Smarter Hybrid – Getting the HR team lined up

Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about HR (or People) teams and their role in creating smarter hybrid working.

The pandemic accelerated existing trends – digitisation, customer behaviour and new ways of working.   While the first two continue, ways of working are being pulled back towards old approaches – highlighted by Microsoft’s research around productivity paranoia.

Why is this happening?  Some is leadership biases, some is down to mistrust and history, but some is a failure from HR.    I’ve been in many HR events with HR leaders who’ve made no real progress on creating better ways of working.   Just last week I heard an HRD explain that to be fair to all employees, no-one was allowed to work in a hybrid way.  I was horrified, but I’d heard others take similar positions.  Making people have equally bad working environments doesn’t seem aligned CIPD code of Ethics and Conduct, which expects People Professionals to have “a positive and active impact on working lives”. 

HR teams who are investing in better ways of working are reaping the benefits for their people and their organisations, but the majority seem stuck in x-days-in-the-office.  In the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the barriers for HR, and what could be done about them.

What’s stopping us, and what can we do?

1. Stop, Collaborate and Listen…

HR can be addicted to action.  We fix problems, handle crises, deal with issues.  Those issues keep on coming, accentuated by the pandemic and its aftermath – e.g. suppressed turnover led to great resignation; pent-up dissatisfaction led to quiet quitting; slow wage and career progress feeds IR issues and cost of living crisis.   

What to do about it?  I’d encourage HR Leadership Teams to take stock on how the world has changed and is changing.  Take a day or two offsite to really think broadly.  Keep the agenda light – don’t try to squeeze future of work into a 45-minute item between pay grading and lunch!  Read around the themes and issues, and explore some of the big questions – How is our workforce changing?  What do people want?  Who gets what they want and who doesn’t?  What is the role of HR? Flush out the barriers you’re seeing and hearing – e.g. two-tier workforce, lack of connection, distrust of homeworking – and see how you can rethink them.  Don’t try to solve, just agree your philosophy and the problems to solve.

I know it is tough to slow down enough to even consider this.  If it would help, I can give you a Christmas reading list for your team, just drop me a message.  I’ll also happily help you shape what an offsite could look like.  

2.  From split accountability to creating an owner

I’m guessing you didn’t have someone accountable for optimising Monday to Friday, nine to five in the office? There’s probably no obvious owner for optimising work.  HR structures tend to be split up along functional lines, with each HRLT member and team owning a slice of the strategy.  There’s no-one owning cross-cutting themes.  

Agree one HRLT member to take the lead.  They need to corral people and create momentum.  Select them based on curiosity, skills for creative problem solving and engaging others.  Be clear they are first among equals on this – their team-mates need to stay involved.  Get other HRLT members to support them with bright, enthusiastic people so that the whole team has a stake.  

3.  From safety in numbers to following the science

HR loves a benchmark, and loves a survey – reward, role size, engagement, diversity, learning and even functional maturity.  Not very helpful in innovating – benchmarks and surveys encourage people to stay in the herd.  Colleague surveys are great for testing ideas, but not great for generating them – there’s a great quote from Henry Ford that says if he’d given people what they wanted, he’d have designed a faster horse!

If you’ve got a little team together, get them to research thoroughly.  In shaping A Life More Virgin for Virgin Money (still the most progressive approach to hybrid I’ve seen) the team and I conducted research from psychological safety to nutrition and from meeting practices to the perfect nap.  We listened to colleagues and business leaders at VM and beyond.  We engaged with business schools, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and palaeontologists*.  We tried to synthesise this together to shape what could be done.  It can be overwhelming to get moving, so again – please reach out if you’d like me to share more.

(*ok, we didn’t talk to any palaeontologists).

4.  From expertise and experience to thinking like a disruptor

HR creates deep, narrow experts.  They build years of experience in the same area, and solve problems based on their expertise – e.g. policy professionals start with employment law, learning professionals start with behaviour.  They build new solutions based on this experience and based on evolving historic practice.  

In contrast, disruption is looking for things that the specialists miss.  It’s often about breaking things down into smaller units to look for opportunity.  AirBnB is a great example – instead of looking at hotels, they looked at guests.  People need a room and a bed, so anywhere that can provide that can be guest accommodation.  

If we apply this to work, then it opens different questions.  In a 24/7 world, why is the working week Monday to Friday 9-5?  Why do we deal in days?  Why meet in the office?  Why 9 to 5?  Encourage your team to look very differently at the opportunities of work, and be clear on the desired outcomes – e.g. healthy, motivated people, working together to deliver outstanding performance.

5. From “do everything” to make one thing awesome

HR as a function is unusual.  It’s often quite small but covers everything from business processes (payroll) through law and regulations (policy), financial matters (reward), technology (people systems) and strategy.  HR plans can be really diffuse, leaving the function spread too thinly to make step change.  

There’s probably nothing in the HR plan that could have the same scale of impact as shaping new ways of working.  Getting that right drives more productivity, more engagement, more inclusion and belonging, more attraction and more retention.  

Narrow your plan for next year right down.  Make new ways of working the number one goal for the team.  Determine he role for each part of the team and get their best people on it.  Pause other projects or do the minimum to keep them ticking over.  It could be tough – if you’ve got a siloed function, deep experts and a classic performance approach then people will fear under-delivering, maybe see their value as eroded, or not have the skills for innovation.   Make it ok to try and mess things up and use it as an opportunity to build skill.

6. From grand reveals to agile delivery

Quite often we treat HR products like we’re building ships – we want a grand launch, and see the thing sail off.  However, things are too ambiguous and flexible for that.  The future is uncertain, and people don’t adopt HR practices because we want them to – like any product there’s an adoption curve. 

Adopt a test-and-learn approach for new ways of working.  In launching a Life More Virgin we had five phases, testing and learning in every part of the business.  We were eight months in before a formal launch and policies.  Even then, we knew there was more work such as onboarding, measurement, management, culture.  Breaking the project down creates wins, generates proof points and the opportunity to learn and refine.

Eyes on the Prize

It’s tough out there.  It’s so easy for HR teams to feel really embattled.  Really going after ways of working and smarter hybrid is a massive benefit for the team, and delivers right across the HR agenda:  

  • 1.  Attract more candidates, by not excluding people.
  • 2.  Retaining talent, as work can flex around their life.
  • 3.  Better engagement, as people have a voice and choice.
  • 4.  More inclusion and belonging, as the proposition is adaptable to individual needs.
  • 5.  Better line-management through clearer practices.
  • 6.  Improved productivity, by focusing on where, when and how work is delivered.
  • 7.  Improved wellbeing, reduced burnout, by working smarter.
  • 8.  Stronger employer and corporate brand, with reputation as a good employer.

It’s a good prize to go for, and it is a prize that needs HR to step forward. Business leaders and colleagues expect HR to create new ways of working and solve problems. That’s only going to happen with the right investment of time and energy.  As ever, I’d love to hear how you’re wrestling with this. Some of my solutions here are dependent on HR leadership, but there are other routes, so reach out if you’re interested. And of course, if I can help you and your team think about some of these challenges, or help you get kick-started I’d be delighted to – please reach out.

Smarter Hybrid – why it is tough for senior leaders

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about what smarter hybrid could look like.  I want to build on that by looking at some of the barriers and opportunities ahead of us.  

I’m going to start with the challenges for senior leaders.   We often hear statements like “all of this needs to start with leaders”, “leaders need to role model this”, “culture starts at the top”, or the more toxic “a fish rots from its head”.  In writing this I’m trying to avoid ranting about how wrong I think these are (I’ve hit the delete key an awful lot in typing this paragraph).  Instead, I want to concentrate on the landscape for leaders, set out the forces that make it hard for them to engage in new ways of working.  By understanding this, we can start to change that landscape.  

The prize of smarter hybrid

As a quick reminder, there is a big prize – smarter hybrid delivers higher organisational productivity, stronger culture and happier and healthier individuals.  

Tweaking where, when and how we work can drive 10-15% performance gain just by managing meetings and distractions.   Building psychological safety can increase productivity by 50% (Accenture).  Gartner research demonstrates remote working can support stronger culture.  The PrOPEL Hub of nine UK Business Schools have demonstrated productivity benefits of better working practice and the CIPD Good Work Survey has identified that hybrid working correlates with better job quality.

The challenges for leaders

The challenges below won’t apply to all leaders, but you’re likely to find examples across your top two layers of the organisation.  And if you’ve got leaders that don’t think any of these apply to them, it might be worth exploring the zone of delusion…

1.  Head space

The demands on leaders are huge.  There are challenges including inflation, recession, industrial relations, political uncertainty, supply chain disruption, digitisation, changing customer behaviour.  These are all disrupting established ways of running a business and are accentuated with new challenges such as covid (personal and work impact), net zero and new ways of working.  

These create chronic stress, which reduces imagination and the ability to solve problems.  (Dr Wendy Suzuki).  New challenges feel like a threat, triggering the “fight or flight” response (Harvard).  Leaders can be drawn to simplistic solutions to kick problems down the road (hence why 3-day-a-week hybrid is appealing).

2.  More economics than psychology

Chartered accountancy, MBA and consultancy are proven routes to leadership.  In past talent roles I tracked this data to identify good leadership candidates – it is a great basis for understanding the drivers of business success, shapes how leaders solve problems, gives confidence to investors and other stakeholders.  

However, they don’t really focus on how to get humans to perform better.  I looked at the ACCA syllabus, some MBA curricula – even now, there’s little connecting psychology and managing people with better productivity and performance.

3. Poor data

In a world where leaders are data driven, people data is often infrequent, low quality, not adaptable or simply answering the wrong questions.  

As a quick example:  Western European engagement is at 72% (Culture Amp).  Organisations measure it once or twice a year.  Targets in business plans and bonus schemes will compare to the norm, and success based on benchmarking.   All of this even though 1 in 4 people are not engaged, with consequent cultural, performance and turnover issues (how can we be surprised by quiet quitting and the great resignation?)

For other people data, it is often focused on what is easily measured rather than what aids performance. There is more focus on reducing absence than reducing distractions, despite the latter offering 10x the productivity gain (my calculations, based on data from UCI).

4. “When I were a lad…”

We are all influenced by our experiences.  Senior leaders started their careers between the late eighties and early noughties. They built careers in an environment which was office-based, hierarchical, long-hours, more focused on fitting in than welcoming diversity.  If you couldn’t put the hours in, you were lightweight.  Working remotely or flexing start times?  Part-timer.  

That is broadly a senior leaders frame of reference for career success.  They’ve not got the experience of completely virtual teams that might be found in tech, and they’re unlikely to have engaged with a new employer through primarily digital means.  In contrast – all new workers from 2020 join the workforce with experience of remote work. 

5.  The system of work

The system of work is largely designed for face-to-face, full-time work.  The Outlook calendar based on Monday to Friday 9-5, management by observation and floorwalking, structuring employment around Full Time Equivalents, learning in classrooms, brainstorming around a whiteboard, watercooler conversations, meeting around a table all push people to the office environment.  Even video conference facilities are typically a meeting room table with chairs facing each other, and a screen at the end of the table.

This creates a series of defaults, and all can provide barriers to new approaches to work.

6. Omniscience

Put all of this together and it starts to get tough.  Leaders don’t have the capacity, frame of reference or insight to solve these problems.  However, they’ve also grown with the expectation that leaders solve problems.   There is a sort of expectation of omniscience.  

So, when presented with everything we’ve described above, a solution of “three days in the office and two at home” starts to feel very appealing – it feels like a neat solution, even if it is ill-fitting for pretty much every employee.

But wait, we can do better…

Despite these forces of inertia, the opportunity for smarter hybrid is huge, so how to help leaders with these challenges?

I’d suggest four things:

1.  Engage them in the challenge – leaders will know that certain trends have massively been accelerated by covid, including digitisation and changing customer behaviour.  They might not have thought the same about work, but flexible working, remote working, focus on wellbeing, focus on equity were all emerging pre-covid and have massively accelerated. Emphasise that those companies grasping the changed reality are benefiting with talent attraction, productivity, and reputation.

2. Frame the problem – move from a set of barriers to a set of questions to work through.   E.g. How do we deal with performance paranoia (microsoft)?  How do we mitigate the risks of burnout (BBC)?  How broadly do we want to attract talent?  How do we build culture?  How are we equitable when some roles are more flexible than others?  How do we onboard and build careers?  Ask leaders to share their problems and dilemmas and build a hopper of issues to solve.  

3. Shape an approach – frame this as a series of sprints of experiments.  Tackle different issues in different areas.  As a company, set your ambition to refine ways of working, and ask for colleagues to participate.  Set this in the context of your purpose, values or culture – i.e. what kind of company do you aim to be?   Involving colleagues creates ownership, taps into their creativity, strengthens alignment, and also buys time to work through issues.

4. Focus on line managers – more than ever, good line managers are critical.  They’re critical to alignment, engagement, management of work, building culture.  In addition to any previous priorities, they have to invest more in wellbeing and in managing ways of working.   Invest any discretionary capacity in helping this group to manage their people well.  

This isn’t exhaustive by any means – after all, it is a set of challenges to work through.  Next time I’ll try and share why I think it is tough for HR.  Leaders and HR are critical stakeholders in creating some momentum.  After that, I’ll try and cover more on the business case, how hybrid can support inclusion and belonging and then get into specific challenges.  

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts, reflections and experience. If you’d like to discuss, give me a yell. And please do reach out if you’re wrestling with some of these challenges.

Smarter Hybrid Working – it’s more than “three days in the office”


Around a year ago I posted on LinkedIn about Virgin Money’s new ways of working.  Since then, the work has been profiled by Gartner, and referenced in this month’s Harvard Business Review.   I really expected to see a great wave of new working practices as organisations designed better ways of working.  Sadly, that hasn’t happened.

Instead, I see a lot of hybrid models of “x days in the office”.  I don’t see a focus on performance, simply a compromise between flexibility and control.  Without that focus on performance, it is a bit messy.  Some conclude that hybrid work is “the worst of both worlds”. (Economist), and others that budget pressures might reduce flexible working practices (Management Today).  

This binary, good or bad approach isn’t constructive.  Of course, there are challenges with hybrid working – we’re learning new approaches. We need to treat this as a series of experiment -test, learn, refine.   By doing this we can design smarter hybrid working, improving wellbeing, engagement, performance and productivity.  Over the next few weeks I’m going to try and share some thinking, starting with some high level principles and then getting into some of the details.  

As ever, I’d love to get into conversation about this.  Please comment, and please reach out if you’d like to chat about what this could look like for your business.

Elevating the goals of hybrid

Some hybrid approaches are simply about adjusting policy and fitting in with the crowd.  It’s not a purposeful or strategic decision. We need to aim higher, and deliver on three goals:

1. Higher Productivity – the organisational lens

Office work is fairly wasteful, to the point where it inspired the 4-day week movement.  Equally, there are plenty of shortcomings in flexible working practice.  However, it is entirely possible to design for more productivity through better working practice, managing distractions, better meeting management.  

2. Greater Engagement – the collective human lens 

Corporate performance is driven by engagement and by culture.  We work together in the interest of our organisation.  A hybrid environment means engagement and culture are different, more local, and require more active intervention.  

3. Better Wellbeing – the individual human lens

Wellbeing is the fuel for performance.  If there’s no wellbeing, then (1) and (2) don’t happen.  We should be designing work to reduce stress and burnout, and to maximise the chance of our employees being able to work at their best.  Even if that includes, as Dan Pink advocates, an afternoon nap.  

Design Principles for Smarter Hybrid

To deliver on those goals, I’d suggest hybrid design needs to start with three principles:

1.  We employ trustworthy, responsible and self-motivated adults

Given the efforts of recruitment, management, and engagement this should be obvious.  However, it’s clear that many people don’t start from a position of trust.  The BBC reported on Productivity paranioa last month.  This month an interview with a leader in HBR asks “are you concerned that remote workers will shirk?”.  I’ve run sessions with Finance Directors who’ve been unclear how to make their people work remotely.  

If you can start from this principle being true, then it creates a virtuous cycle.  If you demonstrate trust in your people and treat them as adults then you can have open conversations about their responsibility to deliver their work, support the team and the organisation succeed.  It shifts the dynamic from me to we.

2.  Choice within a framework

Hybrid working can’t be a free-for-all.  There needs to be some framework within which you give people as much choice as possible.  Be clear on your boundaries, and clear on why you’ve got them.  Let me illustrate by comparing two options:

(a)  You must be in the office two days a week. You can choose which days.

(b) You must be in on Tuesdays between 10 and 3, for team meetings and planning sessions.  

(a) gives zero guarantee about meeting team-mates, and no purpose to being in the office.  (b) is more fixed in certain respects but uses time in a very purposeful ways supporting teamwork, direction and connection.   

The critical point is to have rules for a reason – getting back to treating your people as self-motivated adults, you need to avoid “because I said so”.  Aim to give as much clarity, and offer as much freedom as possible.

3. Good managers make good teams

If you’re trusting your people, and you’re empowering within a framework, then the manager becomes even more critical.  They are the linchpin in getting teams aligned and working well.  This strengthens managers (the single greatest influence on engagement) (Gallup) and strengthens team psychological safety (one of the greatest drivers of performance) (Accenture).

This is likely to be a point of failure though – it’s likely your managers are underskilled for doing this.  Agreeing and managing hybrid is a new skill, and they were probably underinvested in anyway (see great research from Jack  Wiley).  Manager standards are patchy in most organisations – my team analysed 700 managers, and found satisfaction with manager ranged from 1005 down to 17% (i.e. in some teams 1 in 6 people thought the manager was competent!).  

If you want hybrid to work, managers need help.  They need the skills and practices to make this work.  That doesn’t need grand management development courses, but it definitely needs some support. 

Let’s get real – is it possible?

It is entirely possible to create smarter hybrid work.  I’ve done it. I’ve linked to some of the information about the approach we introduced at VM above.  I can share more if you’re interested – just let me know, but for now let me give a quick summary of “A Life More Virgin”.

We shaped our approach to work on 4 critical elements.  The first two create the framework, allowing for empowerment and individual tailoring:

  1. personas set the group boundaries – 5 simple groups of roles based on the level of flexibility.
  2. teams agreed their rhythms – how, where and when they’d meet.
  3. stage – individuals considered work requirements based on work and life stage (e.g. new to work or employer, change in role, caring responsibilities).
  4. life – allowing people to tailor work to their situations, e.g. creating space for Friday prayers, spending time in the office because home was unsuitable etc.

The approach was deployed across the business over 8 months, rolled out area by area.  In each function managers received three briefing sessions, they were supported in agreeing team rhythms with their team. Individuals were provided with the work-happy app to help them identify what mattered to them in work, and how to optimise this.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  However, it is a start and gives everyone something to build on.  It’s now followed with ongoing work to tweak and improve work.

What next?

I really hope this has whet the appetite and stimulated some thought.  In the next few weeks I’ll dive into some of the challenges.  I’m roughly thinking of covering:

  • Leadership – the opportunities and challenges for senior leaders.
  • HR – the conflicting pressures and demands on the people function.
  • Managers – the criticality of managers, and how to help them.
  • Recruitment and onboarding – “new starters can’t learn the ropes”.

I’ll also aim to address some of the challenges and barriers that I hear most frequently:

  • Learning and career development – “how can I learn from experienced colleagues”, “how can I build a career with no visibility?”
  • Culture, inclusion and engagement – “remote workers aren’t connected”.
  • Performance and productivity – “how do I know my people are working”.

Do let me know if you’ve got a pet subject you’d like me to cover, and as ever give me a yell if I can help you shape brilliant work for your organisation.