Powering up hybrid working - RSA Comment - RSA

Powering up hybrid working


  • Picture of Sarah King
    Sarah King
    Placing purpose and passion at the heart of organisations
  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Work and employment

Working from both home and office has become part of business culture since the pandemic, but there are concerns that we have lost connection in the process. How can we be better connected, so that hybrid working becomes our new ‘superpower’?

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The world of work is changing, and at a pace that has significantly shifted for most of us over the past few years. Eighty-three percent of chief HR officers say they have a significant problem attracting and keeping people, citing a lack of career development, stress and burnout, and a struggle to achieve a work/life balance as the main reasons. All of these challenges are occurring at a time when we are still trying to figure out our ‘new normal’ in a post-pandemic world.

I’m interested in what it is that we’re struggling with when it comes to making hybrid working work for us: how can we power up hybrid working to be more effective in tackling these challenges, and contribute to healthier, better connected and purposeful working lives?

Views of hybrid working are becoming increasingly polarised; some of us see it as a panacea for modern ways of working, and others as the decline of the workplace culture. Since 2020, many of us have achieved a better balance of home and work life, so what is there not to love? In a word… connection, the act of being with each other at and through work, a sense of belonging to a purpose much bigger than us, and all that it brings. 

Views of hybrid working are becoming increasingly polarised; some of us see it as a panacea for modern ways of working, and others as the decline of the workplace culture.

Founder/Director Loafspark Sarah King

Running back to the office?

No-one seems eager to revert to the pre-pandemic eight hours in the office and two hours commuting each day, with some sharing fears that their organisations are heading back there. But is that necessary? Study after study (such as those highlighted in Gallop’s ‘The Advantages and Challenges of Hybrid Work’ article) shows that employees want the best of both worlds – flexible work and in-person connection.

Hybrid working has huge benefits for those with caring and home responsibilities. For most of us, our leisure has extended as we are able to carry out small life chores (putting the washing on, popping to the shops or making a doctor's appointment) throughout the working day. Children and loved ones have benefited as families are able to spend more time together, and we have gained time, as well as saved on the cost and the CO2 emissions of not commuting every day.

On the flip side, organisations and their people are reporting that something is missing as we work in a hybrid way. We are not as connected to our work and work colleagues as we were. Previously we would be surrounded by, working with and alongside many people from different teams. Some who we may never have the need to speak to, but the act of being together under one roof, seeing familiar faces and saying ‘hi’ at the coffee point, enabled a sense of connection to each other, our workplace and our organisational culture. 

As Bruce Daisley, author of ‘The Joy of Work’ and former European VP of Twitter put it: “Good cultures have a vivid sense that ‘we’re all in this together’”. How can we design hybrid working to power up the sense that ‘we’re all in it together’?

Is there a trade-off between individual agency and freedom on the one hand, and work/life balance and the collective company culture on the other? Or is there a path that honours both? How much do we focus on individual agency versus collective belonging in our organisations to achieve our unique sweet spot?  

Hybrid working has strengthened bonds within immediate teams, as we collaborate more online, but that way of working has also grown more siloed working across organisations, which weakens the connection to the wider organisation and its purpose. Considerations such as the sense of belonging, an attachment to the organisation and a sense of pride serving clients are important factors in intrinsically motivating and engaging people.

How can we organise hybrid working so we are better connected and create more wellness and ‘we-ness’ at work? How can hybrid working become our new superpower?

Emerging futures?

Some companies are embracing the idea of hybrid working as a superpower. I’ve been exploring some signals from different companies, and I can see three possible futures emerging – and each raises important questions:

1. Power to the people

UBS, which has long been a supporter of flexible working “recognises that many employees feel they are more productive and satisfied when they have greater control over their schedule,” said Marc Montanaro, Head of Human Resources. “Our employees have different needs and demands on their time based on their location, family and personal life, career stage and other factors – some of which change over time. Our approach to hybrid working will allow employees to more seamlessly balance their responsibilities at UBS with other parts of their life."  Marc’s hope is that this approach will also combat the ‘war on talent’ and ‘quiet quitting’, but how does it grow a collective culture?  

2. Tech first 

Organisations are experimenting with moving work into the metaverse, being a collection of 3D virtual worlds in which users can interact, socialise, and trade digital products and services in a variety of settings. Fujitsu experimented with a Wellbeing world conference in the metaverse, centring care and individual agency. As the tech we use improves, will we be able to replicate an in-person collective culture while not being in the same location?

3. Snap back

Organisations feel a need to better control working practices and force people back into the office. In June 2022, Tesla employees were notified of a mandatory return to the office. The email widely cited from Elon Musk included wording such as “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned,” and noted that everyone at Tesla must work from the office at least 40 hours a week. Musk nodded to his frequent presence at Tesla factories as the reason for the business success. “If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt,” he said. For some leaders, the need for greater control in how people are working is a strong factor. What are the implications on organisational culture of people being forced back into the office?

I see all three of these futures emerging in tandem, in different places and contexts. It seems essential for each organisation to find its own superpower sweet spot that won’t see people running for the hills, or the nearest competitor.

How can we organise hybrid working so we are better connected and create more wellness and ‘we-ness’ at work? How can hybrid working become our new superpower?

Founder/Director, Loafspark Sarah King

Hybrid working as a superpower

At a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development event, I was shocked to see the lack of vision about what hybrid working could mean for business. Ninety percent of participants wanted to prioritise writing a policy for a policy’s sake, without stepping back and questioning ‘what will work in my organisation?’and ‘what is possible to achieve through hybrid working?’

Many organisations are taking the approach of requesting a blanket number of days to return to the office, such as Lloyds Bank's recent pilot scheme with a three-line whip for all staff to return to their offices for at least two days per week. As a result, thousands of staff signed a collective grievance opposing the move.

Is a blanket ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach too simplistic to harness the best hybrid working has to offer for individuals and organisational culture? Rather than hybrid working being a set number of days in and out of the office, I like to think of it as challenging the fundamental values and practices of work in the modern world. It’s creating new ways of being and organising ourselves around work.

Five ways to power up hybrid working

1. Maximising tech 

For Fujitsu, “it’s important to invest in and get the basics right,” said Michelle Tucker, Delivery Executive. For example, producing general guidelines about the type of work that is done in the office and not in the office, tailored to the needs of your business. When is it suitable to meet all online, all face-to-face, or in a hybrid way? “It’s important to get the basics right,” shares Michelle, “particularly if people are meeting in a hybrid way. A basic principle we have is that everyone must have the ability to be able to see and hear, to be seen and heard, and have access to the technology that enables that.”  It makes a huge difference to the level of connection and motivation in hybrid meetings if we can see everyone’s face and hear those around the room as well as those sitting at home.

2. Focus on foundational practices

Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser shared that they have outlined parameters to maintain healthy hybrid working following the blurring of home and work life in what she calls the “continuing of the relentlessness of the pandemic workday that has taken a toll on wellbeing”. Those are:

  • Office working three days and home working two days 
  • Zoom-free Fridays where everyone is discouraged from holding internal Zoom meetings
  • Limiting calls outside of traditional working hours 
  • Taking vacation time, including ‘Citi Reset Day’ on May 28 to plan a day away from emails, and phones are quiet.

3. Prioritising inclusion and connection

The Office for National Statistics invested heavily in redesigning its office space to reduce the number of desks and increase collaboration zones, including those with more quiet/sensory zones suitable for neurodiverse colleagues. It strongly encourage people to come in when there is a need, such as a team meeting or collaboration event. Another priority was to create psychological safety and promote shared behaviours around hybrid working. Sharron Ford, Deputy Director of HR, shared “for example ‘all cameras on’ is an approach we use in hybrid meetings, and we found that having a second chair makes it easier to monitor and equalise the amount of air time that those in the office and those on screen get, creating greater inclusion”. In creating psychological safety, it is important to get the foundational practices right.

4. Engaging the workforce

Publishing company Penguin Random House used a decentralised approach of co-creating hybrid ways of working with each of its teams from the ground up. “They had a mindset shift and higher engagement of their principles around hybrid working” said Sam Barber, who led them through the process. “Their language changed from ‘hybrid work’ to ‘where do I do my best work?’

5. Data driven

Some organisations are taking a data-driven approach to identify where to focus their online versus face-to-face time. Microsoft has recently published the outcome of three years of data research which points to three specific moments in their organisation when face-to-face time is more beneficial:

  • Strengthening team cohesion
  • Onboarding to a new role, team or company
  • Kicking off a project

The common theme in these different approaches is that they each suit the individual organisation, what it stands for, what is important to it, its culture, roles, tasks, products and services, and each has adopted an ‘experimentation – learn – adapt’ approach, and continues to. Not only have they made hybrid their superpower, they are also ensuring it adapts to remain so. 

Where do we go from here?

We can be certain that hybrid work is here to stay – it’s a big motivator in attracting and keeping great people in our workplaces in the midst of a war on talent. Working practices of the future will differ dramatically compared with the past, with the changing nature of work and the advent of AI and machine learning. With so much change, how do we create workplaces that attract and retain the best of human talent for our organisations? Could hybrid be your superpower to enable that?

No-one is eagerly running back to the office for five days per week, and hybrid working is definitely not budging from being an important ingredient in the evolving future of work. How could it be your organisation's superpower?

If you would like to explore hybrid working becoming your organisation’s super power, come and join our upcoming Hybrid Power Lab; a group of up to 12 peers all looking to find ways to do that, over a three-month journey. Click here for more information (the deadline to apply is 13 October).

Sarah King is Founder/Director of Loafspark and has held senior roles in organisations large and small. She founded Loafspark to help brands to create greater meaning in their purpose and compassion in their approach.. Contact Sarah at [email protected], www.loafspark.com

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