Beware of universal hybrid rules: one size fits none

ALSO: WeWork boss says the most engaged workers love offices

Image by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

Have you worked out your plan for going back to the office? Trying three/two? Something else?

It’s been wonderful to be able to hear firms talk to me over the last few weeks as they plan their new ways of working. I’ve found inspiration in hearing stories of companies who may have maybe been a little apologetic for their culture in the past, but are now feeling that they’re got new found confidence to try to tap into a spirit of reinvention. ‘We’re had a great year in dire circumstances, we’d be remiss in not keeping going’.

The thing that characterises the best firms is the idea that their solution won’t be one size fits all. I chatted to one retail business who have realised that within their organisation there are some teams (and some leaders) who want to take things slowly and others who are ready to experiment more. The organisation’s response? To tell their teams ‘great, go at your own speed and share with your colleagues how you get on’. They’ve realised that the one thing that will engineer great breakthroughs is allowing local teams to make decisions.

There’s one qualifier to this that I heard from a huge packaged goods firm (the sort of FMCG items that you buy in the supermarket), they asserted that their remote working policy had one key phrase deleted - ‘with your manager’s permission’ was going. No anxious boss was going to ruin the opportunity of remote working for their unfortunate workers.

So why are some firms saying that whatever version of hybrid working we end up we want their teams to play a part in choosing it? Well there’s some evidence to suggest it might be good for worker motivation - workplace engagement went up in March last year when teams felt they were being consulted on how to solve what came next. Give teams a problem to solve and they lean in to finding the answer.

It doesn’t mean that some firms aren’t falling into a mistake here, I spoke to someone who works at a big tech firm. They told me that as most of their day was on video calls to colleagues dotted around the world they’d always done a good deal of remote work, but their firm has just introduced a policy on this - and the policy is that they have to be in the office three days a week. Their freedom to do their job has gone backwards because the firm has decided to get involved and dictate rules. The worker’s response? ‘For the first time, I think I’m going to have a look at what else is out there’.

Other firms are finding that edicts from up high are coming laced with passive presenteeism energy. Someone spoke to me this week who works at a huge advertising firm in the UK. They said ‘we’ve been told to encourage our teams to think about a three-two approach but it’s been made clear to us leaders that it won’t wash for us’. I asked what this meant. ‘(The CEO) has said leaders really should be in the office every day’. There’s an unexpected consequence of this. If bosses tell their teams they can choose whether to be at home or at work but the boss is in every day then imagine Eager Steve. Eager Steve just wants to get on at work and he sees an opportunity to trade off two more days commuting with making more progress on the career ladder. Guess who the Big Boss will see at lunchtime? Guess who they’ll see in the coffee shop? Eager Sodding Steve.

In the spirit of us working this out as we go along, I love seeing organisations sharing how they’re solving these challenges. James Purnell is the new Vice Chancellor for the University of Arts London. This week he published some thoughts on how they are setting about solving these challenges in this blog post.

The intriguing things about the firms who are letting their teams decide is that the teams are often choosing less, but more connected, time. It feels that those organisations who are worker led are going to end up in a very different place to firms who cling to tradition - and we’ll all be better off for that contrast.

How it started:

How it’s going:

I’d loved the photo of the original post, proper ‘I can’t believe I just did that!’ energy.

Nice art from Irina Blok. Blimey, did this one annoy some very pedantic people on Linked In.

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