Hybrid working: What does it really mean?

Hybrid work is hard to define. Suki Reilly of MovePlan explores why each business will need to define how they want to work very differently.

While a number of influential figures might have publicly denounced remote working — including New York City Mayor, Eric Adams, who earlier this year said: “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day”— the majority of workforces across the world have embraced the opportunity to take charge of their time. Our collective new ways of working have come with many a moniker, but the most frequently used have been ‘hybrid working’ and ‘flexible working’. But what do the two buzzwords really mean, and what’s the difference between the two? Confusingly, not that much. To make matters worse, businesses are using these concepts interchangeably – but the question remains, how do businesses define hybrid or flexible working?

Two years ago just a handful of businesses would have actively promoted remote working; others offered working from home as a benefit. For many, it has been a concept that has been frowned upon. However, this changed during the pandemic. Now, hybrid, or flexible working has become a necessity, not a benefit. Employees are better able to balance work with life, while employers have grown to trust their teams.

Today, hybrid working is understood to be a set of flexible guidelines that gives employees the liberty to choose to work from where they feel most productive. The workplace is no longer pinned to a location and allows employees to work in multiple different ways, across different locations. Providing targets are met, and work is completed, the practicalities of where or when do not matter anymore. In reality, the approach is unique to each organization, and may be different depending on which sector a particular business operates in. But is dictating the number of days one should spend in the office the best way to go? Defining hybrid working itself might seem to be straightforward but putting it into action while retaining a healthy work culture is what counts, which—let’s not forget—is a much bigger challenge to tackle.

Getting on the same page

When businesses set anything new in motion – no matter what it is – they will always be faced with a set of challenges. And in the context of hybrid working, while businesses may have defined or put together their respective policies, they may not entirely tally with the rest of their staff’s.

A recent 10,000 employee-strong survey by messaging platform Slack found that 76 percent of employees want flexibility in where they work and an even higher number—93 percent—in when they work. On the contrary, it has been reported that large employers such as Google are bringing employees back to the office by ending its voluntary five-day a week work-from-home period. Convincing staff back into the office has taken some extraordinary lengths. British Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg left taunting notes on empty desks of civil service staff. Unsurprisingly these notes were circulated and derided on social media for missing the point of the benefits of flexible working. Clearly, there is somewhat of a disconnect between what employers want and what employees prefer.

Clearly, there is somewhat of a disconnect between what employers want and what employees prefer.

Putting together policies is all well and good, so long as both sides are on the same page. The biggest challenge for business leaders in conquering the new working world is in trying to plug this disconnect. While business needs took precedence over employee needs in the past, we’re now seeing the two on a level playing field. According to research by Microsoft, more than half of their workers in the UK would consider leaving their company if hybrid working was scrapped. More recently, an Apple executive quit the tech giant in protest over the conglomerate’s demand for their staff to return to their desks three days a week.

Today, as the restrictions of the pandemic recede, we find ourselves in a transitional phase with businesses trying to find their feet. But the next two years are crucial in defining what future ways of working would look like. If there’s one thing leaders should keep in mind: don’t set policies in stone. With technology aiding flexible work, the way we work is evolving all the time.

Leading by example

The next year or two will be experimental but what happens between now and then will determine and define how business is conducted in the long run. There are a few businesses that are already leading the way: in April, Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, sent a company-wide email setting out their ‘Work from Anywhere’ policy. For Airbnb this didn’t mean saying goodbye to the office, but giving staff the ability to choose how, when and where they want to work.

Regardless of what the policy is, ultimately it is up to business leaders to lead by example. If, for instance, a CEO advocates coming into the office to collaborate, and to work from home on days when one needs to work head-down, they should lead by example. If not, their staff could presume that the unspoken rule is to be present in the office every day. They might also fear being overlooked or ‘missing out’ if they choose to work from home (or anywhere), even when they are very much given the choice to do so.

Regardless of what the policy is, ultimately it is up to business leaders to lead by example.

So where does all of this leave the office space? The growth in hybrid work spurred on by the pandemic has accelerated the way we think about the physical office. Some might consider (or may have already considered) replacing set workspaces and instead introduce an unassigned seating system. For some offices, this leads to more effective use of the office space and a less formal office environment which empowers employees to choose the right working environment for them. On the other hand, some employers believe that however many days an employee chooses to be in, each person should be allotted a dedicated desk, giving them the opportunity to express their identity and personality at work. Either way, by seeing their bosses split their time between home and the office, employees will feel empowered to make the best choice for themselves. This ultimately will have a positive impact on the business – talent will be retained, and it’ll make a huge impact on the quality of work.

Fueling all this change, and allowing employees to log on remotely whilst maintaining their team’s momentum has been technology. It is key to creating a seamless transition within the hybrid setup. If the new hybrid world is to be a success, our interaction with technology will need to be smooth. One-way businesses can create a welcoming office environment for hybrid workers is by setting up ‘IT bars’. They give employees immediate access to tech consultants who can resolve any tech issues they may be experiencing. Business leaders should want the office to still be an attractive place to work, with benefits and services their people can’t access at home. This shouldn’t, however, be with the goal that employees come in all week, 9-to-5; but instead, to ensure that they feel supported and are welcome, or have access to a physical office.

The way forward: listening, learning and being flexible

It’s not a simple or quick process to define hybrid working. It’s urgent, yes, but companies shouldn’t take shortcuts. Each business will define how they want to work very differently, and this will vary depending on the company’s offerings. In fact, businesses that have been too hasty or miscommunicated their understanding of hybrid will miss out on seeing the true benefits of flexible working. While this process might involve several rounds of trial and error, it’s important to keep the ports of communication open. One can overcome the challenges of defining the approach by being intentional and deliberate when conveying these messages. It’s also crucial to keep the staff in the know of the company’s goals and the overarching ambitions they’re working towards, together.

It’s not a simple or quick process to define hybrid working.

We can’t expect every business to have their unique definition of hybrid working finalized, but we can expect them to experiment, and openly listen to their employees at every level to develop a robust and considered hybrid policy. While Eric Adams might assume indefinite work from home policies are a ploy for laziness, for most of the working population, the opportunity to work in a hybrid manner is the most productive and efficient way to split our working weeks.

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