On hybrid working and human nature (part 1)

Some reflections are emerging from the work I have been doing with a range of organisations over recent months. There are differences between how the leadership of an organisation and their staff are experiencing the pandemic, and these differences extend to teams and individuals. This is to be expected, of course. A number of challenges are emerging as a result.

As time is compressed, new tasks proliferate and challenges intensify there is more to do, often with fewer people, in tougher circumstances and with less mental bandwith. This load takes a toll on us, emotionally, psycologically and physically. We are forced to focus much more on the here-and-now, the day-to-day, the intensity of which serves to blinker us from the wider perspectives. As someone said on a call, their staffs default position is ‘to run at full speed towards a problem and kill it’. All tasks seem to be both important and urgent. The need to keep ‘delivering’ and achieving, remaining productive, seems not only harder than ever but also more important. Can’t afford to lose your job, so have to find ways to make things happen, even if you’re doing this from your bedroom.

Mental health and wellbeing is recognised as more important than ever at a time when, ironically, people are often feeling less able to act positively to ensure they maintain good self care practices. Senior leaders recognise the challenge, though putting measures in place for staff who don’t have the time, capacity or bandwidth to engage with them reinforces a self-defeating cycle of inaction. It needs, ultimately, structural or systemic shifts to enable people to raise their needs higher up the list of priorities. Offering yoga or meditation sessions for staff smacks of tokenism when a decent desk chair could have a greater impact on quality of life. 

Managers who fall towards the ’stick’ end of the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation spectrum will be champing at the bit to get back into the office, to breathe the deep relief of being able to see what their staff are up to and revert to tendencies around target-driven productivity and micro-management. Others, more trusting of their staff and their ability to self-organise their schedules to both deliver their work and their personal obligations, will continue to show what management looks like when we assume the adults we employ can be trusted to figure out their responsibilities for themselves and fulfil them. 

Will we see a shift away from paternalism, the mirroring of the school-based teacher-pupil or parent-child relationships? Will companies working in this hierarchical and distrusting way post-pandemic wither away? Perhaps the fact we have seen our colleagues as ‘real people’ on video calls interspersed with animals, partners and children means we might move beyond judging people purely based on their work personas. We all, ultimately, lead complex lifes that don’t fit nicely in neat boxes.

Enabling people to work as much or as little as they need to get the job done should be liberating. We might finally be seeing a decoupling from the factory-based paradigm of the last two hundred years that serves knowledge and office-based work so badly. Clocking in, production-line style call centres, scanning teams, application processing… Clearly, some people’s work is contingent on others and it won’t serve the workflow well to have members of staff disappearing at critical times or working odd hours. But there are many others for whom the work is a journey without destination, where the need to grapple with challenging and complex problems prevents the brain from clocking in and out at defined points in time. We must surely all take responsibility for ensuring we show up as and when we need to.

For those, however, lucky enough to have a degree of freedom in how they get their work done, for those requiring insight, thought and contemplation – which, ultimately, is most knowledge work – we could use some flexibility. Ideas don’t arrive between 9 and 5. Certainly not when we are staring at slack or our inbox. Why not go for a run during the day? There is plenty of research to show that some of the most productive people in history – such as Darwin or Einstein – worked in three or four 90 minute, distraction-free blocks of time. If you’re a lark, start early, an owl, work late. Why not? Let’s enable, so far as possible given the critical constraints of the particular role, people to figure out how to bring their best selves to work.

Many people are facing the challenge of blurred boundaries and lack of a clear transition between work and non-work, particularly challenging when your home has become your office – living at work, as some describe it. Indeed, lots of people have complained about how their commute time has now become extra work time. Clearly, there are a number of reasons for this, but if you used to spend an hour each way getting to and from work you’ve gained yourself an entire month in a year. Your choice is surely how to use the 168 hours we all have to fill each week. People are often under great pressure at the moment, but to what extent is this simply ‘work creep’? We need to take some personal responsibility here and create some new boundaries and some new rituals to help us cross them.

What’s coming next will need new perspectives, ideas, energy and action. We will question whether traditional ways of organising and leading, based on time served, experience and hierarchies that concentrate power in the hand of a few, is the right model moving forward. New forms of organisation are likely to appear. In turn, as senior leaders are increasingly wondering how to approach the future, traditional mechanisms of combating the uncertainty of the future may be less helpful – such as three year budgets and five-year strategic plans. 

In turn, leaders’ desire to act boldly and take risks, even in the light of a pandemic and the complete suspension of normal rules of engagement, is constrained by incentives. Not least of which is the ‘time served’ model, based on the underlying assumption that the closer to retirement you are the less you will want to rock the boat and therefore the more disincentivsed you are from risk taking. Compounding this anti-risk instinct is the need for fresh thinking and perspectives, which often comes from younger and outsider voices. Those mired in, and benefitting from, the current paradigm are usually the least willing, or able, to create a shift towards a new one. 

Generally people are pretty effective at responding to a crisis, as it can give energy, galvanise, bring people together, offer clear purpose. A critical challenge is the need to work at two speeds, the immediate and the emergent, and across two horizons, the here-and-now and the longer-term. This may be the challenge of our times. It’s increasingly the longer term, and the crises that the pandemic has hidden, deferred or will itself seed, that leaders are starting to think, and worry about. Capacity to act across these different domains becomes, through such a protracted period of disruption, a rare skill. 

Complement this with my thinking about the need for job descriptions in the modern workplace.

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