Moving from Lockdown to Hybrid Working

Out of the frying pan; into the fire…

In the recent months, much has changed and quickly. For many of us, the move to wholly remote and digital working methods has been rapid and all-encompassing.

“A baptism of fire” would be a reasonable description for the experience of being thrown suddenly into lockdown and a rapid shift to remote working, often without the right kit or set-up at home. Working on your iPad mini on an ironing board isn’t exactly the ideal home office!

This shift has not been a breeze for everyone, not by a long shot. Still, for many, we have changed our working habits and working tools to operate quite effectively (more or less!) in this “new normal”. But the new normal is not a steady state. It is changing, already becoming the old new normal…

As lockdowns ease, restrictions are lifted, workplaces reopen and social life moves back to bars and restaurants rather than Zoom and FaceTime, we are moving into a new phase: the “Hybrid” phase. This promises to be more challenging in many ways than the purely digital phase that we are gradually leaving behind. With this Hybrid or “Blended” way of working, the risks and challenges are less obvious, more obscure. (And I’m not talking about the health risks posed by the still present virus.)

Our shift to virtual working methods to keep things going during lockdown was one of absolute necessity. We had little free choice in this. We could work digitally; or we could not work. This was the stark and immediate choice faced by many of us. Those of us for whom digital working was an option had to shift quickly. For those like myself, who had been working with remote teams, based at home for a big portion of my time for many years, this was not a huge change. But for others, it was entirely new. But one thing was the same. We had few options; little room for debate.

The Hybrid phase promises to be much less clear-cut. There will be more choices to make, more “grey areas” with subjective answers. Employers of office-based staff will all be making decisions about if, when and how to bring people back into their buildings. Professional and social groups will both be considering when they can next meet together to work or play together in person. The answers are not as clear-cut as in the crisis of lockdown, when choices had to be made quickly, with working remotely often being the only answer.

The reality of ongoing social distancing now means that chances of everyone being back in and indoor environment together are small for the time being. Some will be in the office; some will be remote. This might vary from day to day and context to context. As we now move en masse to the hybrid phase, where we must have a blended model and combine digital remote working with physical presence working.

A big difference here is that working with completely remote teams requires a just single set of practices and interfaces – everyone is in the same (remote!) boat. However, working with and managing teams in a Hybrid model, with some people present and some remote, requires at least two sets of practices: one for those who are remote and one for those who are present in the workplace.

In addition, if the remote groups change from day to day, how do we manage the changeover smoothly? If they stay the same, how do we ensure equality and inclusion across our teams? Will those people always working at home have less access to decision makers, and thus risk losing influence or being overlooked for advancement opportunities? Or will those always in the office be less productive than those at home, because people keep disturbing them? The list goes on.

But these are not new questions. Many organisations (public and private alike) have operated hybrid remote teams for some time and have had to deal with these challenges (admittedly, not always with success). But those with a disposition towards physical presenteeism in their workplace will undoubtedly struggle with an ongoing set of remote workers when some can be present. Those who disliked their daily commute and the intensity of large offices will resist re-creating physical office spaces too quickly. There is not one set of preferences. But the ongoing hybrid nature will surely bring out internal biases, and quicker than if moving to a hybrid model under “normal” conditions (when at least there would be a strategic aim and rationale, rather than just an enforced imperative).

In facilitation of activities too, hybrid groups pose more challenges than the single format of working with everyone individually on a remote device, or everyone in a room together. Having professional video conference tools and interactive whiteboards can make hybrid workshops just as effective as single-location workshops. But such kit is expensive and most of us will not have access to these things. How do we work effectively with hybrid groups, using the tools we have available on a standard laptop, for example?

It’s not impossible, and we are quickly seeing that some remote collaboration tools can be highly effective online but also when used in a physical meeting (for example, by projecting an online whiteboard onto the wall and using laptops or phones as the way of interacting with it, rather than pens and post-its). It’s a change in working methods, but not necessarily an unwelcome one.

Whilst this period has been challenging, it has also shown us new possibilities. Things that previously “cannot possibly be done” have been achieved. And in weeks not years. And with that, we are seeing new potential for how we could work in the future.

The thing we must remember now is that we have to design for hybrid working. An online workshop where some participants are all in the same room and some are individually on remote laptops requires slightly different methods than for a workshop where everyone is individually remote. Interaction, visibility, style of interaction with people – these are all different in the two different contexts. We must remember this and design explicitly for blending both contexts.

The same is true for most Hybrid working activities. In the same way that we had to adjust for wholly remote working during lockdown, so we must adapt our approach again if we are to succeed in the Hybrid phase. We must not slip back into trying to work as though we are all back in the office. Equally, we must not treat the situation as if we are all still isolated in lockdown.

We must approach this Hybrid phase deliberately, always considering who we are working with and their current context. We must be aware the context might change from one day to the next. Mixed working patterns, local lockdowns, lifting of restrictions will all change the nature of our hybrid working over time.

We must design for this. And adapt as we go. If we don’t, we risk being nicely pleased that we have finally got out of the discomfort of the lockdown, only to find that we jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

Complacency will mean we get our fingers burnt by the Hybrid phase. But with a little fore-thought and planning of our interactions, we can avoid that. Let’s make sure we tread carefully and deliberately as we step out of the frying pan.

The URBACT Secretariat encourages exchanges of information and ideas in times of Covid 19. The views expressed here should be understood in the context of information available on 6 July 2020.