How useful is the term ‘hybrid working’?

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How hybrid working is applied depends on whether your business is a shape-shifter, temporary pivoter or re-inventor, argues Ben Gillam

Hybrid working has become a term used to help us feel like we understand and are in control of the future. But nine months down the line, are we any closer to knowing what it really means?

Hybrid working itself is a blunt tool in the face of different business types, cultures and profiles, and risks falling into the category of other commonly used but largely undefined terms, like “agile working”; a concept that has led to having many different working environments on offer, or “hot desking”; a concept that while it allows for flexibility, isn’t a one-size-fits all panacea that will suit all business types.

If hybrid working is to succeed it must be about balancing staff happiness, satisfaction and motivation with business resources and productivity. The businesses that will get it right are the ones that are brave enough to use the concept to challenge the way they have been working, challenge who they are, and find the tailored solutions to fit.

Hybrid working is best viewed as a journey companies can embark on, with defined phases: adjust, re-evaluate, and repeat. It is a process of adapting to a new post-pandemic scenario, in a way that both enhances culture and facilitates growth.

How it is applied will depend on how the business itself is adapting. It is reassuring to consider there have been pandemics before, and economic crises, and businesses do respond and thrive.

Four business types

In terms of how the Covid pandemic will affect businesses, research by the University of London has helped us to identify four different businesses types to emerge from the pandemic: the Business as Usual; the Temporary Pivoter; the Shape Shifter, and the Re-Inventor.

These categories can help to give a starting position; hybrid working needs to be applied differently to each of the four categories, and the outcomes should look very different as a result.

They enable a meaningful conversation, not about how companies they want their office to look, but how they want their office to serve them coming out of this crisis.

Alongside many other SMEs, and start-ups, my company ThirdWay is a Shape Shifter. Seeing ourselves through this prism helps, whether that’s for working out our plan for tomorrow, our four-year business plan, or our longer-term horizon. Shape Shifters, more generally speaking, are companies that have been spurred into creating new product lines and potentially changing their operating model; and will therefore require everything from process and technologic improvement, to strategic business change, to cultural and people change, as a part of the move to hybrid working.

Coming out of a crisis

However, even the Business as Usual company that is planning on coming out of the crisis almost looking the same as it went in, will be looking at hybrid working as an opportunity to make improvements, in both process and technologies. These companies must be mindful of the huge shifts in attitudes to work, even if business models are to remain the same.

The Temporary Pivoter will also want to evaluate what is brought forward from its temporary operating model, even those desperate for a return to the office, knowing it will enhance what they can deliver for their clients.

The Re-Inventor, at the other extreme will, most likely by necessity, be doing something completely different from before the crisis, hence this is the time to assess everything: review talent, re-evaluate capital overheads, and recreate the business model.

Hybrid Working itself is a blunt tool in the face of different business types, cultures and profiles”

In the world of hybrid working, the office takes its place as just one aspect of a much bigger picture. The culture that a company creates is part of this picture, as are other platforms for engagement, the training it puts in place, the empowerment it offers its managers and staff, and the autonomy it creates.

In many ways hybrid working is about ensuring all of these parts are working harmoniously. With so many new potential channels in play – such as Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp and Slack – another key consideration as hybrid working becomes a choice, and not a necessity, is the measures that should be taken against technological burnout. Again, there is no single solution we can all subscribe to – just the question: what’s the appropriate constraint for our business?

A hard constraint

If there are high numbers of people at risk because of the style of working, then maybe a hard constraint is appropriate: shut up business at 6pm. If working practice is more of a collaborative exploration and sharing of ideas, the focus should be firmly on consent: establishing when an employee is happy to receive a communication outside of work hours and the agreement that action can wait.

Acknowledging appropriate constraints is liberating when it comes to facing any unknown scenarios of hybrid working, this might come down to terms, cost, location, and growth, aspiration and appetite for change. These factors should be seen as important markers, helping to shape the path, and the outcome, in a way that’s absolutely bespoke to the business, and always up for review.

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Ben Gillam

About Ben Gillam

Owner of office design business Thirdway
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