The Perfect Hybrid Workplace
How often do you do this? Put up your hand in the midst of an online meeting? I have to admit, I've done it. A simple behaviour that illustrates just one of the challenges of mixing remote working with traditional work in a workplace. This type of hybrid working is now becoming much more common as a means of organizing work. As we think about the future of work while many staff are returning to the workplace, it's time to ask, what does the perfect hybrid workplace look like?
This is clearly a question many leaders are struggling with as I often hear in coaching conversations. A key challenge seems to be senior leaders simply wanting to shift the workplace back to pre-pandemic times. Everyone back to the workplace as before although with the nuance that this may not be fulltime back in the workplace. What may be missed in this rush to return to the past is the changing culture necessary for work in this new workplace paradigm. In his recent HBR article, When Do We Actually Need to Meet in Person, Rae Ringel highlights how Apple has faced pushback from employees requiring them to return to the workplace three days a week as the lived experiences of many employees don't connect with this policy. He goes on to say,
"we need to reframe the conversation and focus on what we're actually trying to achieve rather than where, precisely, we'll be sitting when we achieve it."
What assumptions might leaders bringing into making these decision choices?
1. More staff time together increases social connection and leads to higher productivity? This may be so but it is not guaranteed. It is well known that extroverts thrive and gain energy from high levels of social interaction yet for an introvert, this same social interaction likely drains energy and can reduce personal productivity. Maybe this same assumption partially explains why the open office work concept of recent years has not turned out to be the panacea for increased work team productivity once thought it would be.
2. If staff aren't physically near, how can the organization be sure they are focused on work during working hours? Many might say the ultimate test of productivity is about outcomes rather than measuring time spend during something. Of course this only applies where discretionary effort is an important part of productivity. Various research suggests that the average person, other than on a production line or in similar task focused work, spends about 55% of their time on work specific to advancing a task or achieving a goal, in other words, productive work. Although we might assume the other 45% is purely wasted time, in reality we know at least some of this time is utilized for indirect productive work such as relationship building, thinking, and learning development. We also know people are not equally productive doing similar tasks unlike a robot might be.
3. Aren't most online meetings tiring, energy draining, and not as interactive as in-person? Often this can be true when online meetings are mirror copies of in person meetings by format and delivery. This includes meetings lacking focus (think absence of written agendas) or meetings that are more about information sharing than engaged collaboration or decision making. Online meetings can be very effective when the strengths of this medium are leveraged such as convenience, ease of access, time savings and increased equality. Additionally, there are many excellent tools created for online collaboration that when used provide dynamic engaged activities that can be recorded to enhance inclusion of those not in attendance. Benefits of two communication modes, synchronous (scheduled, real-time interactions by phone, video, or in-person) and asynchronous (on your own time and doesn't need scheduling) weave together for building productivity in an increasingly connected yet geographically dispersed and remote work environment.
This is not to say the historical benefits of being in the same physical work location as colleagues and a management team is not beneficial since we know personal connection are important to building relationships and networking, for example, yet hybrid workplaces provide an opportunity to rethink work structures, roles, and outcomes.
Interestingly, as I coach many IT professionals, I'm seeing a real challenge as many of these people return to a physical work location after solely working remotely for most of the last two years. What seems to have happened too often is that by working from home, these people could take on additional work and often did. So what's the problem you ask? Now returning to the workplace two or three days per week has added the commute time back into their day yet the increased workload has remained. This is a receipt for high stress and burn-out with dangerous longer-term outcomes for employee and employers.
Ex-Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt, was recently quoted in an article saying,
and that, "a largescale movement to permanently work remotely would deny at least 30 to 40 years of workplace experience". He admits he's a traditionalist and certainly his experiences might have been foundational to his past success.
Many will reminisce of workplace in past where connections were made at the water-cooler, regular team lunches, and when things were "slower" employees could be expected to go home early. Certainly, those were the good old days. During my many years working in organizations, I rarely recall days where hustling and taking initiative didn't mean full work schedules, long hours, and more often than not most people were eating at their desks. From what I see and hear from others, today's workplace is more likely to have employees physically sitting next to each other yet connecting with each other through an online collaboration platform or directly texting each other!
So what does the perfect hybrid workplace look like? I believe organizational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant hits the nail on the head. It's not something new but what people working together have always strived for. It's some control over their work.
The pandemic has forced an overdue conversation about how work is structured in organizations as the world around us shifts in new and complex ways. Trying to run a hybrid workplace is somewhat like a hybrid car. By adding electrical vehicle systems to existing internal combustion engine technology, are we holding on to both, potentially optimizing neither and increasing complexity with two systems instead of one? By adding remote work to existing workplaces, are we not doing the same thing? Maybe it's time to optimize the workplace be rethinking it; building upon the cultural shifts already started prior to the pandemic. Finally, the perfect hybrid workplace needs to emerge internally rather than externally. As I've seen time and again, so called "best practices" in the workplace can be helpful when looking externally in operations and execution specific tasks but when it comes to leadership, culture and strategic thinking, using practices developed for other workplaces with their unique cultures rarely enjoys the same success as elsewhere.
Time for you and your leadership team to rethink your approach for improved success? Consider joining one of our Growth Masterminds to get your growth started!
As an Agile Growth Coach & Certified Business Coach, I utilize my professional expertise every day to ensure clients I work with can successfully ask the right questions to find solutions right for their organization. Agile Work Solutions provides a proven, practicable and profitable path for companies, non-profits, and local governments who want to move beyond their current performance.
Jerome Dickey, MA, ACC, CPHR, Q.Med