Hybrid Working has become defined by work locations. The mantra ‘work is something you do, not somewhere you go’ was first coined 28 years ago by Woody Leonhard. However, whenever Hybrid Working crops up in a conversation, the first question people ask is how many days do you go into the office? Knowing who will be in the office on any given day makes life easier for facility managers and gives comfort to managers who are distrustful of their staff, but the fixation on location misses the point of what work is really about. Designating employees as remote workers, although convenient for some, is also a restriction, on optimal ways of working.
Most employees have now had considerable experience of working at home during lockdowns. As well as enjoying homeworking benefits such as avoiding the costs and stress of travelling to a designated workplace, employees have learned to juggle effectively their work and non-work responsibilities. Their mindset has moved from the rigid dividing lines of work-life balance to the softer boundaries of work-life integration, and many are now able to switch readily between work and non-work activities. The wage slaves of yesteryear have become rational employees wanting to be responsible for their own work decisions. Hybrid Working is not the end point but should be regarded as a stepping stone to a better and more sustainable way of working where employees are given some discretion in where, when and even how they work.
Let’s use another definition of work “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” The key word is purpose, if working in an office contributes to the purpose of their work, employees will choose that as an appropriate option. If not, they will work at home, or at other more suitable locations. This more autonomous way of working, often called Agile Working, has a number of implications.
Expectations of employees of hybrid working
When forced to work at home, employees flexed their working times starting earlier or finishing later, taking breaks e.g. for the school run. The most interesting lesson from enforced remote working was how people chose to work. This increased flexibility in working time is now an expectation for employees going forward. Countless surveys during lockdowns reported that employees believed they were more productive. If they were working the same hours, then they must have been working differently to achieve these productivity gains. By allowing employees a degree of autonomy in how they work, as well as where and when they work, employers can benefit from these productivity gains and enhanced performance. The trade-off is that managers need to use a lighter touch and trust employees to get the work done.
The 3 dimensions of Agile Working - allowing employees to choose where, when and how they work
Offices need to support a new way of working
There has been much discussion of how offices can be designed to attract employees to return to them. The expense of providing gyms, creches and good eating facilities is more difficult to justify with Hybrid Working, and even less so when the employee’s location choices are determined by work-based reasons rather than nice-to-haves. The starting point should be what how will the office facilitate employees’ work activities? The office should be multi-purpose depending on the activities undertaken. Designing workspaces with different work settings for different activities such as collaboration, contemplative activities such as report writing and socialising Is not new, the concept of Activity Based Working was formulated by Veldhoen in the 1980s. The challenge of today is to martial the plethora of technologies and software tools into an effective and supportive digital workplace.
The reduced demand for office premises can generate considerable savings in accommodation costs. The selection of locations need not be limited to a binary Hybrid Working choice of home or office. Coworking hubs and other third-party premises can be used to iron out the fluctuating demands for office space. If there is need to bring a team together for a creative brainstorming session, a hotel or conference facility could provide a more stimulating environment than squeezing people into a downsized , all-too-familiar office building.
Impact on managers of Hybrid Working
Hybrid Working promised to be the best of the home and office working worlds. In reality, it can often be the worst of worlds. Employees travel to the office expecting to see work colleagues but find the ones they want to see are working at home so they end up doing a Teams call which they could have done from home. For managers, managing people working on-site and remotely and ensuring that they engage them with equity is challenging, especially managing ‘hybrid meetings ‘with people participating on-site and remotely. Some managers may feel that life was easier when everyone was a locked down remote worker, as communication channels were the same for everyone. While initially, it may be outside some managers' comfort zone, they can benefit from Agile Working as it encourages an element of self-management for employees which can reduce the operational management burden for line managers. In this new way of working, the manager’s role is as a leader, setting expectations rather than providing explicit direction.
Hybrid Working is dead, long live Agile Working!
John Eary, Director of JEC Professional Services Ltd. which helps organisations become more resilient through Agile Working, Business Continuity and the Digital Workplace. John seeks to provoke new thinking on the opportunities and challenges for new ways of working presented by technology. He has assisted over 40 organisations to adopt new ways of working. John is the author of the book, Agile Working and the Digital Workspace published by Business Expert Press