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 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.