At the time of writing, we are in our 3rd Covid lockdown. Employees are encouraged to work from home if they can – again. Over the past year, organisations have had to consider where and how they and their employees work. We recognise too that whilst the current arrangements will eventually change, pre-Covid work normality will not resume, probably never. Indeed employers and employees may choose to not return to pre-Covid arrangements. The phrase the ‘new normal’ is being pushed around, McKinsey instead, it as the ‘next normal’. Organisations now have to be on the front foot and begin to think about future work structures, approaches, and how they will adapt. The concept of ‘hybrid’ working is commonly cited.

In the UK we have gone from employees having to request the right to flexible working from home, to where a majority are working from home. Having experienced this more permanent working from home, employees are re-evaluating what they want and need for their work and way of life. What is going to be right for them, as well as the organisation? In a survey of 2,000 UK employees, British Council for Offices found 62% of senior leaders and 58% of entry-level employees working at home since Covid, want to be able to split their time between the physical office and home office in the future. Rightmove, the online property service saw a huge increase in inquiries for people wanting to relocate to rural areas when lockdown was eased. This appears very telling around people’s lifestyle thinking. However many have really struggled to work permanently from home, with issues around wellbeing, juggling children, missing the social dynamics of work and collaboration opportunities.

Future working

Companies are being forced to think about future organisational work patterns. What do they want their workplaces to be like for their business? How do they need to be moving forward? How will the availability of virtual communication and collaboration technology influence operational thinking? Whilst the current imposed way of working presents its own challenges, Covid has expedited the progress of virtual technology. This has subsequently raised thinking around the future of organisational working and the workplace. There is discussion around traditional co-located working models. The model of a fully co-located workforce in the future for larger organisations is quite possibly in doubt. Similarly, recognising that a fully distributed model is also not ideal. Those who say (boast?) they have moved to a pure distributed or dispersed model do not yet fully know the longer-term implications on operations, performance, employees and customers.

Organisational leaders have the opportunity to revolutionise and disrupt thinking about the future workplace. Discussion and planning around this needs to happen now, not waiting for Covid to subside or the vaccine to be complete. According to IDC (2020) 84% of organisations surveyed plan to accelerate the digitalisation of work processes. Organisations need to, as Patrick Lencioni states, nail their colours to the mast now, to bring about meaningful change. Waiting until this situation is ‘over’ is too late. Employees need to have an understanding of what their future working may look like. The rest of the article will show it’s not about simply moving to a hybrid type model. Every aspect of how organisations operate have to be remodelled too.

Revolution, not evolution?

 Any form of hybrid work structure requires serious examination from the organisation and its leadership. Indeed, out of co-located, distributed and hybrid models, hybrid is the most difficult to deliver.

Hybrid working goes beyond the superficial focus on having the technology in place to make working at home easier. Any leadership team that adopts a technology only mindset to virtual working are in for a shock. Hybrid working has to be considered from a grassroots level. Vision, values, strategy, budgeting, policies, procedures, process, performance, culture, operations, development and so much more all have to be reconsidered. Not a single facet of an organisation’s operation will remain unaffected. More of a revolution not evolution needs to happen in organisations. 

The ‘Hybrid’ model

The idea of the ‘hybrid’ model is frequently mooted in business articles. But it is not a clear-cut concept. A true hybrid model is one that brings choice to employees in their work. Autonomy is key to hybrid working, allowing employees to work where and how they want and at the times they want. Many organisational leaders are not fully prepared to embrace this complete employee autonomy.  Whilst ‘technological parity’ (IDC) is on the horizon; where all employees, home or office based have equal access to the same technological resources, we aren’t there yet. It still requires huge amounts of physical and financial investment. Currently, organisations in mindset, structure, and resources are unlikely to embrace a pure hybrid model. They just aren’t ready for it. So, the term is used descriptively, and perhaps as an aspiration, rather than precisely. For the purposes of our current situation, the hybrid model will be more of an adapted version.

Challenges of hybrid working

There are dozens of challenges around hybrid working, here I outline some core ones.

Without clear and consistent approaches, hybrid working runs the risk of developing a dual-tier workforce. Office and non-office based. This risks leading to disparity or perceived unfairness; as well as raising and reinforcing issues and divisions. What will the perception be of head office? Will office workers have an advantage over regular homeworkers? Hybrid achieves neither the employee interaction of pure face to face or the perceived equality of everyone working from home. As you may have experienced, not everyone wants to work from home. Working from home might be more suited to younger, Gen Y or Z employees. But how does it work effectively with a multigenerational workforce and their diverse needs? 

Many employees crave face to face, in person, social contact, it’s part of their personality and identity. How organisations replicate or replace socialised working and team working patterns will be difficult. People never quite settle when there is too much flex in working patterns. Consistency is key. Mixed models create and further existing divides in organisations and culture.

Many organisational policies and practices do not flex to those permanently working from home or those who split their locations. Hybrid working presents difficulties around equality in the ‘workplace’. Hybrid will influence future working hours and how those hours are achieved in whatever a ‘working week’ may ultimately look like. For international organisations some cultures and housing are not designed to accommodate working from home. Similarly, there are significant challenges around cyber and data security matters where work happens at different locations. Many employees during Covid had to use their own computers to access work.

Leadership teams need to completely buy into a hybrid model in their words, decisions, and behaviours. It is not uncommon for senior managers to have a prevailing presenteeism mindset. How to change this? Similarly, where and how do the leadership team locate themselves. How might this be perceived by employees? How is access to the leadership team achieved?

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, hybrid working shifts the nature of an organisation’s culture, forever. And it is this culture that drives an organisation and its ultimate success. So, considerable thought has to be given to the desired future culture.

The adapted hybrid

There is no one adapted hybrid approach to work. Instead, organisations will need to experiment with different approaches gaining continual feedback from employees and measuring the impact of the different approaches. Piloting and testing different approaches in different parts of the business. Understanding what is ‘right’ for the organisation AND employees. As an example of this, previously, different police forces piloted multiple potential shift models before making an informed decision about which to implement. To impose, without testing or seeking feedback, risks making assumptions about people’s preferences, not knowing what will actually work, and possibly alienating large numbers of employees.

There are many ways to consider and cut an adapted hybrid approach for an organisation. These are in no way exhaustive:

  • Organisationally review and clarify which roles are more suited to home working. Perhaps revising some roles accordingly. Role by role consideration depending on equipment or resource demands, collaboration, and customer requirements.
  • Determine what work and activities are appropriate for the home and the office.
  • Some employees attend for certain days for office meetings and collaboration, project initiation, new starter orientations.
  • People access and book set slots to attend the office to meet with social distancing criteria. With a maximum quota for safe working.
  • Ratio split, 2-3 weeks in the office and one week out on a rotation basis.
  • Working from home 2-3 days per week, the rest in the office.
  • Rotating individual team attendance in offices, or parts of the office.
  • Organisations operate a 24/7 model, where employees can spread out their physical attendance to suit working and personal needs.
  • Delegate autonomy to individual team leaders and employees to determine where home working is more appropriate and effective. 

Whatever route(s) are chosen they need to be consistently applied across organisations to maintain perceived ‘fairness’. This includes coherent and consistent messaging from all senior leaders. Where different parts of the same organisation practice different models, discontent will arise.

Longer-term workplace direction?

As alluded to earlier, this is a time to bring different thinking to this problem and situation. Creative, innovative, and future-based thinking instead of conventional and traditional. Longer-term organisations may adopt more strategic decisions including:

  • Reviewing their approach to their physical infrastructure. Some will be reluctant to keep expensive building infrastructure in the long term. Downsizing of office space, whilst not removing their physical presence. 
  • Thinking laterally, they might look for more spread-out campus-style infrastructure which allows for social distancing.
  • Allocating budget to rent local workspaces, when operating in a more distributed way.
  • Offering employees a budget to set up their home offices.
  • Encouraging employees in geographical community areas to meet together in local spaces.
  • Having smaller more ‘hub’ based offices.
  • Creating internal or external co-working spaces
  • Deliberately recruiting people from outside immediate geographical areas.

Any of these approaches (and others) will have impact upon communities, cities and towns and local communities. Influencing their make -up, nature, purpose and future.

Hybrid opportunities

In the face of the impact of Covid on organisations, nothing should be discounted. Ironically, Covid provides a great opportunity to redefine how we work. It is not often that organisations are presented with such opportunities to reimagine and revolutionise their core business tenets. It forces conversations about how organisations and employees ‘do’ work. Organisations have the chance to go back to the drawing board and reshape the how of their work. Challenging historical, traditional, conventional and inflexible practices. 

Moving to a more hybrid model will affect everything about an organisation. Its values, processes, growth, expenditure, leadership, behaviours, employee competencies customer relationships, to name but a few. How and what it measures around productivity and performance, moving from inputs to outputs. How technology is used to enable and enhance the hybrid experience. Our approach to valuing and measuring human capital can be re-examined. Re-evaluating held views of leadership and purpose. Re-considering mindsets around presenteeism and centralised working. There will be opportunities to reimagine change management, people development, performance management, reward, employee progression et al. How to evaluate employee and organisational expectations of each other. Re-examining future business and employee resilience?

Recognising too that moving to an adapted hybrid will bring with it significant changes to operational costs, national and international environmental impact, business agility, resilience as well how employees blend their business and personal lives. There will be so many knock-on effects.

Finally, and perhaps underpinning all of this. It should force organisational leaders to examine their longer-term vision and goals around the organisation and its work force.

Change is afoot

We know that the only constant is change. We are in a living example of rapid and far-reaching change. Organisations and leaders need to embrace and utilise this. Rather than considering our approach to hybrid working, instead, beginning to re-evaluate our mindsets towards how we work. This then will lead to an adapted hybrid approach to the workplace which best serves us. 

Boston Consulting Group suggest there are 4 building blocks to support new models of working. Not only are these building blocks, they are also discussion and engagement opportunities.

  • Leadership, culture and purpose
  • Structure and roles
  • Ways of working
  • Systems and spaces

The time is now to sculpt the ‘next normal’ landscape for organisations and employees. Whilst uncertainty and fear might still be present, there is no better time to initiate ‘next normal’ conversations, explorations and plans.

Nick Howell is a leadership and coaching specialist. Working with individuals and teams to examine and develop powerful behaviours and mindsets that deliver high performance. Working with teams to diagnose team issues then co-creating healthier behavioural approaches, communication and activities. Got some development areas in your leadership, or challenges in your team? Contact Nick today for a free chat about what’s happening for you. Email or call 07867 785314.