Hybrid working demands a proper reset

July 11, 2024
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Andrew Neal, Chief People Officer at Nash Squared, looks at what needs to change to make sure hybrid working is effective for everyone. A version of this article first appeared on thehrdirector.com

Hybrid working has been the big, generational change in working patterns that historians will probably look back on in the future and regard as one of the enduring legacies of the pandemic. We have all got used to mixing traditional in-office working with connecting through screens from home.

But is it actually working? While dividing time between home and the office is a sound model in principle, there are clear signs that it’s not delivering all that it could.

A mixed picture

We see evidence of this in our Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report. Only a quarter of respondents in our 2023 research say that their model is working ‘extremely well’. In 57% of cases, it’s a more underwhelming verdict of ‘quite well’. For nearly one in five, it’s working quite or very poorly.

This is despite the fact that businesses have been developing and adjusting their models over time. Organisations have moved firmly away from the fully remote model of the pandemic period and are pushing up the number of days employees should be in. If we compare the 2022 and 2023 Digital Leadership Report findings, this is clearly visible. In 2022, 27% of respondents said they asked staff to be in the office two days a week and 26% asked for three days. A year later, those figures had grown to 36% and 37% respectively. Whereas in 2022, around one in five businesses required staff to come in only once a fortnight or less (including 12% who said ‘never’), in our 2023 research that proportion shrinks to negligible levels.

Hybrid working uncovering the disconnects

Before I get onto solutions, it’s worth standing back and asking: why is hybrid working not fully delivering at the moment? In my view, the reason is that traditional five days in-office working covered over the cracks of what we might call broken operating systems. Companies may have had inefficient processes, sub-optimal task management structures and poor communication flows – but this was compensated for through those in-the-moment, often impromptu meetings and side-of-desk conversations in the workplace. Things were discussed in-flight and resolved almost by osmosis. It may have been an imperfect system, but one way or another things got done.

Hybrid working has made those cracks in the operating system visible. People simply aren’t physically co-located as much of the time and this creates disconnects and slows decision-making down.

For example, does the following scenario sound familiar?

I’m working from home and need to speak to X – but I can see they’re on a Teams call right now. I send them a WhatsApp – but they’ve probably had ten others already this morning (plus emails and texts) and may not get back to me. I’ve got a series of Teams calls coming up myself. I’ll leave it until next Monday when we’ll both be in the office… as long as our schedules don’t change (which indeed they might!).

Re-examining the model

How can this be addressed? Most of us need to adapt – unless you are a start-up, born in the time of collaboration tools like Slack, where your business was built from remote working up, and it is just the way you have always worked! I believe the time is right for organisations to take a more thoughtful and intentional approach.

People leaders and their HR teams can play a key role in this, helping business stakeholders think about the most important process flows in the organisation and how tasks move around to get jobs done. This is really about identifying those ‘pots of value’ where the business really delivers at its best and which require face-to-face working to happen, as opposed to those things that can be done on a remote or hybrid basis. Where are the key crossovers and handoffs, and which of these depend on in-person interactions to get the best results?

It can then move to a departmental level, empowering teams to consider their key outcomes. Which stakeholders, inside and outside of their teams, do they need to interact with to achieve these? Who do they provide services/information to, and who are they reliant on receiving them from? This should become very granular, looking at key specific tasks and outputs on specific days of the week or month.

Putting all these pieces together will help determine what pattern of in-office working across team members will produce optimal results. This may vary across the organisation. Critically, this needs to be communicated, discussed and agreed with team members – resetting the perceived ‘contract’ where necessary.

Everyone taking ownership

However, this isn’t solely an issue of organisational design and policy. It’s an intrinsically human issue too – and another key to success is that we should all, as individuals, take responsibility to ensure that we get the job done, and manage our time as effectively as possible. This may mean compromise and flexibility.

Similarly, good hybrid working depends on sound workload planning. For example, if I have various tasks to do that require quiet concentration and perhaps privacy due to confidentiality, they may be best done when working from home – so I should schedule accordingly. On days in the office, the focus should be on in-person meetings, catch-ups and collaborative working; it makes little sense to go into the office and then spend all day on Teams calls (although I am sure we have all done it!).

Unlocking the rewards

Ultimately, we need to remember that businesses are attempting something that is still new, at a time we are still experiencing seismic macro changes – and getting new things right on an organisational level takes time. The easy way – the ‘lazy’ way – may be to introduce a blanket mandate for four or five days in the office. But it is worth pushing to do better than this: hybrid working brings multiple benefits, supporting flexibility and also diversity as it helps people build their own working patterns to fit varying circumstances and needs. And let’s not even get into how this debate has become fixated on ‘where’ – without even considering ‘when’ or ‘how’ works gets done…

It is highly valued by many colleagues and has become a critical part of the employee value proposition. There is a business and productivity reward on offer from getting it right – it’s worth the pain to make it work.

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