Hybrid Working – If you want to start a blog by getting an emotion of some kind from the reader, it’s not a bad way to start with these two words. Be you for it, or against it, it provokes an opinion/emotion. To me, it seems that most people have a “personal take” on it due to a circumstance that is affected by hybrid working either in a positive or negative way, as an individual or as a leader in an organisation.

Recently, I was listening to a series of special features by Radio 5 Live on the BBC about their ‘Working Well Week’. One was on hybrid working. There were several insightful guests. A hybrid working author, Julia Hobsbawm, mentioned the fact that many cities are suffering to varying degrees from trying to entice people back to work and each had individual factors at play. The larger the city, the bigger the cost of commuting would be a factor, for example. Each city was suffering its own individual circumstances when recovering from the pandemic and getting a “healthy” number of people back to the office. And it got me thinking about why is this such a problem to crack for cities and, of course therefore, organisations?

My observations suggest the issue comes back to individuality. There are multiple lenses that we need to look at the situation through and that there are different needs and challenges to different subsects of the workforce population. Here are a few examples (which are all generalisations from different topical studies):

  • Grads and workforce entrants want the sociability of physically being in the workplace. They also need to learn the tacit knowledge by being near and observing others.
  • Those on lower incomes are challenged at a great level by the cost-of-living crisis. Think of the entry levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – not enough salary (or using the money you have wisely) is a great motivator at the low levels.
  • Middle-age workers are more likely to have space at home to adequately work in comfort and therefore are less likely to want to commute again after years of doing this.
  • Parents are finding that sourcing adequate childcare to be able to travel to the workplace is a lot harder since the pandemic.
  • Those with some forms of disability are finding greater access to work if they don’t have to travel and / or can use specialist equipment they may have at home to work with giving them great accessibility to types of work.

All of these can overlap due to our own life complexities. An affluent worker might still struggle to find available childcare. A grad entering the workplace with a disability, for example. But how can we create a workplace strategy when there is so much individuality of need?

One idea could be for HR leaders to take an idea from Marketing and create different “personas” for each different group of people outlined above, plus others you can think of. What are the drivers to return to work for each persona? What are the resistors for that “persona group” to returning to the office?

And why should you care that workers should return to the physical workplace?

There are a lot of arguments that individuals can work productively at home, using the technology available to communicate and collaborate. The vocal arguments are large in organisations when we want people to come into the office more. From accusations of a lack of trust to the repression of my individual rights.

But I think this misses a key point. We need to ensure that tacit knowledge is shared within the larger organisation to enable growth of rising individuals and also ensure the longevity of the organisation – most organisations thrive because the unique knowledge they have is reinforced and shared between team members as a differentiator in the market. The most effective way to do this is through the informal learning of chatting, looking over a team members shoulder as they do something and being able to access others inside and outside your team on an ad hoc basis.

Think about “workplace density”. Our physical offices need a level of employee attendance to help those who want to be in the workplace to learn the tacit knowledge from others. Workforce entrants and grads are very keen to learn from those who are more experienced. However, those who are more experienced are often those who have great facilities to work from home in a reasonably effective way. We need therefore to encourage those with the knowledge into the workplace to enable others to learn from them. We need a level of presence of experienced team members in the office each day to help the organisation to flourish. This might go against the needs of the individuals at times and compromises need to be sort. But compromises in the workplace have always been there, and needed to be there.

This is why we use “percentage in-the-office times” to get people into the workplace to create this learning using workforce density. But the argument always slips and focuses on the individual and not the good of all. As a culture we have a tendency of “me before we” in this argument because of the continued issue of the cost-of-living. As individuals, we are often protecting our standard of living whilst costs are still rising. Workers don’t want to give an inch as prices are still rising in case it’s a slippery slope to more commuting costs. Before the pandemic we didn’t have mandated percentages (or was it 100%??). And there were still exceptions based on individual circumstances – the right to flexible working, for example.

Therefore, what strategies could be adopted overall to create the right hybrid working for the individual’s needs, balanced with the right level of hybrid working for the organisation’s needs?

A good starting point would be to use these 3 considerations as factors to take into account before any communication or change in hybrid working is engaged into:

1)  The cost-of-living is by far the largest factor in this argument and it impacts on those we love outside of work when there is a choice between commuting costs and providing for our families. As organisations, we have limited scope for impact in this area.

2)  This means that you won’t be able to make sizable shifts back to the office without great resistance. Little movements are the best you can hope for at any time. Just like a deep-sea diver rising slowly to the surface, you need time to acclimatise and move in small steps with any workplace changes.

3)  We are still in the middle of the flux after the pandemic. Your next working practice change will not be the last. Little and often, whilst engaging our people in the reasons why we need incremental changes will be the ones that happen. Work with your people to understand the impact after each little change.

We might still need a percentage as a guide for now, however we need to strive to get to the right balance of the “norm with exceptions” and therefore can move our employee relations forward. Who knows where this norm will fall for your organisation at the moment…

Remember, culture eats strategy for breakfast. A radical shift in workplace strategy will result in pushback from a culture of remote working that is in it’s fourth year, if it started with lockdown 1 of the pandemic. Your people, who we praised for “saving the company” at the time by working at home, need to come on another journey with the leadership. It is by storytelling the long-term need of tacit knowledge learning and moving at a pace of change that can be acclimatised to, that will get you to a workplace that feels right for everyone.