’ policy, surveying staff to properly ensure they are sensitive to diverse and different needs. The move to a hybrid workstyle for many will have a significant impact on team dynamics with some members in the office and some working remotely on any given day. Not only will each other’s physical visibility vary, but the visibility of the work they are doing will vary as they no longer remain co-located or work concurrent hours.
Remaining efficient in a hybrid setting means equipping teams with the means to share and retrieve work in or out of sync to reduce the dependence on iterative face to face inquiry. Without a method to catch up effectively or exchange notes on ‘day to day’ items as teams worked remotely, live video became a default currency. For businesses with multiple locations in different timezones, videoconferencing remains necessary but should not be the default for all communication.
Videoconferencing can restrict the ability to work different hours, as people need to present or simply attend, and it simply takes too long to catch up if watching at another time. During the pandemic, everyone everywhere hopped on incessant video calls, leading to what has become known as ‘Zoom fatigue.’ Zooming now has proven psychological consequences. Companies will look to reduce this reliance on live video as they improve their hybrid workstyles, optimising communications to become more amenable to an asynchronous environment and more efficient going forward.
Hybrid working as a leveller
Hybrid working has the potential to level out some of the imbalances that have frustrated many, including women, aiming to progress a meaningful career while balancing outside and domestic demands. This new workstyle paradigm is an opportunity for those who previously needed to be more strict about office time to manage outside responsibilities, than colleagues who could work longer hours. As whole workforces shift to hybrid hours, the perception of ‘observed effort’ in the office as a measure of commitment or endeavour has to be overcome.
A hybrid work model that enables teams to see the work that is happening and to contribute while protecting productive time, could help those with considerable outside demands on their time to worry less about being physically seen or observed.
A workstyle that equips teams to document their work and progress in a uniform way can equalise their visibility. If desired outcomes rely on ‘hybrid teamwork’ then each member has the opportunity to promote their own milestones openly no matter where or what hours they work. No one team member can reasonably take - or receive - more credit than is fair as managers can assess achievements more equitably. This carries clear benefits for those, especially women parents, who may still need to be more flexible with their time than the traditional ‘9-5’ in the office would accommodate.
Work isn’t a place
Shifting the focus from work as a place to organising work as different activities also helps to better appreciate the value of time. A hybrid work method that is based on teams openly planning ahead according to the activities they need to get done, and where it is best to do them, optimises not only time but efficiency. For example, spending a day in the office is optimal if the activity I’ve planned to do in that time relies on physical interaction with others to achieve the best results.
Hybrid working has the potential to create a more level playfield for all workers to contribute fairly. Businesses that endorse the flexibility baked in to a hybrid environment ultimately benefit from providing their employees with choice and the manoeuvrability to work at their productive best. Hybrid teamwork represents a way for teams to work collaboratively in or out of sync and to contribute fairly.
If the goal posts are to shift towards rewarding output over observed effort, managers can no longer allow themselves to make assumptions of accomplishment that are shaped by physical presence in the office.
- Hampton-Alexander Review: FTSE Women Leaders, February 2021