Making hybrid working work

One of the first things we learned when a company I chaired in the mid-1990s moved to a hybrid model of working was that people have very different perspectives and needs. For some, being in the office most of the time was important to their identity, social engagement and sense of efficacy. At the other extreme, a few took the opportunity to move to rural retreats at other end of the country, which meant that they came to the office perhaps once a month. To the extent that we could measure it, both groups (and those in-between) demonstrated increased job satisfaction and greater productivity. Staff turnover also dropped across the company.

Many companies are struggling now to define and implement policies towards hybrid working. Requiring everyone to be in the office all the time led to the “great resign”, where employees used to the freedom of choice during Covid voted with their feet to find less dictatorial employers. While there is ample evidence that hybrid working increases productivity and retention, it also has downsides – not least the diminution of “social capital”, the bonds of friendship and camaraderie that come from frequent social interactions with colleagues. There are also claims that strategic planning becomes weaker, when people don’t meet regularly in person. Though I have not yet seen clear empirical evidence for this, the concept has at least face validity.

For a team, one pragmatic approach is to explore together the system that brings everyone together under a shared purpose. The first step is to define the deliverables, for the external world and also in respect of tasks each needs other team members to deliver to them. (For example, project schedules.) Then to define the enablers – the less tangible factors, such as having a thinking partner to work through a complex issue, giving moral support, or co-mentoring. Next, the team can experiment with ideas of different combinations of office-based and home-based interaction to find those that will best support both the deliverables and the enablers.

It’s important here that everyone feels that their preferences and needs are taken into account. For example, some people do their best individual work in the mornings and contribute best to meetings in the afternoons; or vice versa. Building the habit of accommodation for individual needs will stand the team well when it comes to incorporating a new member or where a change in the external environment requires a reshaping of task allocation, for example.

The key here is that people’s circumstances are constantly evolving – and so are the needs of the organisation. The collective competence to adjust with minimum friction is becoming increasingly important.

A useful read in this context is the newly released book from my colleague in Singapore Weixi Tan Hybrid Work Revolution: What teams are facing and leaders are missing. Weixi’s guidance is not revolutionary; rather, it is a compilation of good practice from the experience of multiple corporations.

To return to where we started, what is the one most useful piece of advice we can offer to organisations struggling to cope with the hybrid challenge? I suggest it is this: Stop trying to impose unilateral policies and instead, educate your people to make their own choices, at the team level, while supporting them in doing so.

© David Clutterbuck 2024

*For more information on our Work life balance course and to download the 2024 Work life balance report please go here.



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