This is an opportunity to redesign work for the better, not a timetabling exercise, argues The Culture Builders Founder and Director Chris Preston.
Horrible though the Covid lockdowns were, they were far less complex than the situation facing organisations now. At least with mandatory home working, you knew where you were, literally and figuratively.
More than one company has admitted to me that they are in gridlock with hybrid working. There’s a pressure to produce a policy stating definitively who works where and when, even though really there is no formula that solves for this problem.
Three:two, two:three, all hands in on alternate Wednesdays – they all miss the point. To work effectively in the post-pandemic world, businesses need to stop thinking about managing office utilisation and designing clever rotas, and start thinking about what actually makes people effective at their jobs.
Long-term productivity, at an individual, team and organisational level, depends on many variables. Some people work better on their own, others in the buzz of a busy workplace. Some teams require constant collaboration, others don’t. Some organisations have rapid staff turnover and rely on strong, office-mediated cultures to keep them engaged, others don’t. None of these things are fixed in stone.
As a result, we’re moving to a much more complex working landscape that goes far beyond the simple dichotomy of at home or in the office. That’s why I don’t like the term hybrid working at all – it’s just too reductive.
(We’re calling the new way of working ‘poly-working’, because there will be so many variations even within teams. You could call it flexible working, though for my taste that is a little too reminiscent of flexi-time to account for the radical changes to come. It doesn’t really matter what you call it – the point is, it’s already here.)
To make polyworking work, you need to stop trying to manage performance on when and where people show up or log in. That’s just a roll-call, and it’s counterproductive. This is an opportunity to reset how we measure performance, and the relationship between employer and employee, to one based on trust and empowerment.
There’s a great phase flying around at the moment – ‘insisting on your rights, without acknowledging your responsibilities, isn’t freedom, it’s adolescence’ – which I think captures the reticence some employers feel about empowerment, and about workers refusing to come into the office when required.
It’s true, to an extent. People do feel they have the right to work where and how they choose, because they’ve proven it works. That’s why so many are resigning when companies try to force them back into old habits, because doing so is completely back to front.
What polyworking offers is an opportunity to share responsibility with people, not take away their rights. This isn’t about being soft, it’s about getting better results. Trust employees and then hold them to account, instead of micromanaging their seating plans, and you’ll see how much more they’ll deliver.
So long as you’re clear about your expectations and have good, regular conversations between managers and team members, they will respond.
Is everyone going that way? Almost certainly not. Late last year, The Culture Builders surveyed 150 HR leaders and found that while just over half said they would give their employees greater autonomy as a result of the pandemic, a sizeable minority were doubling down on control, with 15.9% considering surveillance technology like mouse monitoring software to help manage performance of remote workers.
This is clearly a terrible idea. If you buy surveillance technology for your workforce, the cost will be the trust of your employee base. And once that’s spent, good luck getting it back.
As the light fades of the dumpster fire that was 2020-21, we’ll see which organisations get it wrong and either slide back to pre-pandemic ways or attempt to force arbitrary rules in a hybrid muddle.
Fortunately we are already seeing lots of companies getting it right, though admittedly many of them were already practising empowerment before the pandemic. For those that weren’t, now is the time to start trusting people. In the era of polyworking and the Great Resignation, it’s the only way that will work.
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