Hybrid working

Hybrid working โ€“ prizes and pitfalls

Back to the office? Hybrid working offers big prizes and bruising pitfalls. How will you respond?

Hybrid Working

Back to the office? Policies donโ€™t give any guarantees. The upsides and downsides are emerging in practice as we speak. Have you noticed? The opportunity to shape the patterns and practices is now. How will you respond?

Thousands of workers have been heading back to the office over the past month or so. As they do so, the prizes and pitfalls of hybrid ways of working are already becoming reality. When it works well, hybrid working adapts to how people work best and engages everyone. Done poorly, hybrid places extra demands on people and frustrates everyone.

But donโ€™t worry, youโ€™ve been working really hard on this. Youโ€™ve got a hybrid working policy. All the procedures are in place. The comms pack is amazing. The exec team are on board. Everyone has been fully briefed. What could go wrong?

Crossing your fingers and hoping that the potential prizes of hybrid working land in your lap is a risky strategy! What many people donโ€™t realise is that all the little things that everyone is saying and doing right now, as they embark on more hybrid ways of working, are already changing the future.

It really is NOT business as usual. As people start to work out how to operate in a hybrid environment, they are effectively changing the ground we all walk on. Whatโ€™s more, there is no reverse gear. What is said cannot be unsaid. What has happened cannot unhappen.

What happens in the next days and weeks is crucial. In the flux of now, tiny changes to patterns of how people are working together and how they are talking about hybrid is already shifting the landscape of the possible. The prizes and pitfalls are becoming reality. The future potential of hybrid working is already changing. Have you noticed?

Chances are that the potential prizes and pitfalls around hybrid working are emerging together e.g. greater flexibility AND greater duplication; more choice AND more risk; more autonomy AND more bureaucracy. In a complex world, itโ€™s rarely as simple as either/or.

Hybrid working is a complex issue. For one thing, everyone has an opinion on it. And theyโ€™re all slightly different! Furthermore, โ€˜hybrid workingโ€™ is entangled with deeply-held beliefs and values around choice, autonomy, fairness and so on. Knee-jerk responses are often unhelpful and can polarise people. Being in the office or out is the tip of the iceberg.

So, what can you do?

First, letโ€™s be clear, you canโ€™t control how hybrid working plays out. That way lies stifling bureaucracy and micro-management. And limiting the potential downside in this way also limits the potential prizes. So hybrid becomes a much-diluted version of what it could be. Is hybrid being tolerated or embraced?

Instead, we want to get on the front foot by engaging learning-informed leadership. The aim is to improve our chances of grasping emerging opportunities (more of the potential prizes) and heading off emerging issues (less of the potential pitfalls) sooner. In short, that involves:

  1. Paying close attention to learning about the nuances of how hybrid working – and talking about hybrid working – is actually playing out (I call this โ€˜dynamic patterningโ€™)
  2. Using that insight to make more informed choices about how you are playing into that patterning as you interact with other people in the normal course of your everyday work (thatโ€™s leadership)
  3. Continuing to stay alive to the ongoing dynamic patterning as it reveals newly emerging issues and affords new opportunities to seize more of the prizes of hybrid working.
Hybrid working offers big prizesHybrid working is full of pitfalls
Done well, hybrid offers the best of both worlds.Done poorly, hybrid spells double trouble.
It creates opportunities for greater flexibility, serendipity, collaboration, and innovation.It can mean developing multiple ways of working for โ€˜inโ€™ the office, โ€˜outโ€™ of the office, and various permutations of both.
The organisational prize is an engaged and agile workforce.That puts already-tired people under extra pressure.
While the individual prize is a happy blend of autonomy, connection, job satisfaction and a productive work-life balance.And it can be even worse for managers who are both squeezed and stretched at once โ€“ creating fertile conditions for micro-management and presenteeism.

Sharon has recently written a new book, โ€˜Leadership in Complexity and Changeโ€™, published by De Gruyter.โ€ฏ There she writes in more depth about topics such asโ€ฏ โ€˜dynamic patterningโ€™, the โ€˜vital signs of changeโ€™ and โ€˜learning informed leadershipโ€™.

Sharon Varney

Dr. Sharon Varney

Dr Sharon Varney is Director in Practice of The Henley Forum and Director at space for learning ltd. She is a specialist in leadership and organisation development (OD). Working at the sharp end in large, global organisations sparked Sharonโ€™s curiosity about the complex dynamics of leadership and change. Insights from her award-winning doctoral research are now available to all in her new book: Leadership in Complexity
and Change.

Discover the Henley Executive Certificate in Leadership where Dr. Sharon Varney is part of the world-class faculty, teaching the โ€˜Leadership of complexity and changeโ€™ module.

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