Hybrid working: what are the new rules of the game?
‘If we do the right things, this could be the best thing that ever happened to communities. We’re going to have more wealth, better health, and widely shared prosperity. The question isn’t what the technology is going to do, it’s what we do with the technology…’
Eric Brynjolfsson, Director MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy
In this post I explore how people might cope with the ambiguity, pace and nature of 'hybrid' work in a digital economy and the tendency towards an ‘all-in’ ‘always-on’ working environment.
Limitless workload, endless video-conference calls often at anti-social times of day, eye watering volumes of emails, no boundaries, anxiety about when to be in the office or to work at home, the unspoken expectation that one is always available, a string of performance metrics by which you are constantly judged, permanent cognitive overload, inadequate exercise, a sense of insecurity, inability to push back on the system, worry about finances, a lack of career direction, children's mental health etc.
I am noticing that these issues are on the increase and taking their toll on performance and wellbeing across professions.
A pre-COVID-19 5-year clinical study suggests that the chronic exposure to adverse psychological conditions which can be experienced even in ‘white-collar’ professional work may result in severe mental-health problems. For a sizeable volume of people, even in professional and highly skilled work, being employed is not bringing them the kind of long-term health or quality of life that such work can and should create. What I am wondering about hybrid working is whether it can and will contribute to better mental health, and higher performance, and in what conditions it might even do the opposite.
A theme in my work recently has been the creation of basic parameters for hybrid working in corporate settings, which organizations also frequently refer to interchangeably as agile working. What I am noticing is that there is huge variability of response both within and across sectors. There is no 'template' for this or any clear sense of what constitutes 'best practice'.
Some banks, consulting firms, law firms, and technology firms have adopted a narrative which is all about empowering people to make their own decisions, in a loose 'work from anywhere' ('WFA') manner. Others have done the opposite, with some CEO's stating that even if people can apply to work flexibly and/or remotely, this will be an exception. In the eyes of some leaders, people being co-located all the time or most of the time, enables faster learning and more visible cultural cohesion. Some businesses are attempting to adopt a kind of compromise, boosting their flexible working offerings, and making overt allowances for a certain number of days per week people are permitted to stay at home.
Where exactly on this wide spectrum of response 'hybrid' working starts and finishes is a little unclear. Intuitively, it seems to capture all those positions outside of the extremes of 'no more need for any physical premises, facilities, commuting, living in overcrowded cities, or need for human contact with your colleagues as long as you deliver' and 'be at work, as per your contract, where we can see you at all times, delegate to you easily, manage you more closely, and ensure you are focused on helping the business win'.
My own position, from a psychological perspective, is that both a totally laissez faire and a highly controlling approach to reshaping working patterns are unlikely to be helpful. Each organization needs to define and communicate very clear, simple, practical guidelines that will guide peoples' choices, as and when the world starts to learn to live with COVID-19. You could even call them rules because that creates clarity and will allow for a level of consistency. The specifics of these rules will depend on several factors, which will largely be related to the context of the business, and needs of clients or customers. In practice, the CEO's and Executive Team's leadership style will also be pivotal.
There is no one right answer about what 'hybrid working' actually means or what the rules of the game should be. There will be a need to keep ways of working under review, as each business creates new patterns and working rituals that support their desired culture. In many consulting firms that paved WFA which was originally driven by client demands, there was an unwritten rule that people spent Fridays back in their 'home' office (e.g. the 'London' office, not literally a home office). This was a profoundly important way to reconnect, share knowledge, build communities of practice, be coached or mentored, catch up with friends, make new friends, even to meet life partners. Perhaps these sorts of rules and rituals of professional life will be consigned to nostalgia, while city offices are also reinvented.
What I can see is that professionals benefit from some clarity about what is expected. Just telling people that you trust them to make it up for themselves may just be pushing the complexity of the trade-offs that need to be made downwards. What I can foresee is that as cities like London or Singapore eventually emerge from COVID-19, there will be a sense of freedom for some. Some people are naturally adept at being agile in life and work. Others will experience an uptick in stress as they navigate the intrinsic ambiguity, the inconsistency and inevitable politics of hybrid working.
In the multinational organizations I work with that take organizational effectiveness seriously, leaders and managers are coached on how to lead diverse teams in a cross-cultural, global and digital context. By paying attention to human factors, managers can learn to adopt hybrid working in a way that is conducive to human performance and mental health.
New working patterns, and new software tools or platforms that support them, need to be introduced in a way that is sufficiently clear, and sensitive to users' needs. Return-to-work plans need to be accompanied by training on how to use facilities and collaborative tools in a way that is effective and productive.
Agile or hybrid working has the potential to transform careers for the better and improve workplace wellbeing. Much depends on how well individuals and organizations implement new ways of working in the months and years ahead. This learning process will enable workplaces to play a central role in the healthy revitalisation of our greatest cities, as we also learn to live with COVID-19.
What mental health challenges do you think agile and hybrid working can create for working people and how can people help themselves to be effective?
See also –
Bronsoler, A., Doyle, J., Van Reenen, J. (2020). The Impact of New Technology on the Healthcare Workforce. MIT Research Brief. Available at https://workofthefuture.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020-Research-Brief-Bronsoler-Doyle-VanReenen.pdf
Hirschi, A., Herrmann, A., & Keller, A.C. (2015). Career adaptivity, adaptability, and adapting: A conceptual and empirical investigation. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 87, pp. 1–10.
Kinman, G. & Grant, L. (2011). Exploring stress resilience in trainee social workers: The role of emotional and social competencies. British Journal of Social Work, 41, pp. 261–275.
Ndjabouea, R., Brissona, C., Talbota, D., & Vézinab, M. (2017). Chronic exposure to adverse psychosocial work factors and high psychological distress among white-collar workers: A 5-year prospective study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 94, pp. 56–63. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.01.001
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose