The future is hybrid 10 steps to introduce hybrid ways of working

The term hybrid has become a common part of our vocabulary in recent weeks as organizations consider their return to office plans.


An approach that combines time working remotely and at the office appears to be quickly becoming the preferred way forward for many organizations and their people.


New data from Future Forum shows that the majority of global knowledge workers expect a hybrid future.


According to their report, only 17% of workers want to return full-time to the office, while 20% want to continue working remotely full-time. The majority, 63%, want hybrid – a mixture of the two.


Watch for more data in the coming weeks – there will be a flurry!


In 2012, I led the transformation from a stuffy, dusty, single tenant building, to five floors in a new, modern, leased building. Having recently arrived from the UK, the spatial office I was introduced to in the original building was similar in size to the one-bedroom flat I rented when I left university. But it wasn’t just about the size of the offices that represented the traditional environment, it was the fact that there were lots of them, with about a quarter of the population enjoying the privacy (from what I’m not sure!) of a dedicated space.


Fast-forward to 2019 when I said farewell to the corporate world and we had no offices – in fact many of us didn’t have a dedicated desk. We had reduced our footprint to two floors with plans to move to one, had saved millions of dollars, done our bit for the environment and most importantly had our people cite the new flexible work arrangement as the biggest factor in their engagement. BWoW, or Better Ways of Working as we named it, was a great success thanks to a lot of hard work from many talented people.


So, with all this recent interest in this apparent new phenomenon, it seems timely to share my 10 steps to introduce hybrid ways of working.


1. Go inside and outside for the upsides and downsides


Back in 2012 there weren’t the masses of articles we have in the COVID-era on the topic of hybrid work, so take the time to trawl them for the best insights. Speaking to other companies who are further ahead (and behind) with their plans will also help. With BWoW we stole lots of ideas and avoided many mistakes by touring a number of freshly renovated offices in downtown Toronto.


Insights from inside the organization are even more important. Surveys are an obvious place to start but take your time to create the right questions and be ready to splice the data in multiple ways. Focus groups are also beneficial but for me, walking the floors was by far the most powerful listening strategy. Collecting people’s hopes and fears gave me a good sense of the overall sentiment. It’s also important to pay attention to your different stakeholder groups recognising they will share many unique, and often contradictory, perspectives.


2. You can never have too many champions


Giving your people the chance to weigh in will create buy-in, so the more involvement the better. Being the democratic soul that I am, in our case we provided people with options to vote on – be it wall colour, desk finish and chair type. We had narrowed the choice down to a set of options that we could live with (and afford), so leaving people to make the casting vote went a long way. We also had lots of champions – move champions, clear desk champions, tech champions, communication champions. Lots of champions.


3. Focus on the work


It’s important to remember that only 40% of the Canadian working population have the option to work from home, so the hybrid future is largely a knowledge worker privilege.


The risk of creating division with “have’s and have not’s” is real and can be mitigated by being very clear about how decisions will be made about where the work gets done. Focus on tangible facts like dependencies (eg. serving customers, handling products) and interdependencies (eg. collaborating with other teams). Avoid an emotional knee-jerk reaction based on a dated philosophy that people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. Finally, keep front of mind that people seem to have got on pretty well for the last 12 months all considered, so there really is no reason to fully go back to how things were.


4. Build a set of principles


Stephen Covey said: “There are three constants in life. Change, choice and principles”.


Creating principles that are based on your culture and values will help guide consistent decision making and lead to transparency so you can hold your new approach lightly without pages of rules and regulations. Motor giant GM recently launched their new remote working policy with two words – “work appropriately”. You might choose to have a bit more detail than that, but the simplicity is pretty compelling.


5. Give people as much control as possible


Whatever your principles, the more control you hand to your people the better. Ben Buckton Chief Marketing & People Officer at UK law firm Shakespeare Martineau has been giving this concept a lot of thought and recently shared with me his preferred terminology – “empowered working”. He views the word “hybrid” as too much of a compromise and landed on his new term as it covers the culture, the infrastructure, the leadership and the individual. For me it’s unrealistic to manage every situation from the equivalent of an airport control tower and it’s much more engaging (and efficient) for individuals to make their own decisions.


6. Create an amazing office experience


While we can expect disruption to the commercial real estate market, an amazing office experience is still an important part of the hybrid future. To persuade people to ditch their sweatpants, you’ll need a space that helps you create camaraderie, culture and continuous learning. Creating a variety of spaces seems the logical thing to do (12 is the specific advice of this fancy architect), but from experience I found that people struggle to shift their location during a typical work day so pick the number of options that will work for your people.


7. Train your leaders


Hybrid ways of working will test the resolve of your best leaders, while the bad ones will turn in to prison guards looking to introduce keystroke technology and random check-ups (not check-ins). Training your leaders to personalize the experience for all of their people is critical. Teach them to proactively look for signs of burnout so they can spot who is thriving and who is not. Remind them to take a remote-first strategy and to be deliberate in role-modelling their own work arrangements.


8. Review your employee experience and augment with the right technology


This is where the heavy lifting needs to be done and it will make or break your hybrid future. Consider every dimension of your employee experience through the new lens and make changes accordingly. How will people be on-boarded differently for example? Will the buddy-system you have work if Joanne and Edmond aren’t in the office at the same time? How will team meetings be held? How will training be delivered? And don’t forget to ask how we will identify who needs the training as there is definitely a risk of being out of sight and out of mind.


Then (and not a moment before) consider how technology can augment this new employee experience. Remember technology can also hinder, so introduce it carefully with thorough needs analysis and training to ensure appropriate uptake.


9. Underpin every inch with a robust change management plan


This is likely the most important step. I remember at the time, fellow Executives felt that we invested disproportionately in change resources, but this allowed us to introduce dynamic strategies at an enterprise and individual level. When I say strategies, this could be something as simple as sitting down one on one with an obstinate leader brainstorming patiently how to remotely access their paper files. Communication was another critical lever – lots of it. We created excitement through videos, provided information through a dedicated intranet portal and held townhalls where we kept going until we’d answered every question.


10. Experiment, measure and iterate


You’ve followed the steps and feel like you’ve got to the end – congratulations. Unfortunately, the hybrid future is a bit like a game of snakes and ladders, so you’ll likely need to go back to the first step. Gather more insights and continue to iterate. Pilots are a great way of testing different strategies particularly if you are fortunate enough to have some early adopters who others might follow.


So there you have it – 10 steps to introduce hybrid ways of working. If you’d like to learn more about how to plan for your hybrid future, please let me know.


Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.