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What Have We Learnt About Hybrid Working?

Author:

Tim Russell

Modern Workspace

•  Dec 12, 2023

Quite often the question around working location boils down, “do you prefer to work from home or the office?” 

This is the wrong question to ask; the workspace is anywhere we achieve our business goals. In this article I will provide references, cases, documents and studies as well as some leading questions to help you really understand the journey we have all be on from Workplace to Workspace.

In my role as Chief Technologist for Modern Workspace at CDW UK, and working for several organisations over the years, I can give a unique insight not just my own journey through the changes we have seen but also the projects and programs I have been involved in at BT, Vodafone and Microsoft around the remote workforce. This article is for you to digest and hopefully build on, but also the basis for a talk I will be giving later this year.

Let me start with a few statements: 

  • Hybrid working can be great, but there is definitely scope for companies to get it wrong for their employees! 
  • The key to success is trust and culture, supported by the correct technical choices. 
  • There is also no one-size-fits-all solution.  

I’m sure we have seen enough sensationalist articles outlining how a return mandate has failed or how businesses are feeling out of touch with remote workers. Many of the articles I see focus on how the return mandate is damaging, and although there are a few, there are nowhere near as many about how remote working is failing.   

It is an emotive subject. We all have our preferences, and this is the core understanding that anyone who creates policies needs to have. You and I are different, we have colours, food, smells, weather we prefer, and there is a good chance there is a host of other things we differ on; so why should our working environments be the same? A lot of businesses are focusing on a hybrid mandate that is rigid and intended to be applied to all staff. That simply won’t work if this mandate, at any time, stipulates the working options or time required in the office. 

During the pandemic I interviewed people who had a laptop balanced on an ironing board in their bedroom while their partner home-schooled children in the lounge. This must have been an unbelievably difficult experience for this family, and even though children are back at school, not everyone has the luxury of working from home in a dedicated environment.  

Noise-cancelling functionality in applications and accessories, along with background blur can only go so far; as humans we are also distracted and influenced by our surroundings. Working from home is not for everyone, but for some it is the only option. The counter-point to the above scenario is that out of the pandemic we have seen a more flexible approach to individuals being physically in the office. I have worked for companies that employed from a catchment area; that is, if people were more than 20 miles from the physical office they would probably not even bother coming to an interview as the commute was too difficult as the company was not in a large metropolitan area. With this form of geographical limitation, you would quite often end up with the same staff ‘boomeranging’ back to the same company as the availability of people was limited.  

However, what if the best individual for a role was at the other end of the country? Now that we are more comfortable with hybrid working, organisations can focus on employing the best, not the closest; and this opens up an amazing dynamic. I have spoken to individuals who are physically limited from attending office locations but are equally or more capable of carrying out the same jobs as their counterparts. This new subset of employees is a gift to organisations; providing a new range of perspectives and understandings as well as skillsets. Organisations that are aware of this are now hiring within time zones, not geographies. 

Hybrid Working Must Be Healthy Working

When I used to commute into London, the travel time on the train was spent reading a book or listening to music. This became a natural decompression zone, where I could switch off from work and be present for my family when I came home. This buffer zone is quite often not present when working remotely. I would probably look silly reading a book as I crossed the landing and I think it would be downright dangerous to read walking down the stairs. 

I have been working in hybrid or remote roles for almost 20 years. When all those who could started working from home back in 2020, I wrote an article on trust and how this was the key to success in the hybrid and remote working era. Trust is an outcome of forward-looking, inclusive cultural development in an organisation. Pre-2000, employees were focused on attendance and this was equated with effort and worth. I remember working for a financial institution in the City of London where if you weren’t trying to be first in, last out every day and you took no more than a week of holiday at a time you were not considered a “valuable asset”. This leads to unhealthy work practices and can lead to mental and physical challenges.  

Fortunately, a lot of organisations have moved on, and understand that attendance is not directly related to impact or value. Even where set timeframes are required, such as customer-facing roles in contact centres, retail, manufacturing or even healthcare attendance is absolutely not an indication of impact. How we measure and understand our own impact is more important than it has ever been.   

Let’s take the information worker who is in the office a few days a week and at home or mobile on other days.  When they are not in the office the scheduling tool they use shows the time completely blocked out, with no gaps. I have seen first-hand and was, for a short while, also guilty of this when I started remote working. There was a mindset where if your agenda wasn’t full, you weren’t busy and by association you were not delivering value. Take a minute and think on that because it happened; now how ridiculous does it sound? 

Delivering Value Is Ultimately What Counts

Has anyone witnessed dress-down Fridays, or dress code requirements? How does the clothing you are wearing impact your ability to do your job? I appreciate there is a link in how we think compared to how we dress, but that doesn’t impact our physical ability to perform. I will caveat that there are requirements in public-facing roles to have an identifiable uniform, protective clothing or to protect a business image, but these do not impact an individual’s ability to do their job. 

When I ran a team in one of my previous roles, they were expected to be innovative and forward-looking. If I had asked them to book in a slot every Friday from 10-11am to be innovative, would this have worked? In honesty, probably not. Innovation can come on a random Tuesday at 6am just as much as it could come in that defined hour. What happens if you have a great idea at 10pm or 6am, how can you build on that when your working environment is defined as 9-5 in a physical building? You can’t expect creativity and innovation when you work within these prescribed parameters; the opportunity needs to be created for individuals to deliver at a time and in a way that best suits them. 

Using Tech for a Better Hybrid Workspace

With hybrid work, there is a risk that the lines between home and work can become blurred. Where we create the ability for individuals to work when and where they want, how can we ensure that they don’t face the same issues I mentioned above, in which the expectations were to be in first, out last? This is ultimately culture, but there are also technical tools that can support this. The common term used is Digital Employee Experience. I have used a few of these tools, and the key is to make individuals aware that they are working in a style that could be unhealthy. If I answer emails at 10pm, that is my choice, but if I am also answering them at 6am then maybe I should consider bookending my day to allow the separation of home and work life that the decompression of a commute used to provide. 

I want to be clear that this is not an advocation for ‘big brother’; the data is designed to protect and support, not monitor and report. Again, cultural alignment is required. 

Hybrid working, remote working and office working are all misnomers. It’s just work; work is not a place, it is the thing we are expected to do. 

We employ staff because they have a capability and an attitude that we believe will benefit and deliver on our company goals; where roles do not require a physical presence I would say that we have just as much right to tell them how to comb their hair as we do to tell them where to work. Clearly defined outcomes and impact are more important than dress code, location or even equipment choice. 

Lessons Learned From the New Way of Working.

One of the key takeaways from the recent shift to more flexible and distributed work arrangements is that we need to rethink our assumptions and expectations about how work gets done. Rather than focusing on inputs such as time, location, or equipment, we should focus on outputs such as outcomes, impact, and quality.  

  • Data is a tool, not a weapon. We should use data to support and protect our people, not to monitor and report on them. Data can help us understand the challenges and opportunities of different work modes and provide feedback and guidance to improve performance and well-being. However, data should not be used to micromanage, control, or punish employees. This requires a culture of trust, transparency, and collaboration. 
  • Work is not a place; it is a thing. We should not label or judge work based on where it happens, but on what it achieves. We hire staff because they have the capability and attitude to deliver on our company goals, not because they fit a certain mold or stereotype. We should respect and value the diversity of preferences and needs among our employees and empower them to choose the work mode that suits them best. This requires a culture of flexibility, autonomy, and accountability. 
  • Technical choices and solutions matter. We should not underestimate the role of technology in creating the optimal work environment. Technology can enable or constrain the productivity and creativity of our people, depending on how it is designed, implemented, and supported. We should invest in reliable, secure, and user-friendly technologies that can facilitate communication, collaboration, and innovation across different work modes. This requires a culture of innovation, experimentation, and learning. 

The new way of working is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but a spectrum of possibilities that can be tailored to the specific context and objectives of each employee, team, and project. To make the most of this opportunity, we need to adopt a mindset and a culture that embraces change, diversity, and empowerment. We also need to leverage the technical choices and solutions that can enable us to work smarter, faster, and better, regardless of where we are, the time of day or the technology we decide to use.

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