Hybrid working offers the prospect of productivity gains for businesses that introduce thoughtful workplace innovation. However, there is a significant risk that these gains may not be realised if leadership decision making becomes dominated by the deluge of practical matters arising from organising a large workforce into new patterns.
In order to ensure that the non-trivial logistical challenge of determining who works where, when and how includes the scope for genuinely new ways of working, it is best to undertake a rigorous, evidence-based analysis of what kinds of tasks employees need to do and what circumstances best support these. In particular, ensuring equity and inclusion for those staff who will participate at least some of the time remotely is crucial, as is striking the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication within teams and across the workforce as a whole.
Businesses will likely therefore need to develop a new workplace etiquette by identifying and making clear what behaviours will enhance or detract from hybrid efficiency and effectiveness. Done well, a considered change of corporate culture could deliver competitive advantage as current and prospective employees search out a tangible atmosphere of high-performance and a new social contract.
- Take an evidence-based look at what has been gained and what has been lost during the period of exclusive remote working
- Communicate conclusions clearly with employees, be open and transparent
- Invest in good, cloud-based IT
- Develop a new work etiquette to support equity and inclusion for all, particularly those working remotely
- Seek a balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication that supports rather than disrupts productivity. Dedicated times for set tasks may help with this
The right ‘new normal’
In February 2014, strikes by staff on London’s underground network forced commuters to experiment to find alternative routes. A subsequent LSE study showed that a notable proportion of the people adversely affected persisted with their new choices even once the strikes were over. In other words, an external and unwelcome stimulus led to sustainable, better outcomes in the longer term for those open to change.
No one wanted the Covid-19 global pandemic. The crisis has demanded previously unimaginable and rapid adaptations to ways of working, which have turned out to have both immediate upsides and downsides – most obviously in the service sector where cloud technology has helped realised efficiency gains but sometimes, it feels, at the expense of social capital.
This period of experimentation offers businesses the alluring prospect of introducing thoughtful workplace innovation post-pandemic that could improve both productivity and employee satisfaction. Equally, done wrong, a return to ill-considered hybrid ways of working could miss opportunities and be frustrating for workers who have glimpsed a different future, only for it to evaporate.
Put simply, getting this so called ‘new normal’ right is central to competitive advantage.
In the rush to understand the implications of changing rules and regulations, employer and employee responsibilities and the ethical dilemma that could arise (such as around vaccine privilege), it would be easy for businesses to miss the all-important point about being thoughtful about working practice innovation.
Anyone who has lived through a Zoom-intense corporate life over the past year knows that the dynamics of what it means to collaborate, to be creative, to establish a rapport in a new professional relationship or to manage/be managed have changed significantly, and in sometimes unexpected ways.
There are hard-edged decisions that must be taken. Who will work where and when? The practical and logistical considerations around these issues are not trivial, especially for a large workforce. However, there is a more complex and subtle analysis required – including answering questions like ‘how to preserve and enhance spontaneity’, ‘how to ensure equity for remote and physically present colleagues’ and ‘how to ensure that a self-sustaining esprit de corps permeates teams and the wider corporate body’.
These questions beget more foundational ones like ‘what is the nature of the work that we do’ and, of course, ‘what do we wish to stand for’, the most profound of all. Here, wants and needs could easily come into tension. What is good for an individual employee may conceivably harm the overall productivity of the team.
A practical approach
It is tempting to turn to the futurologists and self-acclaimed experts on the ‘future of work’ for advice. Whilst the literature contains helpful observations on emerging trends, the more breathless articles insist that the old rules must effectively be torn up and established working patterns deliberately disrupted to an extent that is unlikely to be practical or useful for a business of any scale that has ongoing commitments and extensive dependencies.
Instead, to make the problem tractable, a simple but rigorous analysis should begin with an evidence-based look at what has been gained and what has been lost during the period of exclusive/extensive remote working. The key words here are simple and evidence. Surveying the workforce can quickly become complicated by consideration of how granular the questions should be and their precise phraseology (which does indeed matter). Individual employees will naturally be looking for subliminal signals of future intent from the leadership and will, equally naturally, tend to answer in a way most likely to bring about the future they each most desire. As the impact of remote working on levels of satisfaction, connectedness and productivity varies widely across personality types and job roles, it would be reasonable to expect virtually any survey to return a spectrum of opinions – few or none of which will be definitive.
It is therefore better to ask (whether it be rhetorically or actually):
- What can we reasonably say everyone thinks has improved?
- What has demonstrably got worse for all?
Logically, the next category to look at is heterogenous impact:
- What do some people think is better whilst others think is worse?
- What lies behind those views?
Finally in this simple approach:
- Which of those views are valid for the business and not just the stakeholders concerned?
At this point, leaders may be tempted to go deeper into the themes that emerge. These no doubt do merit a closer look. However, a better next focus of attention will be the reality of constraints – which are closely related to the risk appetite of the business. If, as a leader, you could not conceive of a successful corporate culture without the buzz and creative verve of co-location, then why waste time examining it and potentially falsely raise employee expectation around a future that cannot be?
That said, it is crucial to question foundational assumptions. Competitors may seek advantage in the global race for talent by offering opportunities for exclusively remote roles, thereby potentially recruiting better people for less. Do your reasons for insisting on co-location hold up given this calculus? Do the benefits really outweigh the comparative costs?
Even if you decide – entirely reasonably – that there is something special about in-person human connectivity, must this apply to the entire workforce? Are there roles that are more transactional in nature that could disproportionately benefit from a home environment, where concentrated focus can be applied with arguably lower frequency of inadvertent interruption.
Taking these functional and constraint analyses into account, the most likely outcome for most large organisations will be:
- At any one time, there will be a mixture of some employees physically present together and some collaborating with them from elsewhere, in other words the classic hybrid working scenario
- A clear policy decision on whether exclusive remote working will be an option for some and, if so, for whom and with what justification
Communicating these conclusions with crystal clarity to employees is essential. Rather than wordsmithing long-form think-pieces, it is better to issues a series of statements with as few words as possible. Less really is more. These statements could take the form of a manifesto, for instance starting:
- “At [x company], we believe….”
Making explicit links to pre-existing enunciations of corporate values could be helpful – as could a clear recognition of the trade-offs involved. All reasonable people can understand that some short-term productivity enhancements could prove ultimately detrimental over time and that there is a balance to be struck between consistency for the greater good and flexibility to promote group and sub-group culture.
Making it work
Of course, the major challenge is how to make it work. An absolute pre-requisite for successful hybrid working will be cloud-based collaboration tools, the more consistently deployed globally the better – and ideally with seamless single sign-on capability everywhere. Office environments that have hitherto relied on some kind of ‘dial-in’ or virtual remote desktop to accommodate the outlier case of remote working cannot hope for staff to even maintain their current level of productivity, let alone improve it in the hybrid world. Investment in good IT is therefore a basic hygiene factor, necessary but by no means sufficient.
Instead, therefore, the most profound things to get right are:
- How to ensure equity and inclusion for all employees, regardless of their physical location and
- How to strike the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous work to optimise efficiency and effectiveness
Equity and inclusion
Human beings are social animals and rely heavily on a subtle range of signals to understand the dynamics of the workplace including but not limited to others’ micro-expressions, body language and tone of voice. Even the smallest delay in transmitting/receiving these signals – or worse not having them at all – can rob a dialogue of its richness, as we have all experienced so vividly online. How then can a company ensure that every employee can make their best contribution in a way that is fair, in an atmosphere free of any pernicious discrimination against those onscreen? The answer is unambiguous rules, or perhaps better expressed a new work etiquette.
In 2016 the Government Digital Service (GDS), creator of the award-winning national government website gov.uk, published what became an iconic list of such work etiquette ideas called “It’s ok to”. GDS’s motivation wasn’t related to hybrid working but rather preserving and socialising its culture, especially for new hires. That doesn’t matter. The list was incredibly effective because it spoke to people in language they could immediately engage with. Posters appear on walls and the principles enshrined would be referred to regularly in meetings. I know because I worked there. The “It’s ok to” list went on to feature in the Vienna Biennale and spawned lots of corporate imitators.
Ensuring equity and inclusion means having a list like this – and probably a corollary too, “It’s not ok to”.
It’s not hard to imagine what sorts of things should go on these lists. We have all experienced what it feels like not to be able to get a word in edgeways, not to -be able to read the mood of the room and not to be able to sense what the reaction is to one’s presentation from the echoey online silence.
One approach might be to crowdsource the “it’s ok/not ok to” etiquette rules so that colleagues feel they are defining the new hybrid culture for themselves. Of course, the content of the lists will be different from GDS’s but the key point is that they must genuinely inhabit and affect the atmosphere of the workplace. To achieve this, irrespective of how the rules are created, they must be straightforward, clear, easy to remember and prominent (online and in the office).
Synchronous and asynchronous communication
Cloud collaboration tools tend by their very nature to favour synchronous communication, meaning the natural expectation of someone sending a message is to receive a reply in real-time. This can be hugely useful for getting things done but at the same time can be hugely distracting. As platforms proliferate, it is easy to get in a situation where managing different channels of communication becomes a task of its own. The cognitive overhead of this always-on mode is gruelling. Constant interruption means fractured attention, which can be especially debilitating if it includes significant context switching. Parallel processing a strategic business decision about the operating model whilst also dealing with rudimentary admin rarely leads to optimal outcomes in either direction.
In contrast, asynchronous communication (where messages are sent but only responded to at some point later) can lead to a range of positive benefits such as more and deeper concentration time, more thoughtful decision making and equality for employees in different time zones.
It should not be an either/or – both synchronous and asynchronous modes are vitally important. The key questions are:
- What should be the relative ratio of synchronous to asynchronous communication modes?
- When and to what end?
When employees discuss amongst themselves sotto voce which days they would like to be in the office and which not, probably what they are really concerned with is the amount of asynchronous communication on offer and the extent to which this will liberate continuous blocks of concentration time. This article was written during a series of quiet periods of focus time, not against the background of constant Teams and Slack notifications. You can no doubt empathise. Tasks like drafting Powerpoint decks, strategy papers or longer-form e-mails demand uninterrupted, free-thinking time to be completed effectively.
Taking the above factors into account, the worst outcome for a business would be to move to a hybrid arrangement which on the surface looks new and innovative but in practice leads to greater communication overhead, more fractured attention for employees and therefore diminishes productivity.
On the other hand, there really is the prospect to build back better. The key is to be practically focussed on what periods of time, for which colleagues are dedicated to what purposes and therefore what the rules of the road should be in each scenario. It is crucial that everyone had the same understanding of the scenarios and their implications.
As a leader, you should explicitly recognise at the outset that it is unlikely you will deliver the optimum answer the first time around regarding these scenarios. It is therefore important to force continued (but albeit more refined) experimentation before ways of working calcify into that elusive ‘new normal’. Be open and transparent about the process of iteration to take people with you.
Getting it right is one of the most important challenges a leadership can face and will be of direct consequence for competitive advantage. Prospective employees may face a greater diversity of choice in the future in the totality of the social contract at work. Those employers with the most compelling offer (both perceived and in reality) will attract the best and the brightest and accordingly thrive.