Back to the future of hybrid working

So here it is, we stand on the threshold (or the brink) of a brave new world of hybrid working.

As we prepare to continue with the unlocking of society, and with the pandemic in apparent retreat (at least here in the UK), the discourse in the internal communications community seems to currently all be about hybrid working, and little else.

I have to say that I’m a bit sceptical about the revolution in ways of working that some are claiming this will be. The fact is, flexible working (as it used to be called in old money) is nothing new and its success in organisations was always down to how committed (really committed) the organisation was to this way of working and the frameworks, policies and culture which were in place to support it.

What’s so different now in organisations to make more flexible and remote working a success as a part of their exit strategy from the pandemic? Do they have, or are they developing, those frameworks, policies and cultures which will support the transition to a permanent hybrid working model, as employees emerge from their pandemic bunkers?

Have all the relevant considerations been exposed and properly thought through? If not, hybrid working could be a failed experiment, and a massive flop, coming to a workplace near you very soon.

A glimpse of the past

Earlier this week I joined a discussion panel for a CIPR podcast recording, where we discussed hybrid working at length. It was an interesting discussion and we covered a lot of ground. Watch out for the pod being published later this month.

My biggest takeaway from the whole encounter was that there is a lot to think about, and a lot of bases which need to be covered, if a hybrid working model is to be implemented successfully in an organisation. More on this later.

While preparing for the panel discussion, I came across a CIPD report published early on in the pandemic in April 2020, which was based on pre-pandemic research into workforce trends. It was a glimpse back into the past and a stark reminder of how we used to work, and that remote and flexible working was often a privilege associated with seniority, age group and professionalism. 

Entitled ‘Working from home: What’s driving the rise in remote working’, the report may as well have been titled, ‘what’s stopping more remote working in the future’, given the key finding that only 5.3% of workers were mainly working from home pre-pandemic.        

How things have changed between then and now, but will the change stick?

Old habits die hard

The thing is, when the brakes of social distancing are finally released and the UK government’s ‘work at home if you can’ message is finally rescinded, how many organisations will simply go back to the old pre-pandemic ways of working?  Mainly because it will just be easier to do that rather than to try and implement a messy and possibly costly hybrid working model?

For sure, we’ve heard from some high profile and large organisations that they are embracing a hybrid or remote working model, with the BBC recently reporting that almost all 50 of the UK’s biggest employers have said that they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full time.

But, what about all the middle sized and small businesses and organisations which we rarely hear from? What will they do? For me, the hybrid working narrative seems to be predominantly being shaped by the biggest and noisiest organisations and the people who represent them (including their internal communicators), possibly because they feel they need to be seen to be publicly demonstrating a response to the societal changes accelerated by the pandemic the most.

Reputation, as they say, is all, but the focus on large organisations in the narrative is likely to be clouding the true picture of how widely hybrid working will be adopted post pandemic.

The fact is, until very recently, work for millions of employees was exclusively a place and not an activity that could potentially be performed remotely, and this was the status quo for centuries. Like it or not, most organisations with any history under their belts have some legacy of that way of thinking and working in how they do things, how they are organised, how they are led and managed, and most importantly within their culture.

Old habits die hard and the legacy and draw of the past will be a powerful influence on whether or not they even consider or adopt longer term hybrid working models once the green light is given for a return to workplaces.

This isn’t about everyone….or is it?

‘Offices’ and ‘office workers’ have also loomed large in the recent discourse about remote working, and again, I think that this is also clouding the hybrid working debate, and excluding some from it.

Like other front line, essential and key workers, there are many office workers who have been in the office throughout the pandemic for a myriad of reasons. For them the whole reductive narrative peddled in the media, and in our own profession, about confined and stressed remote working colleagues, sheltering from the worst impacts of the pandemic in the comfort of their own homes on the receiving end of endless wellbeing initiatives, must at times have felt annoying, insensitive and possibly downright offensive to say the least. Particularly as their workplace circumstances put many of them at greater risk from contracting Covid-19, and yes, possibly dying from it.

For them, these homeworkers were the exception not the rule and, just to rub their noses in it, they are also unlikely to be the ones who will be the net beneficiaries of the paradigm shift to hybrid working models being currently espoused by many. For them the hybrid working debate is largely irrelevant and internal communicators should be mindful of this if these ‘front line’ workers exist in their organisations.    

As a term, I actually prefer ‘knowledge worker’ rather than office worker as invoked by Jenni Field in her recent Influence blog  is the focus on hybrid working a red herring for leaders? The situation is simply more nuanced than how some are presenting it and the applicability of hybrid working, and its viability as a model at all, depends on the circumstances of the organisation, what it does, the sorts of job roles in it and the types of people who work there. It is not for everyone.

However, the hybrid working debate should simultaneously not be presented as being about all types of workers (because some roles just don’t lend themselves to hybrid working), but it should also be about everyone from a holistic and inclusive point of view. Audience segmentation and targeted messaging will be important tools for internal communicators tasked with communicating the shift to a hybrid working model if one is being adopted.

Employees need to know what it means for them, even if that is nothing.

Hybrid working isn’t just glorified hot-desking

There also seems to be a lot of focus on the practicalities of implementing hybrid working in the context of using existing or reduced office space in a different way and keeping employees connected and productive using technology.

Whilst I understand that many will instinctively focus on these practical aspects, hybrid working can never just be about these things. There are a host of other considerations which need to be taken into account if the model is to be implemented successfully.

In the course of my research for the panel discussion I found an excellent CIPD guide about planning for hybrid working. I thought this was the most comprehensive, practical and sensible resource I’ve seen so far on the topic of hybrid working.

It covers:

  • Policy and procedure
  • Legal implications
  • Team communication
  • Manager training and development
  • Technology and equipment
  • Wellbeing
  • Performance management
  • Inclusion and fairness
  • Employee lifecycle

In other words, pretty much all aspects of organisational design and development need to be considered to successfully implement a hybrid working model. The upshot of this is that internal communicators need to be collaborating with many parts of the organisation, and not just Estates and the HR team, to meaningfully communicate hybrid working to employees and ‘join it all up’ for them.

Culture is all

I’ve written before about the impact of the pandemic on organisational cultures. Many cultures have been smashed apart by our collective experience of work over the past 15 months and they need rebuilding to support new ways of working and to eliminate the potential for toxic presenteeism, paranoid employee surveillance and management practices, and lip service from leaders.

Getting the culture right inside organisations is perhaps the most important, and most difficult, challenge to overcome to implement a healthy hybrid working model.

Without it, you will simply be going back to the same future for your organisation and employees, which was there before the pandemic began.  

Is that the outcome you want?  


If you are looking for some internal communications help in implementing a hybrid working model, or any other change activities, I have a range of services available for existing and potential clients. Please get in touch for a no obligation chat.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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