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Hybrid Working: The Twin-Track Office vs. Inclusive by Default

Updated: May 10, 2021

In May 2020, the below joke poll started circulating across social media:

Poll reads "Who led the digital transformation of your company? A) Your CEO B) Your CTO or C) Covid-19.  C is circled. Each option has an accompanying cartoon figure.

Only three months into the pandemic, it was already clear that workplaces were changing fundamentally. The long-held default – that everyone should work in an office unless they have a really good reason – is now very much up for questioning. We have all learned a lot more about our productivity and wellbeing in different work settings. But beyond personal preferences, there are also issues of equality and inclusion to consider.

Some people will be very concerned about offices reopening. Many workers are saving considerable - even life-changing - amounts of money, time, and energy by not commuting. The ability to combine work and home has greatly helped many, caregivers and people with disabilities amongst them. Due to house moves and new hires during lockdown, colleagues may now be very geographically dispersed; some may be considering if they could realistically continue with their current job if office life returns.

But the temporary default of working from home has also been very difficult for many. Returning to the office means finally getting separation between work and home. No more repurposing the kitchen table, or working at a desk a metre from the bed; no more uncomfortable blurring of boundaries between professional and private. For some, the promise of real human contact in the office may be a lifeline.

These conversations may be familiar from your workplace. We are hearing more about a ‘hybrid’ model as a new default. In this model, work is set up to allow a choice between working from home and in an office (or some other shared space). This is welcome, and arguably should have happened much earlier.

But I’d argue that this ‘hybrid model’ actually hides two possible approaches. One should be guarded against; the other actively encouraged.

Approach #1: The Twin-Track Workplace

With new choice of workplace may come a new division between two tracks. On the first track are those who regularly work in the office. Some are cleaners, security staff, and others who were going in throughout the pandemic, facing high risk for low pay. Others are those who, for whatever reason, decide to come in regularly. On the second track are those who usually work from home – again, maybe from necessity or maybe from choice.

The second track are more numerous than remote workers of the past, and much better integrated into the workplace than before. Meetings take account of people dialling in, collaboration is digital by default, and technologically all works well. Managers still send out regular updates, and have frequent calls with staff to ensure everyone is doing ok and up-to-date with key news.

But now, unlike in lockdown, the second track begin to miss out. In the office water cooler gossip is starting to happen, as are social trips to the pub. Divisions between those ‘in the know’ begin to widen. Over time those on the second track notice that junior colleagues, getting more visibility and contact with seniors, are advancing faster up the career ladder. Some say that these first-track colleagues, by being present in the office, have picked up all sorts of skills, relationships, and knowledge which are needed for senior roles. The arguments roll on; but the trend continues.

This situation is not new. The pandemic did not invent remote working, nor the inequities that come with it (e.g. women being more likely to work from home for childcare reasons). But we may now see a situation in which workplaces have a substantial proportion of employees in both tracks. If handled badly, this new default opens up potential for tension and worsens existing problems.

But, with a different approach, these two tracks are an opportunity for great innovation.

Approach #2: Inclusive by default

Alongside technological change, the move to working from home has prompted multiple psychological changes. We have been forced to challenge previous assumptions about what can be accomplished via home working and virtual meetings. Anecdotally, conversations about wellbeing have become more genuine - when you can’t rely on body language, and with the backdrop of a pandemic, really asking people how they’re doing has become a vital part of the work day. I also feel connected to many more colleagues. Previously I’d have shared jokes, gossip, or useful updates with those sitting around me; with instant message as my primary form of social contact, I now do that with a much wider range of people. I’ve developed new skills of managing and coordinating work remotely, and I strongly doubt I’m alone. All these changes need not stay in lockdown.

In a better new normal, inclusive and communicative behaviour is a default. This may be harder without the forced pressures of lockdown – such behaviour will need come from personal habits, rather from necessity. Habit-forming is notoriously hard, but there are useful tricks. We could keep checklists, reminding us to share coffee-room chat with colleagues at home and be vigilant against biases around different work patterns. Seniors should encourage us to learn from each others’ ways of working, and different skills and experiences we develop; training courses and hiring should similarly account for benefits that come from this diversity. And, though this suggestion may prompt groans from many, we should continue some ‘zoom drinks’ even when pubs are open.

Such habits won’t solve all complications, of course. A particular challenge will be synchronising very different timetables without promoting an ‘always-on’ culture. There may be difficult questions about financial fairness; low-paid colleagues who can’t work from home (either due to their jobs, or because their home situation is not amenable to home working) may object to also being forced to pay daily commuting costs. And all of this intersects with wider trends around where people will live and socialise in the future.

As with any complex system, the new normal is unpredictable. Adapting to complexity requires flexibility, vigilance, and responsiveness. That may be hard when our minds are also focussing on the day job. But we have all learned a lot this past year. The question now is whether we make that work for a better normal.

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