Leadership
Leadership

Reworking Work — How to unlock the potential in hybrid work.

June 2, 2022
·
4 min read
Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash
“The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”
— Pliny the Elder

Work is working.

A virus took us home, and we liked it. A global experiment in remote work on an unimagined scale. Business went virtual, and professionals stocked up on webcams. ¹

It worked. Productivity is up.

Two years later, employment rates are up; the Dow Jones and Nasdaq are up, companies are beating profit estimates. People are reporting increased productivity. ²

But there are cracks.

Zoom gloom, a great resignation (or great reset), a shifting on-again-off-again return to office date, as well as concerns about the erosion of communication, coordination, collaboration, and culture.³

One ‘crack’ might connect all of these concerns — connection.

Michael Arena, VP Talent & Development at Amazon Web Services, worries about “the neighborhood effect,”  “bonding social capital” and “bridging social capital.” For Arena, "bonding social capital occurs ... within a team where each individual actively interacts with every other individual. ... Bridging social capital exists when various groups are connected to one another."⁴

Arena’s point — without a social fabric, the effectiveness of the team and the organization declines.⁵

He’s right.

Eventually, this will hit business in the pocketbook. If you don’t feel part of the team, connected to your colleagues, and enjoying your work — and the opportunity presents itself — what will you do? 

Leave.

This is the paradox of hybrid work.

On a broad scale, productivity is up. Social connection is down.

We feel it personally — a push-pull of wanting to “hang” with colleagues and, at the same time, a desire to control our own time and destiny.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO,  calls it the paradox of hybrid work. 

“Hybrid work represents the biggest shift to how we work in our generation.” But it’s not a one size fits all approach. “According to our research, the vast majority of employees say they want more flexible remote work options, but at the same time also say they want more in-person collaboration, post-pandemic.”

In fassforward’s work with HR leaders and senior executives, there’s an itch to “get back.” 

That itch is an underlying uneasiness and an awareness that something isn’t quite clicking.

What they feel is a decline in the social fabric.

They know that high-functioning teams and organizations are aligned to clear outcomes, trust each other,  and continuously learn and improve. All of that is a function of the social cohesion in and between teams. 

This means that the job of a leader is increasingly difficult.

Just as the balance between work and life upended during the pandemic, the line between productivity and social connectedness has strengthened. Over and over again, we see the following issues to solve for hybrid work.

In big to small order, they are — Connecting with People, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Increasing Workload, Onboarding and Learning, Work/ Life Balance, Team Cohesion, Coordination, and Collaboration, Getting to Results, and finally, Access, Connectivity, and Tech.

All of these are connected. Solving just one will not solve hybrid work.

Solving these problems will come from observation (of how others are tackling them) and smart experiments, where you and your team try things out.

Flexible work policies won’t fix this.

If necessity is the mother of invention, policy is not the father.

“Solving” hybrid work by defining Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday as the days you’re coming into the office — that’s a bad answer. Worse, asking the question, “Which days of the week should we set?” is a dumb question.

The smart question is, “how do we unlock the potential in hybrid work?”

The answer to that question, or at least part of the answer — is autonomy. Imagine for yourself — control of your own calendar. Your own work. Your own priorities. A working utopia. Now imagine that for each member of your team. With each member in control of their own calendar, work, and priorities. A dysfunctional dystopia.

The trick will be tying autonomy to engagement, productivity, and alignment.  How do we increase autonomy, and increase engagement; increase autonomy, and increase productivity; increase autonomy, and increase alignment?

Smart experiments and unlearning a lifetime of habits are the way to go.

One example, which threads through Access, Connectivity and Tech, Getting to Results, Increasing Workload, Coordination and Collaboration, and Team Cohesion, is Google’s “speedy meetings.” 

I run a couple of standing meetings a week and switched on this feature, which automatically turns a standard 1-hour session to 50 minutes on the calendar.  I was very pleased with myself for (a) finding the feature and (b) being proactive about #hybridwork.

Then technology hit people. 

A voice chirps up fifty minutes into my weekly roadmap meeting, “we’re at fifty minutes.” The devil on my shoulder was not happy. “We have more to do; I was in the middle of speaking. What are you doing?”

Thankfully, the angel is a little more reasonable.

“That’s good. We’re being respectful of everyone’s time. We have a culture where people feel free to speak up. Work will always expand to fill the allotted time, anyway.”

This is how these smart experiments with hybrid work will work.

An idea to make work better. To lift personal autonomy; to increase productivity, engagement, and alignment. Then, a hack — possibly aided by technology (in this case: speedy meetings); finally, a habit change.

That’s how we get work working.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ “No End to Covid-19 Webcam Shortage.” BBC News, 25 July 2020.
² Track the recovery.org; Big Charts data; Kazi, Chandni. “Remote Work Productivity Study Finds Surprising Reality: 2-Year Analysis.” Great Place to Work®, 10 Feb. 2021.
³ Haas, Martine. “5 Challenges of Hybrid Work — and How to Overcome Them.” Harvard Business Review, 15 Feb. 2022.
⁴ Arena, Michael. “The Neighborhood Effect: Implications of Hybrid Work.” HR Exchange Network, 18 Jan. 2022.
⁵ The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 lists “Social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises and mental health deterioration” as three of the most concerning threats to the world in the next two years.

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