The hybrid workplace is a tricky model to manage: it works well for individuals, but is much more problematic for teams, where people have varying expectations. When teams are split between at home and the workplace, the end result can be a two-tier system.
One solution is to create “anchor days”, a system in which teams are in the office on certain mandated days of the week for team meetings and collaboration sessions. This is not true flexibility, just variability of location, while requiring everyone to follow a fixed timetable and to live within occasional commuting distance of the office.
Anchor days encourage teams to spend time together and increase the chance of bumping into other teams that happen to share the same days, but by design they ensure people will literally never meet anyone in a team that rotates in on different days. Changing the timing of anchor days to foster a wider range of interactions across teams also becomes impossible as people juggle fixed childcare and other arrangements.
The failure to allow multiple cross-team connections can accentuate two of the most common pre- and post-COVID complaints made by chief executives – “organisational silos” and “not enough innovation”.
A regimen of Zoom team meetings and regular mental health “catch-ups’’ in 2020 saved the ability of many teams to deliver their specific team priorities, but at the cost of cross-team interactions. Silos have already deepened.
Another unintended consequence of the move to remote working and hybrid models has been that people default to relying on formal and existing relationships. New connections have been harder to make, accidental encounters rarer. Meeting schedules determine who you talk to. The waiting room of a Zoom call and a real meeting room are not equals.
As a result, many organisations have unconsciously reverted back to power being exercised through the formal elements of hierarchy and direct reporting lines, and less in the power of personality, accidental interaction and the famous matrix. We risk undoing 20 years of gradual progress towards cross-organisational collaboration facilitated by carefully designed workplaces if we jump straight to the temporary solutions that saw us through the worst of COVID.
As we move towards recovery, organisations need to refocus not on working from home rosters, anchor day arrangements or Zoom fatigue, but instead on how and by whom decisions really get made and how work is allocated and measured.
Organisations are complex social networks held together not just by an organisation chart and the formal reporting relationships it describes. Nor are they fixed by the single expedient of rotating teams through the office. Personal friendships and the complex power individuals hold by virtue of information they have, key relationships external to the business that they own, revenue they generate and risks they are able to mitigate are also key to individual power and influence.
Balancing social connectivity and influence with the power of formal structures while delivering a new working model and expectation of the physical presence of employees is the key to successful recovery.
The priority for organisations in 2021 is to establish more sustainable ways of working that recognise and re-energise the informal and social systems that often act as the lubricant to getting work done – to balance out the potential for increased reliance on formal/structural power.