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Hybrid working: a case of old dogmas learning new tricks?

Is hybrid working a revolution in the way we work, or a case of old office-based place and presence-based ways of working reasserting themselves in a slightly different guise?

A little while ago, ‘Hybrid Working’ was declared the Economist’s word of 2022. I’m not sure how worried we should be about economists who have trouble counting to 1, but it’s true that the term has become fairly ubiquitous as organisations and commentators discuss post-pandemic working arrangements.

But are we actually seeing much that is new in hybrid working arrangements?

‘Hybrid’ in this context basically describes an alternation of office-based and remote/home-based working. It’s far from new. This kind of mix has been a staple of good old-fashioned teleworking programmes for more than three decades.

Similarly, when permission to work from home is granted under statutory flexible working arrangements, it’s often for a set number of days, with attendance in the office still expected on the other days.

In both these cases, relatively little changes in the way of working apart from the location of work.

Old dogmas with a few new tricks

What we’re seeing in far too many hybrid working implementations are:

  • A simple binary of office versus home in how work is conceived
  • Some improvement to technologies, but with little focus on how to use them to improve work as a result
  • Baked-in assumptions of the office being the primary place for work, with home (or elsewhere ‘remote’) being a secondary or even sub-optimal substitute for the real thing
  • Mandates to be in the office (the most important place) a set number of days, or even regular specified days
  • An emphasis on rules and manager control, rather than autonomy and choice
  • A continuing focus on presence – both in the emphasis on which place people work in and often also in exercising control over people’s working hours
  • Preference to revert to the office and traditional practices rather than develop better techniques for virtual working
  • Little thought given to people who have hands-on or site-specific work – it’s all about office-based knowledge work.

So, even though some practices may seem relatively new to organisations and individuals, like working from home and using video communication, work still remains substantially conceived in traditional terms. Changes are based on traditional assumptions. Proximity is still the touchstone by which key activities are assessed, for example in the assumption that being together in the same place is better for most forms of collaboration, interaction and important conversations. Virtual interaction remains modelled on traditional meetings.

There’s a Smarter Way to manage location – and improve much else besides

It’s very different with Smart or Agile Working, where variation in the location of work is just one componenet of a wider and strategic programme of change. So flexibility of location is an integral part of such programmes of transformation – but as an enabler rather than the central focus of change.

Central to Smart/Agile Working change are:

  • A focus on results and productivity, rather than presence
  • A culture of trust rather than control, enabling much greater autonomy for individuals and teams
  • Dynamic and as-needed flexibility, with greater mobility within organisation-owned premises as well as beyond, in accordance with the nature of the tasks being carried out
  • Equality between all settings and locations in terms of importance
  • Rethinking, modernising and streamlining all working practices and processes
  • In the better programmes, change that goes beyond office-based working to transform production work and all kinds of hands-on and site-specific working, prioritising equity and establishing a level playing field for flexibility
  • Targeting clearly defined benefits for business, individuals and the environment and integrating optimal practices into choices about where, when and how to work.

Does your organsiation embrace such a comprehensive approach to flexibility?

The future requires going Beyond Hybrid

In a world that’s changing fast, it’s understandable that many people default to the cosiness of the familiar. And maybe especially so after the disruption and distress cause by the pandemic.

But organisations need to do better than most current versions of hybrid working.

Leaders need to put their heads together and ask themselves, “How can we use the new possibilities for working smarter to:

  1. Improve our productivity, delivering more and better for the same or reduced resource input
  2. Improve the quality of the work experience for our people
  3. Create a great and attractive work culture
  4. Deliver wider benefits in line with our values, for society and the environment.”

Simple hybrid working may be a start, but it’s insufficient. It just won’t deliver the full range of potential benefits, and will be hard to operate in terms of managing both people and premises.

So it’s time to take stock, and begin the process of going Beyond Hybrid Working, to bring about real and lasting transformation. Why wait?