In this edition, Lee considers how we can learn the lessons of ad-hoc hybrid work and create a fully-featured hybrid work system to help us hit the ground running in 2023.

2021 was a year of enforced remote working for most office-based roles; and in 2022, we saw the first attempts to create hybrid working arrangements. But rather than combining the best of both online and offline worlds, these often combined the worst bits of each – non-stop synchronous video calls whilst trying to work at home, followed by sitting in a cubicle answering emails in the office after a pointless commute, just to indulge a management desire to return to the office.

As we make plans for improving the workplace in 2023, we need to shift gears from basic ad-hoc hybrid policies to a real hybrid work system. As with other aspects of employee experience, the fact that no one function “owns” the enablers of hybrid working can make this a challenge. We already understand many of the basic elements that need to change. The bigger question is how do we combine them in a work system that is coherently designed but can also flex and improve over time?

Hybrid Work Enablers

We know now, as Rita McGrath writes, that team development is no longer as simple as Tuckman’s linear path from forming to performing, especially within hybrid and distributed teams. So what can we track or measure to assess progress? She suggests we look at team roles (do we have the right people in the right places?), trust levels, information flows, commitment and levels of psychological safety as good indicators of team maturity and likely performance.

Maximising team agility, autonomy and service ownership is something we have written a lot about and remains fundamental to making hybrid working a success. We need teams to become more self-managing and less reliant on process management, with a greater degree of latitude to build their own connections and relationships with other teams around them. But it’s easy to forget is that the team leaders and middle managers who are trying to create space for new ways of working are typically stuck in the middle between teams wanting autonomy and higher-ups demanding a blizzard of KPIs and reporting, or setting arbitrary rules on presenteeism, as a recent BBC round-up reports:

“As the pandemic has waned, middle managers have faced ongoing pressures as workplaces pivot their operations. It’s these leaders who executives ask to implement unpopular return-to-office mandates or hybrid-working policies. In many cases, managers are caught between two sides pulling in opposite directions: while many workers want to hold on to their autonomous set-ups, some bosses have pushed for an office return. ‘They can end up caught in the middle, having to balance the uncertainty of what executives say about their working models against the clamour among employees for flexible working,’ says Helen Kupp, senior director at Future Forum, based in California.”

The success of the sudden switch to remote working in 2020/21 shows that if we place our trust in people and give them reasons to feel ownership and pride in their work, they can usually be trusted to deliver without surveillance or micro-management oversight. Management can afford to spend much less time and effort on enforcement actions if we design the right hybrid work systems and encourage people to push themselves further. There are so many little examples like this one from the design world that show how people will go further than we think in trying to improve – with only the most minimal encouragement – and they tend to self-manage in pursuit of goals they believe in:

So, yes, we need to re-shape the role of managers, but part of the answer is also to trust people to go further than we might think possible by creating the right conditions and culture.

Creating the right conditions and the right work system in a hybrid environment requires a lot more focus on cultivating networks and collective intelligence. We need far fewer meetings. PowerPoints and emails, and far more online collaboration and working iteratively in the open. Sometimes the drive for efficiency can come at the expense of practice improvement. For example, as Ethan Mollick writes, small teams can be lean and more individually productive, whilst larger teams typically have more slack (less individual productivity), but they also have a greater capacity to develop collective intelligence for the benefit of all. So we should not aim for a one-size fits all approach to teams in terms of size, speed or slack.

Designing a Hybrid Work System

To design a good hybrid work system is neither difficult nor expensive, but it does requires connected thinking and co-ordination across domains, for example:

  • Senior leaders need to set an example on meeting & email reduction in favour of online collaboration and new ways of working
  • Managers need to cultivate agile, autonomous ways of working and more put more emphasis on situational team leadership than process management
  • CIOs need to focus on improving the digital workplace platforms, policies and integrations needed to support each team working in its own way
  • HR need to work on re-balancing incentives to promote more team working and collaboration – e.g. looking at team versus individual KPIs, and removing disincentives to sharing
  • Learning and Development need to provide more learning and coaching ‘in the flow of work’ to help people develop the new skills and attributes they need for successful hybrid working

As with digital transformation more broadly, a practical approach is to convene a hybrid working group comprised of the stakeholder groups above, agree on the capabilities and affordances the system should support, perhaps expressed as employee-centred user stories, and manage a roadmap of actions and collaborations to accelerate their development. Think of the hybrid work system as a product. What are its features? How do we track user engagement and satisfaction? What are the use cases it is designed to address? Perhaps also document each release of the system as you would with a product. Create a social system ‘hub’ to document policies, guidance, and processes; perhaps use it to encourage sharing of use cases, scenarios or ideas from teams about how to make the best of different modes of working in a hybrid environment. This group can also recruit hybrid working ‘guides’ to help spread new practices and encourage more online-first working regardless of physical location, and also use this network to launch campaigns or missions to spread change. And just as Hootsuite did for highlighting and removing bad processes that are getting in the way of work, perhaps consider a reporting system for barriers to hybrid work success (e.g. badly designed KPIs, outdated policies, poor physical or digital infrastructure) that can inform the actions of the hybrid working group.

Think like a campaign, not a corporate comms initiative

There will often be a vestigial instinct to seek uniformity or consistency of policies across the organisation, but in fact a successful hybrid work system does not need to be uniform – it needs to take into account what works for different teams and functions and then build around that. So, for example, instead of asking internal comms teams to focus on alignment, common culture or internal brand during the transition to hybrid, consider using them instead as coaches to make each team a better communicator of what they do – in their own style – so that they can make more connections and grow their networks.

Communication needs to play a key role in refining your hybrid work system, but as Leandro Herrero argues, think of it more like political campaigning – adjust your messaging to different audiences and segments, and seek to mobilise people who want to improve your ways of working. And remember that employee experience is not about snacks and table football, but respecting people’s time and attention and creating the best possible environment in which they can get their work done, whilst also providing opportunities for meaningful engagement and interaction in physical workspaces. None of this is rocket surgery, but it takes commitment, thought and shared focus to go from hybrid work as a debate about when and where work happens to become a new system that can improve work whilst also providing a better employee experience for your people and teams. If we want to hit the ground running in 2023 with sustainable hybrid working systems that can evolve and improve throughout the year, now would be a good time to start having these conversations.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash