Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Make up your mind on hybrid, it’s time to lead

It seems that many organizations are stuck in a strange limbo around hybrid working. They want people to be back in the office for 2-3 days a week but seem content to accept that they will come in when they feel like it. We risk missing the opportunity to make hybrid working a “best of both” pattern of working and letting it degrade into a mess where proximity bias and differential attention makes historic inequalities worse and undermine productivity – it’s time to step up and lead

Regular readers will know I am a strong advocate of remote working, I’ve worked from home for 30 years myself and built an organization with a strong, innovative corporate culture and good relationships on a remote first basis. To make remote first work for your organization you do need to build some new skills and capabilities, but I know that works.

I am also a hybrid optimist, for those organizations that think they need some time in the office to maintain relationships, build culture, and get things done, then hybrid seemed to offer the option of some remote working to enable flexibility and choice and some time in the office to assuage these fears.

I expected that hybrid would become a transitional form, helping many organizations wean themselves off the need for face-to-face contact and replace it with robust processes and capabilities for working remotely.

Instead, many organizations have announced a policy, but not put any real discipline behind implementing it. Some people are coming into the office, others are not, it varies widely by department and location, which leads to dissatisfaction from those expected to come into the office.

People who do come into the office often find it has little value if the people they need to collaborate with are not there on that day, they spend a significant proportion of their time joining virtual meetings. Senior leaders are more likely to come into the office, raising the risk of proximity bias where they overvalue the potential and contribution of the people they see more regularly.

At the same time, few organizations have built the capability to lead or collaborate in a hybrid world effectively, or to run hybrid meetings where some people are in the room and others are joining virtually. As a result, the experience of leadership, collaboration and meetings is often poor.

A smaller number of organizations have taken a more rigid approach, insisting that people come into the office and that it’s going to be (for example) Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday every week. Whilst we all like to have choice, we have observed that, in these organizations, things have settled down much more quickly and the experience when they are in the office is usually better..

If we continue with a laissez fair approach, we run the risk of hybrid becoming the worst of both worlds with ineffective time in the office because not enough people are there, and less effective remote working because some people are in the office with more visibility and access to senior leaders.

We have worked with several senior leadership groups to help them clarify their policies and approach and to think through how they will create and sustain an effective culture, overcome proximity bias and implement hybrid working effectively. We also work with managers to give them tools to structure a conversation with their teams about creating a sustainable pattern of work.

If we don’t focus on implementing the hybrid pattern we want, then the conversation about hybrid will meander on, people will get increasingly embedded in working from home,  and people who resist any remote working will find grounds for saying it doesn’t work and insisting on getting everyone back into the office full time. it would be a shame to lose this impetus towards flexible working.

We think it’s time now to show some leadership, communicate what you want and take steps to make sure it’s implemented, then focus on the capabilities you need to make it work.

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