The challenges of hybrid working

Leaders everywhere are discussing Hybrid working. It is definitely the phrase of 2021. In the past it may have been referred to as flexible working, but it has revamped and has some key differences. The key approach is that sometimes you work on the site of your organisation, and other days you work anywhere you like. Flexible working saw the majority of your work on site, with the occasional day out and about. So, you probably had a permanent desk somewhere and were still expected to work core business hours. Remote workers used to be the minority, then in 2020, they were the majority, and this trend will continue.

True hybrid is moving to, as I like to call it, martini moments, “anytime, anyplace anywhere”. It isn’t a mix of remote and site working. It is something new that emerges which impacts office space, technology, culture, policies, recruitment and simply how work is done. We are designing something new that hasn’t really existed. Before the pandemic, I wrote about how LeaderX wanted this freedom in the workplace and would need to really shake up their existing organisations. The pandemic has given them a helping hand and now their challenge is how to do hybrid working brilliantly. That’s what I want to explore in this article.

The truth is that the experiment of remote working has really challenged everyone’s thoughts about what work is and where it is done. It wasn’t the true model of remote working as we were all confined to our homes and our social connection was minimized. We were not free and actually confined with family members which wasn’t conducive to doing great work. However, even in the most difficult environments, we all realized that we could work, and in fact, like working on our own terms.


Leaders must now explore the opportunities and challenges of hybrid working and the number of collaboration options and tools available and ask how they can make those all work alongside site work and remotely. What does the future of workplace look like for you? I predict, for the majority of leaders, it won't be the same as it was before. 60% of our executives expect a very different post pandemic workplace with hybrid becoming the dominant model globally.

There is no one size fits hybrid model, which gives great opportunity, but can also create overwhelming choice, and confusion. Leaders of organisations must establish what hybrid really means for them and create a strategy to deliver it. They will need to consider how their workplaces will serve the needs their employees, now and in the future as we evolve into this new normal.

The challenges

As leaders begin to create a strategy, they are encountering some big questions and interesting challenges. It is tempting to scrap the whole idea because it can feel too hard to answer all of the problems. Remember, this is evolution and revolution. You will need to adapt and change along the journey, but you must take the first steps.

The hybrid meeting:

The first challenge that comes to mind is the horrible hybrid meeting, workshop or gathering. I have experienced this a few times this year, when some people gather in an office looking at a TV screen but talking amongst themselves, while others are just facing on the screen, trying to be heard and connect. The people joining remotely can feel “out of sight, out of mind”.  I experienced this back in the days of conference calls, when a few members of my team were based up north, and the majority sat with me in my board room. 

The Solution:

The meeting facilitator must work in a different way to ensure inclusion of all, whether they are in the room or working in the digital space. Planning the meeting in advance is critical so everyone knows what the format is, how they need to behave and what the outcome is. It's a new skill, and we have all experienced being in a remote meeting now, so we understand that pitfalls. So, training hybrid meeting facilitation must be part of the strategy. 

The meeting space:

Now traditional meeting spaces have a tables in the middle with seating placed around it. The TV screen is on the wall and not everyone is facing it. This is a major barrier to fluid, inclusive meetings as the people in the room talk to each other and forget the people on screen.

The Solution:

Leaders can bring digital into the daily meeting spaces and create a digital equalizer. This means designing meeting rooms or collaborative spaces so that all eyes face the screen. I like to get everyone in the room into a horseshoe shape, facing the screen, and also facing each other. The screen joins the circle. Now big desks don’t make that easy, so perhaps more flexible seating and tables could be a great investment. 

Time clashes:

For hybrid to work with the anytime, anyplace, anywhere mindset, time is a big factor. You might have some of the team working nine to five in an office, and then you've got the rest of the team working in a far more flexible and agile way, preferring to log on early, take the kids to school, then log on from the coffee shop, meet a friend for lunch then work before the kids get home. They won’t be sat at their laptops 9-5, but available via their devices for any urgent work. Co-ordinating the different working styles and timings can be a real challenge. Not only might it make the office workers frustrated because they want to work in the “old mode”, but it may cause resentment and frustration as both groups don’t accept or appreciate the working styles of each other. 

The Solution:

Leaders will look at more syncronised communication approaches. So rather than trying tirelessly to bring everyone together at set times, there needs to be an agreement around how to find slots for everyone to meet. This is even more challenging in the global space with different time zones. So, before you put a meeting in someone’s diary, you need to check where in the world they are and what kind of presence they can make. Think digital first and give plenty of notice for any kind of face to face in future. You might diarise a weekly catch up at specific times, or specific locations, or monthly collaboration sessions. 

Some Leaders have engineered set days in the office. Everyone comes in Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday. Now this might sound like a plan, but I bet every other team wants to do those core hours, leaving Monday and Fridays empty. This isn’t a great use of space and parking will be a nightmare. Team members might feel resentful that they are being “ordered” in to do work that could be done at home, like emails, focused work or laptop work. It isn’t in the spirit of true Hybrid working. Instead, consider either assigning days set days over a month across functions and diarizing them early so everyone knows where they will be, months in advance. Then create flexible desk space. No team has a fixed area, instead, flexible desks, social hubs, meeting rooms and quiet zones are created. Onsite days will book a desk in a specific area so the team can come together. Anyone else, dropping in can easily find a space. This works well in many organisations already. It actually feels more like a college campus or coffee shop and aides more informal social relationships and spontaneous networking.

Always on call and hardly remembered:

The UK Office of National Statistics reported that remote workers are working longer hours, that they are less likely to get promotions, pay rises and be picked for key projects. Humans have an immediacy mindset, so we reward or think of people who we see or have closer relationships with. Leaders need to create a new management framework and performance management approach and find different ways of coordinating and collaborating work. Technology will help, but there is a mindset and culture change that needs to accompany it.

For example, you work every day with John. He is extroverted, keen and enthusiastic. You chat with him every day and see him delivering his work, bouncing ideas and being creative. Then, Joan, who has a similar role, who is more introverted and works remotely more often. How often would that influence your perception when it comes to allocating projects, promotions or pay reviews? You would like to think you would be fair, but humans just don’t operate like that. 

The Solution:

A solution is to create collaboration tools to enable integration of all members. These tools enable collaboration, sharing and contribution via digital technology, so progress, idea sharing and updates are continually being shared. When things get tricky or stuck, that's the time to call a collaboration meeting. You need to put everyone on an equal playing field. This is a culture and mindset shift.

You need to work harder at transparency and communication. If you've just had a conversation with John in the office, how will you share that with the rest of the team? How will you include others in decision making, the spontaneous idea generation or brainstorming? Be disciplined to share the small stuff as a priority. This really takes open and transparent communication to the next level.

Customer hybrid:

Depending on your business model, you might need to consider how you meet customers in the future. Most customers now have an expectation of hybrid buying. They don't always want to visit you in person, therefore you need to create an online meeting platform for them too. In all organisations you need to develop a digital version of your “show room”. It is predicted that more organisations will have a smaller number of offices, or shop spaces to reflect consumer and employee preferences. Space will become more event spaces. Of course, if you are a car repair garage, dentist or restaurant, you will still need a face to face space, but how can that become more agile? Can you do doorstep deliveries and servicing to accompany your onsite delivery? Will smaller hubs in more areas be an option, or will you niche by only delivering agilely or only on site? 

The Solution:

Stay open-minded and co-create services by listening to your customers. These are great opportunities to collaborate with customers, employees and suppliers together and explore new opportunities that might give you a competitive advantage. Can you create an online version of your workplace, a conference space or show room online? Can customers book online calls with you rather than visiting face to face? Hybrid is more than just for employees, it is a business model philosophy.

Redesigning space:

Imagine coming into work and trying to collaborate with remote colleagues, only to find there aren't enough spaces, no screens or immovable desks in lines or cubicles? The current office design was done on the functions and teams doing ALL work there day in day out. That isn't how space needs to be used now. If you don't redesign, you will be paying for space that isn't being used or is a barrier to doing collaborative work. If you want people to just answer emails, process orders or do actual laptop work, why do it in the office?

The Solution:

Office design will be more conducive to impromptu gatherings, with huddle spaces and versatile large meeting rooms with technology at its heart. More screens, plug sockets, moveable furniture and sound blocking gadgets. Each space will need some form of equipment so you can invite members to join your face to face conversation. Perhaps some whiteboards that are connected to the virtual space, tablets to enable drawing, multiple screens to share content, it’s all in the mix. You're going to see more room based video equipment or devices to enable collaboration. It's going to put a greater strain on Wi Fi services and upgrading to 5, a greater use of video, a greater use of collaborative tools. 

Many organisations are installing Zoom rooms around their workspaces because they know just how easy people find that platform. They enter the space and press one button to join a session. You can control the Zoom Room from your mobile device that can automatically pair with the Zoom Room so that you don't have to touch any shared equipment, and suddenly your live. Whatever role you have, technical skills will be a basic requirement going forward.

Measuring performance:

Now most leaders measure performance based on the 2 key measures. How productive have you been in this space and in this time? You have a like for like performance measure and leaders can work out who is performing and who is not. Now in the hybrid model, time and space is no longer a measuring stick.

How will you measure performance when you can't measure output or see the people working? Is your reward, benefits and performance management practice still fit for purpose? 

The Solution:

I have long been an advocate for ripping up the scoring and ranking people. It creates competition, fear and disengagement in all studies. How can you measure how many ideas someone has come up with, or who came up with what idea as brainstorming is fluid and collaborative? 

I can’t give you an answer, but a big indicator is to measure outputs, as a team, and recognise individual contribution. You must, as a leader, be clear in your outcomes, deadlines, and even the values and behaviours. Going back to basics is critical when objective or outcome setting for a working group. If you aren’t clear, then you won’t know whether the work is complete.  Then at the end of the project, tasks or activity, give feedback in real time. One thing is for sure, your old methods might need redesigning or considering in the new world.