What does work look like as we move from the COVID-19 pandemic into … well, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic? COVID-19 and hybrid working appear to be here to stay. As organizations navigate the return to office combined with the need for many of us to isolate at home and our desire to work away from the office several days a week, hybrid just makes sense as the way of work we must adopt.

But I’ll cut to the chase: hybrid work needs to be flexible. There’s little point mandating a set number of days a week in the office when half the team needs to stay home those days. And what about people who don’t need to be in the office at all on those days? Commuting in just to stare at the laptop we brought from home, eating the disappointing sandwich made at home.

Some people will leave such a workplace. We’ve become accustomed to working in a way that meets both our needs and the needs of the organization. Why do we have to give up that flexibility because someone made an arbitrary decision to bring us into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays?

Flexible hybrid is the way. We go into the office when we want to or when there's a clear need. Or just to connect with colleagues. We work at times of the day that work for us where possible, giving us more flexibility. And we have the tools to do this. And that’s the good bit.

Hybrid Work Can Quickly Go Sour

The bad bit: If we don’t agree on a common way of work — in the absence of clear expectations — we risk three unsavory outcomes:

1. We are potentially ‘on’ all hours of the day as we struggle to adapt to the needs of others in the team. A message at 8 p.m. when we don’t want to be working, but feel that we should respond to. A meeting arranged for 7.30 a.m. when we would rather be exercising, or still asleep.

Research from Microsoft Teams users has shown that the working day has increased by more than 13% (46 minutes) since March 2020, with after-hours work increasing even more rapidly.

But burnout doesn’t occur just because we’re always on. According to research from Glint in 2021, feeling disconnected was the most commonly stated reason for burnout. So going for a primarily remote-based form of hybrid also poses it’s own risks to our well-being.

2. We also risk having multiple channels of work, as different team members are active in different digital locations. For example, some of the team are still addicted to email, some are always pinging us in chat, others just disappear completely and work largely offline (unfortunately, it’s never the boss). Hybrid requires complete clarity on which tool we should be collaborating in for a specific purpose.

3. Meeting wonderland. We saw this during lockdowns: when work has shifted, we doubled down on familiar activities. Once again, with no new expectations, and with a workforce distributed around offices and homes, meetings are a simple activity that connect us and allow for visibility of the team. But at what cost?

Related Article: Why Hybrid Working Won't Stick

Is Hybrid Worth it?

So is hybrid working worth it? Maybe we should all just go back to the office. While that's an option, it’s also giving the finger to at all of us who have worked hard through the pandemic, having balanced working from the dining room table, the couch or even the bed with the demands of home schooling, the mental toll of the pandemic, going back to live with our parents and so on. It’s also missing a massive opportunity to make work a bit less shit.

We’re not owned by our work, but sometimes it feels like it. Having some control back over our day, yet still getting our work done gives us a massive boost. We’re all different, and have different peaks in the day, different motivations. Hybrid is the first step in building a workday that works for us, not an arbitrary time in an arbitrary place.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Are We Heading for a Remote Work Standoff?

Want to Create a Flexible Hybrid Workplace? Cut Back on Meetings

There’s no one-stop shop solution to make flexible hybrid working work. Every team is different and will have different needs. The clue is the word ‘flexible’ — it really does depend on meeting the needs of your team collectively and of your people individually. So where do we start?

One thing will make hybrid easier: cut down on meetings and make as much of our work as asynchronous as possible. Having meetings throughout the day makes the day longer as we try to find time to do our actual work. It’s also challenging to run hybrid meetings effectively. When some of us are in the office and some of us are elsewhere, the focus shifts to facilitating the meeting, ensuring we all get equal opportunities to participate. If all we’re doing is sharing our tasks or making announcements, it doesn't need to be a meeting. Let’s save meetings for when we actually need a conversation, and put energy into facilitating them properly.

Related Article: A Step By Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration

Agree What Your Hybrid Looks Like

As a team, agree what hybrid work looks like to you. Define some common ways of work. All we really need are some core expectations to get the basics right. And develop them as a team. Top down mandates are fairly pointless for flexible hybrid. Here are some of the most important things to agree on:

  • Define what has to be done in the office. What do we need to get together for? For example, certain types of meetings/workshops, meeting new hires.
  • Define what we can do asynchronously, for example status update meetings.
  • Agree on what tools we use to collaborate and communicate, for example using Teams channels for all team conversations and agreeing not to use email.
  • Agree on daily practices / rituals to adopt as a team to stay connected (and ideally, be asynchronous).
  • Develop common practices for meetings, such as use of cameras. Explore how to make them inclusive for remote participants, agreeing what types of meeting should be live.
  • Agree clear expectations around when we are 'on' and when we are 'off.' A lack of visibility around personal commitments in the day doesn’t build trust. It also makes those of us popping out to do a chore anxious, even guilty — even if we work late to make up the time.
  • Agree on what meetings types are helpful for the team, to help them connect with each other or that actually help their work. At the same time, agree what meting types aren’t particularly helpful or welcome.

Related Article: Will Flexibility Survive the Return to the Workplace?

Step Up to Digital Leadership

If you are responsible for a hybrid team, be where they work. Be a digital leader: know the tools, know why you need to use them. Provide clarity on what’s expected. Ensure that team members remain connected to each other when they aren’t always in the same place.

In the absence of clear expectations, digital engagement and simple lines of communication, we risk burnout, confusion, poor productivity and ultimately, a job we are unlikely to love.

Digital leaders today are not about assigning tasks or approving leave. They are about sharing goals, facilitating conversations, connecting people and aligning outcomes. They are about building trust. Without trust, hybrid working will never be flexible. Work will remain that crappy thing that owns us all week.

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