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Where are you on the Unreconstructed-Hybrid-Flexible-Smart Maturity scale?

We are living in a time of both uncertainty and innovation, both for the nature of work and the future of the workplace. Some commentators are saying the future is unknowable. Everyone is to a greater or lesser extent experimenting. We’ll only be able to see over time – probably years – what the future actually holds.

While there’s a degree of truth in this, I believe that it is possible to identify trends, and there are ways to categorise the patterns of practice that are emerging for post-pandemic work and workplace.

This is because there were already clearly identifiable trends in new ways of working before the pandemic.

In fact, organisations that were already implementing Smart or Agile Working were in a much better position to make the adjustment to remote working once the lockdowns began.

Of course there were also many that hadn’t embraced Smart Working. So they had to improvise hastily to enable homeworking. Some did this well, and with commendable rapidity. Others struggled with it, at least initially.

This has led to a rather belated realisation that:

a) remote working can work well
b) employees generally like it and want to continue with it, and
c) organisations  need to adopt a much more strategic approach if they wanted to reap the potential benefits.

Adopting a strategic approach is crucial, and is central to implementing Smart Working successfully. You have to know why you’re doing it, what benefits you’re actively looking to achieve, and be willing to challenge past and current working practices if you want to maximise the potential benefits and truly modernise ways of working.

The emerging but unchallenging consensus around “Hybrid Working”

As the months have gone by, “Hybrid Working” is a term that has been adopted widely by organisations, commentators (and a new wave of instant experts) in the media, and by vendors looking to capitalise on rapidly growing opportunities to sell products and solutions.

Basically, it’s possible to implement hybrid working without making any substantial changes to the way work is done apart from the location.

In many ways this focus on “hybrid” isn’t particularly helpful. Discussions have tended to be binary in nature – office or home – and excessively focused on the place of work rather than how work is done.

Basically, it’s possible to implement hybrid working without making any substantial changes to the way work is done apart from the location. And this is what we are finding is happening with some organisations who are now defining what hybrid working means for them in practice.

The panorama of post-pandemic working

In reviewing how organisations are looking at the post-Covid workplace, it’s possible to distinguish four kinds of approach amongst organisations that will retain a physical collective workplace or workplaces. These are:

  • Unreconstructed – everybody back to traditional ways of working
  • Controlled Hybrid – focusing on rules and roles, specifying days for home and days for the office, retaining the norms and practices of the office as the touchstone for working remotely
  • Flexible Hybrid – having a framework rather than rules, focusing on tasks rather than roles, and enabling more autonomy and choice for employees
  • Smart Maturity – as for Flexible Hybrid, but with a strong focus on transformation and innovation, rethinking work on “virtual first” principles and redesigning workplaces for maximal flexibility and choice, and for optimal interaction between people in the collective workplace and people working elsewhere. It emphasises a focus on results and a culture of trust, rather than working practices based on presence or place.

Further characteristics of these are outlined in the figure below.

Differing practices in Hybrid Working

Impacts on the collective workplace

In most cases, there is a spectrum of conservatism to innovation going left-to-right in our panorama.

The Unreconstructed category will most likely have cellular offices (at least for senior personnel) and assigned seating. Or they may have the kinds of desk-intensive layouts with hotdesking either for the majority or for those who spend time out of the office on projects or meeting clients.

The Controlled Hybrid workplace is likely to develop role profiles (e.g. fixed/anchor, flexible, mobile, homeworker) and link those to entitlements, e.g. to an assigned desk or a shared desk based on a sharing ratio specified for the role involved, and linked to permissions to work elsewhere.

There may be some activity-based settings (i.e. informal break-out areas, quiet spaces, pods for 1-to-1s or video calls, reconfigurable project spaces, etc), but these are marginal as the space is predominantly designed around an assumed need for desk space. Desk booking is probably being implemented as there is a strong fear of “not being able to find a desk when we are all in the office”.

Flexible Hybrid implementations give much more autonomy and choice to individuals and/or teams to decide their ways of working, rather than prescribing specific days in the office. As a consequence, their workplaces will be more focused on the collaborative activities people will prioritise when they do come into the building.

They will have a much more varied landscape of settings in the office, rather than designing everything around the desk. However, such implementations may lack a strong transformation agenda, and still see the collective workplace as being primary and providing the norm for virtual working. For example, the settings and practices for hybrid meetings may still revolve around a more traditional meeting room format.

In both versions of hybrid, there can be an over-emphasis on the collective workplace being the optimal place for collaboration. Home is seen as being great for high concentration focus work, and the office best for collaboration. In Controlled Hybrid, this is reflected in getting the team together around a group of desks on specified days. In Flexible Hybrid, it can translate into a surfeit of spaces for physical in-person meetings, and a lack of quiet spaces for solo work when that’s needed, and a lack of small and acoustically well-designed spaces for jumping onto an unplanned Teams or Zoom interaction.

This current wisdom about “home for focus and office for collaboration” is seriously flawed. We’ve found during the pandemic that there can not only be effective virtual collaboration but that in many cases it can add value too. And when people do go into the office, while they may not need a desk all day, there will be times when they do also need to have a good setting to concentrate.

A Smart Maturity approach maximises autonomy and choice. Recognising the possibilities of virtual working, a “virtual first” approach flips the paradigm. So working practices are designed to work for everyone across the extended workplace rather than being based on traditional practices in the collective workplace. Flexibility, mobility and virtuality are seen as normal. In a sense, everyone is seen as being equally “remote”, rather than there being a distinction between those in a “main” workplace and those who are remote from it. Practices and process that unnecessarily anchor people to the office are challenged and redesigned to increase effectiveness, efficiency and wellbeing.

This has consequences for the design of workplaces. It takes activity-based working to the next level, with spaces designed for maximal flexibility. There will be far fewer traditional desks. There will be more shared coworking-style spaces and touchdown tables for people to use as needed. Rather than having a team bank of shared desks, teams that are rarely together except for occasional meetings and socialising may prefer to use a space that is reconfigurable for the mix of tasks they will do when they do come together. There will be fewer large meeting rooms, and more small unbookable spaces for ad hoc interactions with other people in the office or working elsewhere.

This approach takes as a maxim: “First design the work. Then design the workplace”.

The impact of Virtual Only organisations

There is, of course, a 5th category – the Virtual Only organisation. While there are global companies in this field with very significant turnover, most Virtual Only organisations tend to be smaller – at least at the moment.

Virtual Only organisations are not necessarily smarter. Some that operate more traditional home-based working, for example, can be very controlling with very limited autonomy for employees, remote surveillance, etc. But the newer wave seem to be very focused on employee choice and wellbeing. These will be a focus for another article. But for the moment it’s worth noting that for many people during the pandemic virtual working has been their only experience of work as they have entered the labour market.

And as Virtual Only companies grow and become a larger part of the landscape of work, people will be moving between such companies and premises-based or hybrid companies. What will their experience and expectations be?

For sure, many of the norms and practices of Unreconstructed and Controlled Hybrid organisations will be incomprehensible to them. We all need to be aware of this, and be thinking, what can we learn from Virtual Only companies about how best to organise ourselves in the new world of work?

So where does your organisation fit on this spectrum of modernisation?

One organisation that is making the leap all the way from Unreconstructed to Smart Maturity is Cimpress with their “Remote First” programme. You can access an enlightening case study of this on the Smart Work Network website.

So, how about your own organisation – where do you fit into this Panorama? How flexible are you really – or are there old and controlling assumptions underpinning apparently new practices?

And if you have practices that are towards the left of the Panorama, you can ask “Why exactly are we doing this?”

Then look at the practices on the right, and ask, “Why not?”