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.