Concerns that hybrid working will negatively impact collaboration are often backed up by evidence that homeworking, during lockdown, has dented productivity. But hybrid working in the broadest sense is about working part of the week from the office and part of the week from home. So far, very few companies have returned sufficient numbers of people to the office in a hybrid pattern for enough time to have been able to adapt to this new style of working.
What is becoming clear as far as hybrid working is concerned, is that the flexibility employees want depends on the agency they are granted to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it’s conditional upon autonomy.
Red flags about hybrid working damaging collaborative cultures because they hinder in-person interaction are based on flimsy logic. Cultures vary widely across different firms and are heavily influenced by leadership behaviours and practises.
The accelerated transition from co-located office workers to distributed teams presents a conundrum to employers and business leaders who view the downgrading of the office as a loss of control and are reluctant to experiment with new ways of working.
Command structures need to embrace not resist employee autonomy
But as technology evolves, the most profound and initially destabilising change that comes with it is likely to be the transition from centralised organisations and services; away from a command structure and one main boss, to decentralised ones where notions of control will require a wholesale rethinking.
The world of work is reassessing a legacy of ‘presenteeism,’ and is acclimatising to more distributed working where flexibility and hybrid working are dominating the future of work narratives. Together, these words have taken over the way we speak about work and constitute a series of new ways to think about a more harmonious integration of work and life.
Different interpretations of flexibility are already arising. For some, it means ‘the ability to connect and get work done from anywhere,’ while to others it means ‘working from home a couple times a week.’ Employees and employers are defining how flexibility works for them in different ways.
The benefit of flexibility is that it is not uniform. Within the context of hybrid work, the easiest way to distinguish different hybrid models is not necessarily by where an employee is working or when, but by the degree of autonomy they are given to decide this independently.
Autonomy is key to motivation and productivity
Employers must now realise that far more work can be done at a distance than they previously chose to believe. Work is not a place - work is different activities that can be done effectively in different locations. Autonomy to decide how best to execute is an indispensable component of motivation and a key driver of performance. And more employees desire it. A recent hybrid working study of over 5,000 knowledge workers around the world that looked at what they wanted from their future work arrangements revealed that 61% would prefer if management allowed them to come into the office when they need to and work from home when they need to.
Enlightened leaders will recognise that growth comes from operating responsibly and inclusively. This means enabling, not hampering, employees’ ability to work effectively while reconciling the demands of clients, colleagues and private lives.
Cultures that are collaborative and collegial at their core don’t break down in the face of disruption. They adapt. They also depend less on where work takes place and more on how the work happens.
Employers must develop staff skills for the shifting future of work
The bigger challenge which will take time, patience and experimentation is revisiting systems and reshaping roles so that they can be performed efficiently by a widely distributed workforce.
Making a success of hybrid work requires organisations to empower and equip their people to work effectively across locations to suit the work they are doing, while enabling them to come together intentionally in a work space to collaborate and socialise.
When commentators say that home and remote working has weakened office ties and dissipated social capital, they seem to assume that the office is a natural habitat in which to reap the benefits of serendipitous interactions. Whilst it’s key to ‘collide’ with different people, chance encounters may be less useful than we think because when we are in the office, we’re almost always too busy for them.
‘Busywork’ leaves us no time to chat
We’re often under pressure when dashing from one meeting to the next. Office life seems to be dominated by meetings that often don’t have any purpose but seem to take up most of our time when we are there. A culture of ‘busyness’ tends to leave us little or no time to be seen to meander down to the water cooler, let alone stop and chat there. It’s likely worse for professional workers whose progression and ranking depends on maximising billable hours. Time spent away from their desks, if not for client purposes, eats into their ratings.
Landing on an optimal approach to a business task or problem does not happen by simply colliding with a bright mind and waiting for the magic to happen. To be effective, ideas need to be managed, evaluated and refined.
Bemoaning a bygone era of water cooler magic is like advocating for managing our interactions haphazardly, when we really need to focus much more intentionally on how we use our time to make a difference.
Retaining talent means how we work matters
There is no good reason to assume the status quo is sacred. That’s how culture perpetuates inertia. There is however ample reason to view a rewiring of how we work as critical to the business world’s ability to incentivise and retain the talent it needs to adapt or even to survive.
Granting workers greater autonomy to manage how best to work in a hybrid pattern should trump leaders worried about losing control. After all, autonomy is key to unlocking performance. The proliferation of innovation in the world around us will demand it sooner rather than later. As Mark Twain famously said, “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”