A couple of years ago, all everyone was talking about was remote working – meaning working from home. I think many people still associate the two together, but remote working isn’t just working from home. It simply means working from somewhere that isn’t on site with the rest of the team.
Hybrid on the other hand is a new word, but not a new concept. As soon as the very first dial up internet and blackberries were available, people were able to work from anywhere. I have been working hybrid for 18 years now, I just didn’t call it that. Some of my teams were based in different parts of the country so I would often travel to different towns and cities, linking in with my teams via email, conference calls (which I hated then and still don’t enjoy now) and would take my blackberry to school sports day to enable flexibility, I would log on in the evening if I needed to prep for the next day, once the kids were in bed and it helped me be more productive. I had total flexibility. I was good at my job.
So, when I hear that there has been a major increase in employer acceptance of hybrid work, I am not at all surprised. It really fulfils so many benefits to the employee and positively impacts wellbeing, engagement and retention. And yet, employers still want more rigid working approaches, and we don’t know how this disconnect will play out.
The Microsoft future of work report 2022 is good reading and has made me reflect on the conversations I am having with clients right now. Microsoft-New-Future-Of-Work-Report-2022.pdf
From uncertainty to hybrid: Employers who were on the fence with their post-COVID plans have overwhelmingly chosen to go with a hybrid work model, where employees work remotely some, but not all of the time. This was a large driver behind the near-doubling just in 2021 of U.S. employees who said their employer was planning a hybrid work model, from 16.5% to 28.4% (Barrero 2022).
However, employers are still embracing hybrid less than employees want: As of March 2022, U.S. employees still want to work from home more than employers are planning to allow (around 0.5 days/week, depending on type of worker) (Barrero et al. 2022). Globally, we see the same dynamic: In AIPAC, 40% of employers are planning flexible work in 2022, but 60% of employees want it (Microsoft WTI 2022).
Who will win the cultural shift in the way we work is unknown. Big questions remain: Will employers become more flexible. Some big companies are already leading the way, such as Zapier, Shopify, Amazon, and American Express. They have adapted the way in which they work, set new working methods, invested in new technology and invested in training managers to lead a hybrid team. The former office workers show that hybrid is working for them. And yet, some other giants are calling everyone back in, Tesla being the biggest name to go first. 2020 Employees got used to a new standard of working that let them set their own boundaries and decide when, where, and how they wanted to work. Of those who returned to the office, 57% of employees prefer working from home full-time. Will they quit instead? The great resignation and quiet quitting suggest that right now in 2022, the employees appetite for flexibility is not diminishing.
Right now, employees operate in a strong labour market where employers are finding it hard to recruit talent. What happens in the next few years as recession kicks in? Will people still demand flexibility when labour markets tighten?
Productivity and performance
As I mentioned before, hybrid helps me be more productive. I, like many others, can determine what environment best suits the task that needs to be done. When concentrated, focus work needs to be done, solitude with few distractions is better. Idea generation, discussions and deep discussions often work better when people are face to face. I love to get people in the room together to build relationships and have difficult conversations or solve problems. And yet, getting everyone together, at the same time can push back those essential meetings. You know how difficult it is to co-ordinate diaries. Hybrid options mean that you can expedite critical sessions by allowing people to dial in if they can’t be there in person. It isn’t perfect, but it is better than delaying.
In Microsoft’s recent research, they found 80% of employees reported being as or more productive since going remote, but 54% of business leaders reported fearing that productivity was negatively affected since the shift (Microsoft WTI 2022)
So, we have to consider whether we are all talking about the same thing when we say productivity. Employees tend to focus on outputs when discussing productivity. “I attended 10 meetings today – I was really productive” vs managers who tend to focus on outcomes. “I attended 10 meetings today and I don’t feel we moved much forward at all.” Many managers tell me that they feel training, relationship building, a sense of belonging and commitment have waned since remote became the norm.
One broader definition of productivity that has been proposed emphasizes several new dimensions in addition to what is typically considered by managers: well-being, collaboration, and innovation (Teevan 2021).
Are managers and employees talking about different things? If so, then hybrid might be the answer to enhance both versions of productivity.
Hybrid represents a trade-off between the benefits of being in-person versus the benefits of not having to go into the office. Blending both may increase overall productivity by 5% (Bloom 2021).
Discussions need to be had around what kind of work does each team or individual do, and what is the best environment to do that in. Some work is more suited to office, meetings, or in close proximity to one’s colleagues. I learn so much from watching, listening, and being with others. The networking that happens when I am with others has created some brilliant opportunities for me. It has enhanced my performance and productivity. But if that is all I did, I probably wouldn’t get much actual work done. Preparing, analysing, producing, reporting, well that is often done best when there are no distractions. A busy office makes many less productive in these kinds of tasks. To entice people back in willingly, the future workspace will need to have areas that aid specific kinds of work, not hinder it.
Engagement, belonging and well being
I have been part of many online community and working groups. They work well and connection is made, we support one another, give advice, and champion one another. And yet, we love the opportunities when we actually get to meet each other in real person. We can do engagement, belonging, which positively impacts wellbeing, remotely, but in real life gives it a turbo boost.
Wellbeing is another term that is widely misunderstood, because it does mean different things to different people. It could be happiness, self-motivation, or a sense of energy and social acceptance.
It could mean experiencing a pleasant life, positive emotions, minimising negative aspects of one’s life as much as possible. It could mean the satisfaction of basic human needs for competence, autonomy, relatedness and self-acceptance, (Ryan & Deci 2001). Or the quality connections which are seen as sources of energy (Dutton 2003) as well as social acceptance, social coherence, social contribution and integration, and organizational belongingness (Fisher 2014).
One thing is clear, humans are social creatures, and we need an element of in real person social connection to thrive – even for the most introverted of us. Hybrid enables the right level of social connections, team building, but not at the detriment of losing autonomy and control over our lives. It could be the sweet spot we all crave.
We had forced disconnection due to the pandemic. Although we loved some aspects of it, for many, the loss of seeing people, being with people, eventually took its toll. Zoom fatigue set in as people tried to stay connected and attended endless meetings, team parties and zoom quizzes, but it didn’t quite replace the in-person experience.
All remote creates disengagement, too much in person can create overwhelm.
From my personal experience, I tried to have work life balance and failed. When I was working hard, I would try to play hard, but all that meant was that I was then exhausted. I wanted to be the best at everything, professionally and personally, and burnout and despondency followed. I felt like I was giving it my all in any area of my life. I remember one holiday, where I felt I HAD to take my blackberry on holiday with me. It took me 3 days to switch off from work, 2 days to be present with my family, then 2 days thinking about going back to work. This was not balance. I was also role modelling really unhealthy behaviours to my team and family.
Since then, I have found that work life integration works best for me – and that means having strong boundaries in place. I am not alone.
Work-life integration: More recently, the concept of work-life integration is gaining popularity. Work and life demands are dynamic and transactional, and is a function of the amount of segmentation and flexibility possible to maintain a balance that prioritizes one over the other fluidly (Feigon et al. 2018)
For me, work life integration means that I focus my time on things that give me most meaning or energy, and hopefully some joy. It means I evaluate what tasks, commitments, and time I give to those elements of my life. I am clear about:
Boundaries and segmentation are critical. I might do my morning walk with the dog to help clear my head and wake my body up first thing in the morning. I then work during the day, allowing myself a lunchtime catch up with friends, read a book, or go for a run, then be present for my children when they get home. Sometimes when I work from home, my Mum might pop round for a coffee. I enjoy that and it gives me energy. In the evening I might attend one of my volunteering commitments, again this gives me meaning and a variety of experience, I will answer a few emails or engage with Linkedin whilst the children are doing their own thing. Then we come back together as a family and connect before bed. The work/life lines might seem blurred, but it is all very intentional. I energise myself throughout the day, and give focus to whatever task I am doing.
For others, that segmentation can only happen by going to work, or locking themselves in a home office or co-working space. As my children say – YOU DO YOU.
And that is the lesson for leaders… Giving others autonomy over their own work and lives creates energy. Allow people to work in a way that gives everyone what they need. OK it won’t be perfect all of the time, but the idea of flexible working means that you have to be flexible in your approach.