Are we really making the most of hybrid working?

An interesting event last week asked whether companies moving to hybrid working are really getting the most out of it or just imposing office-based modes on remote working.

Business woman having a video call with coworker


What is hybrid working and are we limiting its possibilities by defining it in ways that limits people? A webinar last week hosted by the Smart Work Network heard from Andy Lake, director of and described by one member as “the godfather of smart working”. He said that it is a good thing that Covid has caused us to rethink what the office is for, but that hybrid working tends to take different forms, including forms which limit its possibilities. There is a tendency, he said, to just build a virtual office based on a physical office model, which carries the risk of institutionalising the legacy practices of the old world of work.

He outlined various different types of smart working – from unreconstructed/controlled hybrid to flexible hybrid to transformational models, ending with remote first.

In controlled hybrid, the office model sets the norms. It is focused on specific roles, starts from policy and involves set days in the office, core hours, desk booking and/or assigned seating. Flexible hybrid gives people more choice over how they work, although it is still office centric. Flexibility is more normal in this model. There are, however, more activity-based settings.

Lake then spoke about what he called ‘smart maturity’ where work is assessed based on results and can happen anywhere at any time. The idea is that everyone is equally remote, whether they choose to work in the office or elsewhere. There is a focus on tasks rather than roles and on remote first.

For him it is important to design the work first and then a workplace that fits that and to ask why we can’t work in a different way. Challenging the norm is vital. Lake also spoke about how so-called hands-on jobs, such as engineering, are becoming more office-based as technology ramps up, which could fuel a demand for more office-type spaces for collaborative, project-based hands-on work. “It’s important to think about the tasks,” he emphasised, and where and how they can be done best. Moreover, as the office is changing, homes too will need to be transformed as they need to accommodate work too.

It was an interesting exploration of possibilities and where we might go next, plus the risks of moving to a form of hybrid that entrenches old-style thinking. What is clear in many talks about hybrid working is that being able to start from a more open mindset is vital. Understandably, perhaps, people are averse to taking leaps of faith, particularly in periods of uncertainty, but uncertainty is where we are at and it’s unlikely ‘normal’ – if that means 1950s-style working – is going to help us in the decades to come.

Lake’s talk was accompanied by the experiences of two very different employers on how they are tackling the challenges of smart working.

Stephen Collins, Acting Director, Organisational Development, in the Human Resources Directorate-General at the European Commission, said that the Commission found only 2% of its employees wanted to return to five days a week in the office in the wake of Covid. It was so shocked by the results that it conducted the survey again and the numbers moved up – to 2.5%. The Commission sees the drivers for smart working as being that members of staff want it, that it can be greener and that it saves money. However, it recognises that there are tensions between those who work from home and those who work in the office, between those who want to ‘go back to normal’ and those who don’t, between those who want to get rid of core hours and those who want to disconnect and between those who want extreme flexibility and those who prefer fixed hours. The Commission has changed its office layout to focus on activity-based work and flexible teams.

Paul McKinlay from Cimpress & Vista talked about how his company has gone a step further, becoming remote first. In fact, McKinlay is Vice President of Communications and Remote Working – an interesting reflection of how embedding remote working is tied to communications and changing mindsets. He said going remote first involved a complete flip of how the company does business, with a trust and empowerment mindset at the heart, and that it was prompted by a need to give the firm a competitive edge. Again, its research showed very low numbers of employees wanted to return to five days in the office. It does have a series of collaborative centres generally for face to face events, team building exercises and fun activities.

There had not been a huge take-up of these, however, and the company had downsized its real estate while taking on more people. McKinlay said 70% of its new hires had come to the company because of its flexible working policy and talent attraction had increased significantly while, at the same time, retention was good. While some staff members couldn’t work from home, the company had attempted to offer forms of flexibility, such as Friday afternoons off in the summer which they could benefit from.

McKinlay acknowledged challenges with onboarding people remotely and said there was a big focus on mental wellbeing in relation to remote working. However, he preferred to focus on how remote working could improve people’s mental health by giving them more time with their family and time in their local community. Remote working does not have to be isolating, he said, and there are ways around that if we focus on what creates positive wellbeing and how remote working can aid that.

There was a lot of food for thought about how we do hybrid or smart working and how we need to open up our views on received narratives about it, often dictated by how things have been done or how things were done during Covid which was more about emergency working than anything else. It will be interesting to monitor which companies choose which path and how they fare.

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