Finding the Winning Mix for Hybrid Work

by Dr. Ian Kierans, Director of Advanced Organisation

The future of work is changing and there is considerable hype around the topic. However, what are the real issues? Pre-Covid-19, the focus was on digitalisation and artificial intelligence disrupting jobs. During Covid-19, the focus has shifted to virtual working to maintain businesses.

With an end to lockdowns in sight, companies are changing their focus from maintaining operations to generating new growth. This shift from survival back to growth will be crucial, as your business has the chance to not only survive, but also change the rules of the game. Now is a once in a generation opportunity to look at how your business innovates.


Innovation is synonymous with new technology, smartphones and biotechnology vaccines, based on intensive but behind-the-scenes R&D activity. However, in every industry the most progressive companies put innovation centre stage. In these companies, every function has a role to play in innovation.

The future of office work is hybrid. The overnight adoption of virtual work has highlighted many advantages. Analysis of billions of digital exchangesi and umpteen surveysii shows that employees are happier, have less of a commute, have increased productivity, and a potential to access global talent.

The disadvantages are blurred work-life boundariesiii, stressiv and the reinforcement of functional silos, the very opposite of what is required to innovate. The big assumption is that a hybrid work approach can mix the best of ‘at-office work’ for, say, more complex and social activities such as innovation, and ‘at-home work’ for, say, thinking, planning and execution of tasks.

There are, however, strong employer and employee preferences in different industries and life circumstances. We should learn from other companies, but what works for Goldman Sachs or Google will only frustrate everyone if it is shoehorned into your business. While surveys provide a general view, they typically miss the actual thoughts and feelings of your employees, the understanding of which is vital to design your hybrid organisation. Currently Apple employees are rallying against a back-to-office policy that they feel ignores their work needsv.

How To Design a Winning Mix

There are three key principles that HR, along with the full senior team, should follow to design a winning hybrid organisation.

Ensure clarity and alignment with the business strategy: With the re-opening, the temptation is to put 100% effort into current operations and earn now. The best companies, however, also focus on the future. By scanning the external context, for example customer needs and the competitors emerging from the pandemic, you can formulate alternative propositions and business models and candidly assess your own business model, including the talent and capabilities needed to profit in a way that is durable.

Just asking what your employees want will not work: As psychologists and behavioural economists have proven, for new and vague practices, such as hybrid working, people rarely share their deeper thoughts and feelings, which ultimately drives their behaviour. A set of techniques that is called ‘hidden needs analysis’ can surface people’s deeper priority needs when it comes to their future and work. The use of these techniques must be framed to find win-win solutions in an adult way. This will avoid window dressing policies that people see through and then resist or circumvent.

Test fast and early in select areas: Do not try to perfectly map it all out and roll it out in one go. This takes too long and risks becoming an implement at all costs, even when consistent issues arise. People like certainty but remember most have endured a newfound level of uncertainty. Employees will positively engage with any leadership-led and inclusive approach to design a hybrid organisation that strengthens the business and how they perform.

There is a lot of hype about the future of hybrid work. The above principles will help leaders design an innovative organisation that achieves the right mix of ‘at-work’ and ‘at-home’ working, meeting both employee needs and an organisation’s drive for growth.

Yes, people want to return to normal. However, they also want things to be better. So, they are open to change. Progressive, innovative companies will provide the right mix: Will yours?

Footnotes:

(i) Work Trend Index (2021): Annual Report Exclusive research and expert insights into a year of work like no other reveal urgent trends for leaders as the next phase of work unfolds. The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready? [Accessed 17.05.21]
https://ms-worklab.azureedge.net/files/reports/hybridWork/pdf/2021_Microsoft_WTI_Report_March.pdf
Compiled insights from over a trillion bits of digital communications. Team/network data based on 122 bn emails and 2.3 bn teams and outlook exchanges that current teams and close networks are interacting, but new and extended network interactions have diminished. In other words, more closed silos.
(ii) https://www.irishtimes.com/business/urgent-need-for-government-clarity-on-return-to-workplace-ibec-says-1.4566698 Accessed 17.05.2021
370 companies, across manufacturing, distribution and services, participated in an IBEC survey published in May 2021. Four out of five respondent companies stating that they will operate a hybrid model of remote and onsite work to a degree when their offices reopen. 15 per cent of respondents will ask all staff to return onsite fully, and 4 per cent will keep their staff remote working on a full-time basis.
(iii) E.g. Longer hours, increased surveillance
(iv) WHO https://www.irishtimes.com/business/work/long-working-hours-linked-to-745-000-deaths-in-one-year-says-who-1.4567272
(v) Apple employees rally against office working plan https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-57385999

Article first published on IMI

About the author

Dr. Ian Kierans is the Director of Advanced Organisation – specialists in strategy, innovation and change. His upcoming book provides a practical guide to grow through innovation.