As the pandemic rolls into its third year, the industry as a whole seems to have returned to conversations about the size, shape and nature of a return to the office. How flexible will it be, and what hybrid models best suit an organization?

I moved to a permanently remote working model just before the pandemic hit. Prior to that I worked for a large bank that had a flexible hybrid model, driven largely I think by the economics of real estate management, and at least slightly because if the Digital Group can’t walk the talk and work effectively from anywhere, who can?

My experience and my thoughts on this subject are all based around my experience as a knowledge worker: I sit, stand and walk around in office buildings. My experience does not encompass the logistics or supply chain industries with workers in warehouses, nor does it include manufacturing or energy, or jobs which are largely mobile and mostly outside. So, having given all those caveats, let's examine the potential advantages and pitfalls to consider with a return to the office.

What Is the Office For?

Humans are social creatures. Good arguments can be made for the serendipitous water cooler conversation, the act of literally bumping into a colleague in the corridor, getting a three minute pitch or update in an elevator, and the collaborative creativity enabled by meeting rooms with really big white boards — personally I like those rooms where the whole wall (or walls) are for writing and drawing on!

Although on the face of it, these appear to be solid arguments for a return to an old-fashioned 9 to 5 (or more likely 8 to 6?) in the office, are they really? I believe instead they are very good arguments for the design, setup and use of physical spaces to maximize the benefits of a hybrid approach. The last big bank I worked at certainly took this approach — although there were desks to sit at, there were never enough of them, and our floors were not designed for everyone to be in the office at the same time. The space was converted into small, medium and large meeting rooms, open spaces with large monitors and electronic whiteboards for ad hoc collaboration. If we were not having a two-hour collaborative design workshop, then I could be typing away in the coffee shop downstairs, or in the comfort of my own home, where I can set the environment to suit my mood.

Now, I understand that not everyone's home environment lends itself to concentration or to live (synchronous) online collaboration, but part of a hybrid strategy is realizing that everyone is different, with different needs. Thinking creatively is therefore needed, like providing an allowance or expensing the cost of a desk or a pod in a shared working space close to an employee's home, rather than making them take a 45 minute drive or a two-hour train ride to get into the office to find peace and quiet (if you can actually find such conditions once you are in the office).

Related Article: The Myth of the Hybrid Office

A Risk-Based Approach to the Hybrid Workplace: Understanding the Data

Like any complex people and business process management conundrum, we can take a risk-based approach to figuring out our hybrid work strategy. You can include many factors here, from traditional information security viewpoints (how many lost unencrypted laptops?), all the way to the great resignation and the risk of losing your employees if you don’t treat them like adults. Why do I use that phrase? In part due to the large number of tweets and articles talking about the risks associated with not being able to manage people’s work if they are not sitting where their “supervisors” can see them. Firstly, supervisors? We are no longer in the throes of the industrial revolution!

If an organization is truly worried about the impact of a hybrid model on employee productivity, they have a data problem. You do not need people punching time clocks or have supervising managers practicing ‘management by walking about’ to understand how productive your workforce is — whether they are working from the office, from home or various locations in between. What you need is real data on what they are achieving. Please note, not "what they are doing" but what they are achieving, what they are delivering, creating or producing.

This Venn diagram is my simple graphical take on pulling together the different managerial disciplines to ensure you have that data:

Learning Opportunities

managerial disciplines

Your organizational culture must provide a good environment for clear communication of strategic goals and group and departmental objectives. If people understand what is required of them, what they should be focused on, and what the deadlines are, then they are usually happy and productive, whatever their location. Some will thrive working in the office, while others will do better at home. For either set, your organizational culture needs to provide the necessary support so they can produce their best work.

Once your team is focused on clear objectives and know what is required of them, how do you measure their performance? It obviously depends on your industry and what kind of work people are doing, but the bottom line is data. You need data on how your processes are performing, and to identify where or who are the potential bottlenecks and how many deadlines are being met or missed. Are your information systems and business specific applications instrumented to provide you with this data?

If you have good data, then you need a good HR system — the policy, procedures, guidelines and training to help managers help their teams thrive, wherever they are working. Which finally brings us back round to where they are working from. They could be completely remote and online, hybrid or fully in the office — you need the full range of digital workplace capabilities to support all these modes of a hybrid work strategy. As noted above, a hybrid strategy may also mean modifying your physical workspaces, fewer rows of desks, more meeting rooms — and more whiteboards of course!

Related Article: Do You Need Supervising?

Hybrid Works (as Long as You Trust)

Do your analysis, measure the risks, consider the costs and benefits of supporting a hybrid as normal strategy. Flexibility can bring great business benefits including recruiting and retaining talent, enabling both collaborative creativity and some ‘heads down’ solitude. It also means that the next time you have to activate a disaster recovery and business continuity plan, the impact could be far less painful and less far reaching.

Despite all the pulling of hair and Shakespearian wailing over supervision and management of teams, personally I think all the data shows that a flexible hybrid strategy has a lot more benefits than costs, unless you just don’t trust your people to get on with their jobs ....

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