Beware “Hybrid Conflict”

This article has been bubbling under for a while, triggered when I stumbled across this Twitter thread making some predictions about the near future of work. The ideas resonated with me, but this tweet in particular caught my eye:

"what companies think hybrid work is and what workers think it is are two different things"

I am already seeing evidence that this prediction is coming true. "Hybrid Working" is such a loaded term that misunderstandings are inevitable. Yet it is still being sold as the “best of both worlds” (office and remote) even though it is likely to become the worst of both unless companies handle things very carefully indeed. As the pandemic restrictions are eased, this will become more and more important.

Before looking at how best to handle hybrid working patterns, what is it exactly? And what might the options be?

"Hybrid" seems to be best defined as some people working in the office some of the time. This definition is fine, but it disguises the real complexities and potential problems. To me, there seems to be three  broad patterns, each of which provide clues about company culture, how they see work, and how they value employees:

  • Mostly office. Remote work is tolerated but is not the working "normal". However, some team members might be remote on a given day here and there to "wait for a delivery" or similar. Arguably, this is not "hybrid working". This is in-office.
  • The X:Y model (eg. 3:2. 3 days remote, 2 days office). Work location is dictated by the company (with specific days possibly guided by employee preference/team attendance). So Teams are generally both in-person or remote at any given time unless deliberately planned otherwise.
  • Personal preference. Work location is defined by where people believe they can do their best work. Sometimes that will be at home, sometimes in "the office", wherever that might be. Again, a Team might be both in-person and remote at any given time.

For me, and many others I have spoken to, only the final option really satisfies a hybrid model. I want to be able to choose to work where I can produce the best results. Home, "official" office, business hub hotdesk or a even a park. Only I can make that decision, albeit sometimes collaboratively with other people I need to work with at a given moment. But I digress..

Here lies the tough decision any organisation needs to make before considering hybrid work patterns.

Does the organisation want to be Office-first or Remote-first?

Answering this question is key. How attached are you to the office truthfully?

The place to start thinking about this is by asking 'For us, what is the "office" actually for?'. The answer could be revealing, and uncomfortable. There is some pre-pandemic evidence that the common answer to this question is "to watch people work" - that is, to check people are working. These orgnisations have a culture where they believe that people could only be trusted if they were continuously monitored. Really? In 2022? Taylorism is not a great approach if you want to build performing teams to develop software effectively - something we have known for some time is a regressive organisational pattern. Software development is not a factory production line.

Of course, there will be some valid reasons to choose to stay office-first. For example, requiring highly secure networks needing physical access, or needing extremely low latency access for systems where even a fraction of a microsecond might make a difference (eg. some share trading systems). If there is a compelling reason for in-office physical presence then that is fine - the office has to be the "normal" way of working, and for good reason. A hybrid model will be difficult or impossible to roll out. However these are very much edge cases.

Whichever option is adopted - office- or remote-first - it has to be adopted whole heartedly by the organisation. The company culture has to revolve around it, and fully support it. It needs to be fully funded and rolled out. There is no halfway - a company is either centred on the office, or it is not. Period. This is where the X:Y model fails: forcing people to commute into the office for a certain number of days per week "just because" is a thin disguise for an office-first culture. Any attempt to present it as "hybrid work" is likely to backfire, triggering conflict between the organisation and employees expecting true hybrid home-office flexibility. This is the "hybrid conflict" mentioned, where the two sides disagree on what future work should look like.

So what happens when there is this kind of disjointed vision for the future? Those that can will dust off their CVs and move on. This kind of conflict has the potential to create a serious, existence-threatening brain drain of a company's best people moving to companies that are truly hybrid, truly remote-first, and that value their employee's views and wellbeing. 

The flip side of this brain drain is generally the less capable people will be left behind. So they will need to be grown into role to replace the folks who have left. But by definition, once they have sufficient skills they will be able to move on, following their colleagues. And so around and around we go...train up those that need it to a point that they have the skills to move on. As someone once pointed out to me, as coaches we mostly train people for their next job, not their current one - whether that is with another company, or it is in within their current organisation because the culture has changed to be more inclusive. An organisation might choose to not train people to try and get around this, which reminds me of the classic adage:

Junior manager: "What if we train our people and they leave?"

Senior manager: "What if we don't train them and they stay?!"

Organisations need to make their choice, but need to choose wisely. "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." (Deming)