Navigating the hybrid working paradox: Why, What and How
Being a ‘paradox navigator’ has been hailed as one of the most critical HR competencies to drive business performance. As we design the future of work, one of the greatest and most immediate tests of our ability to think and act paradoxically will be designing structures, systems and processes for hybrid working.
Understanding of the 'why', 'what' and 'how' of hybrid working though is still evolving. The very name of the concept denotes an integration of opposing priorities - it is a both/ and concept, both remote and in person, both flexible and having a framework.
Paradox research suggests that actively integrating opposing ideas helps to develop creative solutions to address both needs. To respond adaptively to the tensions of hybrid working requires moving from 'splitting' to 'integrating'. Too often, we tend to break things down and solve them, in the process missing the wood for the trees. We start thinking of 'remote' and 'in office' as two separate modes of operating. We start to think of 'managers' and 'employees' as two different species and somehow end up seeing organizational outcomes and employee outcomes at opposing ends of the spectrum. To avoid this pitfall, a paradox approach will prove useful for integrating the why, what and how of hybrid working.
Integrating the Why: One outcome, multiple pathways
As in the case of any change, it is best to start with the ‘why’. What are the outcomes that we are seeking? Defining outcomes in a way that combines benefits to every employee and the organization, as a whole, is a good place to start. One of the big shifts that has emerged in the wake of COVID-19 and the subsequent path to recovery is an equal footing in the employer – employee relationship. As a result, there is no distinction between organizational needs and employee needs anymore. To avoid the pitfall of polarizing positions on this issue, it will help to collectively define the outcomes, to shed assumptions like flexibility is for employees or productivity is for the organization but understand that it all boils down to creating conditions for achieving the common purpose.
For instance, if the purpose of the organization is to innovate, the expected outcome of hybrid working has to be to create the conditions for innovation e.g., by creating collaborative spaces or allocating time for deep work. So, before embracing hybrid working as a mantra, we need to define the ‘why’ in a way that reflects the voice of everyone who contributes to the outcome. A great tool for developing common understanding of the hybrid work paradox is polarity mapping developed by Barry Johnson, which helps to collectively understand the upsides and downsides of each ‘pole’ in this case, remote and in person working and develop a holistic approach that maximizes the benefits of both.
Integrating the What: Hybrid is not just about the place of work, but the very design of work:
The focus of thinking around hybrid working is often on ‘where’ & ‘when’ but the more fundamental question to start with is ‘what’. Before we move to how many days in office and how many days in person, it is useful to first start with, ‘What does a workweek look like?’: What are the tasks included in a typical workweek and what are the ways to perform them most effectively? Is an All Hands meeting more participative when everyone is online? Is a brainstorming session more effective when everyone meets each other face-to-face? Are there specific points during a team’s shared journey when meeting in person / connecting remotely is more effective? In a nutshell, the shift to hybrid working is not about deciding how many days a team works at the office. It is about work redesign – taking the lessons from the WFH experiment of 2020 and defining common principles for work design and then adapting them to different contexts based on the nature of work, stakeholders, team composition. ‘Where’ we will work from and ‘when’ will come as the next step to ‘what’ tasks can best be done in person or remotely or through a completely new combination of the two modes of operating.
Integrating the How: Collective & Customized Focus
It is definitely helpful to customize approaches to different personas – managers, employees, new / experienced employees etc. In fact, having individual working agreements which incorporate the preferred work style, individual and role considerations etc. are a good practice. But it also helps to avoid arbitrary distinctions such as what managers expect and what employees expect. A common refrain heard in the context of managing this change is ‘We need to sensitize managers on unconscious bias’. But suppose we do away with this distinction between managers and employees and think of how teams, as a whole, will operate? Teams collectively defining their purpose, ways of working and norms will ensure that individual considerations are taken into account, transparently agreed upon and communicated.
The other equally important aspect of how is ensuring consistency between intent and process. When we advocate a certain idea, but our policies, processes and metrics denote the opposite, it leads to systemic contradictions. To ensure consistency between intent and process, if an organization champions hybrid working, its processes should ensure that high visibility projects get allocated regardless of presence in office, that there is equity in the criteria for who gets to work from where and that one’s individual constraints do not become barriers to contributing effectively.