For most people, prior to Covid, remote working meant doing the same thing you do in the office, just in a different place. You were available online for similar hours and attended all the meetings you would normally. For some people, this wasn’t the remote working they recognised, it was (office) working from home, geared around presenteeism. For them, remote was not a location but a work style where outputs mattered more than presence, enabling them to have much more control over their schedule of when and where they worked.
Looking beyond Covid and mass home working, what’s clear as we tentatively reopen workplaces, is that the vast majority of people and the companies that employ them believe a mix of remote and office-based working is the future. Hybrid working will usher in a generational change in how we think about the work we do and in what location. We will start to see a blend of remote working practices alongside more present office-based activity. How we interact in the office, the people that are in it, and the types of work we do there will now be something to be planned, not just assumed.
And over time we should expect the continued normalisation of remote working practices as companies enhance their ways of working - improving how they operate with less visibility of staff whilst lowering office costs and improving employee productivity. Working away from the office is here to stay and how well you do it will be an important part of many people’s jobs going forward.
Why will hybrid working lead to workplace change?
Business and work is a constantly evolving set of priorities and objectives that people manage. It requires working with different people, across many different activities. As we return to the office, reaping the most benefit from our time there will be a new constraint to optimise. Ever-changing work priorities will require the adaptation of schedules and the alignment of activities that pull you back to the office. Additionally, the positives you get from being in the office must outweigh the negatives to make it an effective work experience. That could mean that being in the office has to be more valuable than the hassle and time of the commute or worth the opportunity cost of losing more focused task time working in a location without the interruptions of the office.
What makes a positive or effective work experience differs from person to person. It could be networking, collaborative time on a topic, socialising, the facilities, or even lunch from your favourite spot. What’s clear though is that nothing will degrade work, and ultimately employees office experiences, more than not being able to see the people they want or to work on priority topics. Time in the office has to be valuable, and that means it needs to help people get their job done, not hinder, slow or get in the way.
Additionally, if we are to prioritise some work for when we are with stakeholders or physically present in meetings, planning our work by location will become a priority. Some tasks will better suit focused time away from distraction at home whilst others will benefit from collaboration directly with people in person.
Coordinating where you do your best work and planning when to collaborate with others in a specific location is a huge change to how we worked pre-Covid. The additional effort required for planning effective office time will be optimised by companies as they understand how their employees respond to returning to work.
Why will companies support Hybrid working?
The people have spoken, well at least they appear to have. Many companies have surveyed their employees and a large majority want to work in a pattern that blends office and remote work, in some cases as high as 70% of workers are in favour. The stakes are also high, so high in fact that practically every company will enhance and improve its ways of working to help facilitate the change to hybrid. Companies need to attract and retain talent that might become mobile if the workstyle they want isn’t on offer and the opportunity to right-size office space to a smaller, less costly footprint is highly attractive. Lots has been said about the increase in productivity people have felt working from home but there is also strong evidence that some tasks are best done around other people and in the office.
Now set this change against people’s evolving preferences for how they work as we become increasingly accustomed to new norms. At the moment many people are itching to get back to the office but viewing this as the preferred long-term mode after over a year of enforced restricted movement is too simplistic. As companies get better at hybrid working, increasingly making the remote parts feel less remote, it’s quite likely the amount of time we want to spend in the office will be right-sized against the type of work that must be done. People’s circumstances are different so this is less about one size fits all but more about being able to manage a range of working patterns that co-exist and ‘flex’ based on the requirement of the role and work to be done at any given time.
How we work will change, but it’s going to take time and iteration to land on a unified pattern that supports the flexing of workstyles likely to be needed. Schedules will become variable, information will be more accessible regardless of location, and managers will be upskilled to manage teams with different levels of visibility depending on the pattern they work.
How will hybrid change the workplace?
For most companies, hybrid will lead to a number of workstyles being active at any one point. It’s unlikely that a single way of working with a fixed pattern, days and logic of when to be in the office will create the most effective and productive workforce. Companies that recognise this early will embrace the variation as it will lead to more productive outcomes and more satisfied employees.
The trust to shape the way you work in your role and set the priorities you see to be most effectively completed in a specific location will over time become commonplace. The idea that a centrally planned approach to hybrid can account for all the variation in work is flawed. The companies that recognise the value of empowering employees to set their own workstyles based on their evolving priorities (both work and personal) will win in the market for talent.
There are however very specific challenges that will need to be resolved as we move to a more unified model of how hybrid will operate long-term, specifically:
- When - Variable location schedule based on work demands
- Where - Matching the different types of work activities to a location
- How - Recognise different workday hours by evolving towards remote working practices
Variable location schedules based on work demands
Once you move from five days a week in the office to a hybrid pattern where people’s locations change and remote and office hours may not always be concurrent, the schedule of where someone plans to work becomes critical. It enables everyone around them to plan times when they might want to work in the same location or on the same topic as another person.
Supporting employees to optimise their time in the office to be as effective as possible for themselves is critical as companies adjust their ways of working to hybrid. Office time is directly competing with the commute and focused task time at home. At a minimum, when people go to the office, they will want to make that time effective in getting their job done. This means enabling people to plan their location based on where they can be most effective to get their work done. Attempting to centrally plan when people should be in the office won’t ever capture the location impact on an individual’s work but decentralising comes with the challenge of keeping track of the changes.
Some companies are drawn to the simplicity of having a fixed schedule across the entire organisation. It’s simple to centrally plan and ensures you maintain fair use of space but completely misses changing work priorities that will constantly conflict with something so rigid. For companies, getting their workforce up to speed on how to plan their location based on the work at hand will likely be one of the first big learnings from the next phase of hybrid, as people return to the office regularly.
“Going to the office will start to be a bit like going on business travel, you go to a location with specific topics or people you want to see”
Even with the ability to choose which days to be in the office, keeping abreast of changes in other people’s plans will be a major concern for many. Attending the office with the intention to work on a topic or spend time with someone only to find they are working remotely at home will become an issue for many. The idea of just turning up to the office because there is a spare seat just isn’t going to be enough. Time in the office needs to make sense for the work they are doing. This isn’t to say companies won’t request their workers to attend a set number of days a week, it’s more about planning which days are going to be the best days to work with specific people. Teams and employees will need the autonomy and flexibility to pick when works best for them.
Recognising that the right people to plan when to be in the office is the people responsible for doing the work, is critical. This means having the latitude to adjust their schedule based on where others are working and on topics that are a priority to themselves. Finally, recognising that this schedule will be highly dynamic and that people will need to be kept abreast of change is critical. Teams will need new ways of planning that go far beyond a calendar invite to truly make going to the office effective and collaborative.
Matching different types of work to a location
As companies get used to more varied schedules and different patterns of work or days in the office, employees will need the tools to better coordinate the work they plan to do by location. This sounds simple but is very likely to be a significant cause for concern for organisations and employees as they look to optimise the productive use of more limited space.
Lots of companies are announcing the switch of their offices to be more collaborative or interactive spaces. This change in emphasis, less do anything here vs more fit for specific types of work, will by definition change how we plan what we do where. Prior to Covid, very few people planned their weekly work schedule based on when they planned to be in a particular location. Previously, if you planned, you did it based on priority, or urgency, or client or any number of factors but for the vast majority of people, you did it in the same location, with the same sets of people available, and the same number of consecutive hours, each day.
Some companies are even saying a different type of work will happen in the office, more planning and collaborative types of work than focused task time. This makes notional sense but will require people to be able to identify these different types of work, plan them for when they are next in that location, and also coordinate with people they may need to work with. It also makes sense to leverage office days for training, socialising, and more formal communications. How companies start to break down the work they do and plan it for being in a specific space will need centralised effort but also a lot will occur decentralised again at the team level. How the team operates to be effective will require the team to plan how they want different types of work to occur.
“The office will become where you plan what you need to do and remote will be where you go to get it done”
There’s also what to do when we see the wrong types of work happening in the office. Does it make sense for people to travel to the office to spend time on video calls with people who are all remote? How about video calls with people who are also in the office but just not together. It’s hard to say what the right approach is here but nothing will degrade the office experience more than commuting in to see a group of people or work on a topic only to find you are on video calls with those people you needed to see who are now working remote for the day.
Recognise different workday hours by evolving towards remote working practices
Remote working during Covid was mostly office working from home. It still treated work as a location rather than a way of working that coordinates the communication and delivery of work outputs. True remote working on the other hand is a workstyle and set of workflows that enable teams that may exist in different global locations or time zones to coordinate the delivery of complex interdependent work outputs. And many of these processes are not about location, they are about time and how to work with minimal live concurrent interactions.
Remote workers do use some location enhancing techniques, after all without live video meetings how would you get together to real-time collaborate on tough challenges or review a deliverable with a client. But on the whole, remote workers actively look to reduce these live interactions that require people to be available at a specific point in time which may not work for their timezone or workday pattern. Live sessions also interrupt focused individual task time, which at the heart of remote is a big part of what makes it so effective.
Reducing live interactions is about shifting time, it’s about being able to provide your input at the point in the day and at a moment that makes your work most effective. So when companies think about their strategy for hybrid, what their motivation is long-term, it should be to normalise the processes of remote working and provide a stepping stone to begin the long transformation of office culture towards location and time flexibility.
“Managing a project in slack is like reading a book one post-it note at a time...”
There is also great risk for organisations in not beginning the journey towards being more remote friendly. It’s certain that more jobs are open to fully remote now than pre-Covid and those companies that don’t become remote friendly run the risk of not being able to access and retain the employees in the smart remote talent pools.
Employees and companies are vested in the switch to hybrid working but exactly how it will work will be an evolving process. Expect companies to invest in how they operate in a hybrid working model, improving how employees plan when best to be in the office and what work they do there. Additionally, remote working practices will continue to be normalised across more companies and teams will improve how well they support remote working alongside more office-based activity.