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Hybrid work is fake news

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

'The term hybrid is an illusion'. 'An old trick played by a new magician.' 'Managerial bollocks.'

Are hybrid work rivals actually the good guys? Is hybrid really just one of those blown-up hypes? And shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the cynical voices, rather than let ourselves be seduced by the eloquence of consultancy profiteers?

Making work more flexible is nothing new. That’s true. And it’s as clear as day that the term hybrid gives away much room for interpretation. But I get rebellious when people dismiss the hybrid work movement as delusional. The movement is fighting an honourable battle. It sees the beauty in the pandemic. You see, the health crisis has made sure that reflecting upon wellbeing, self-realisation and sustainable careers has become a serious undertaking.

Hybrid Word is a cry, an appeal to make work work. As valuable work. As work that dignifies employees and creates maximum value for customers.

To despise this endeavour as the umpteenth hype is a testimony of cynicism. And that doesn’t get us anywhere.

How can we make sure that the crisis has a lasting positive impact on work? That we won’t slip back to a situation whereby we waste time and lose ourselves in traffic jams, overflowing mailboxes and badly prepared meetings? Here are three tips.

Away with team tyranny

A battery cage. A humming beehive. A tin of sardines. These are the images I associate landscape offices with.

In his book, A World Without Email, Cal Newport tells about “the hyperactive hive mind”. I used to sit in such an office at my previous employer. Whenever someone bellowed out a question, all team members were expected to react instantly and simultaneously. Serviceability translated into continuous availability.

It was in this setting that the term “team tyranny” came to my mind for the first time.

The pandemic has freed work from the suffocating, humming beehive. Employees have discovered that they can concentrate better at home – providing their home situation allows it. Physical distance between colleagues has lead to discovering the joys of focus, the positive effects of sustained attention. Away with team tyranny! Research by the Antwerp Management School suggests that the possibility to focus is one of the most important reasons why employers want to continue to promote home working.

Successful hybrid work doesn’t begin by answering the question “for which tasks should we go back to the office?”. It begins by institutionalising focus time. I firmly advocate the right to be unavailable for 1, maximum 2 hours a day. Meaningful knowledge work cannot tolerate constant interruptions.

For me, the term hybrid work also means a healthy balance between working on your own and working together with others. In my book, Hybrid Work – A Manifesto, I refer to this with “the magic is in the mix”.

Don’t get distracted by the bouncy rabbits

Thomas Boone Pickes, a rich American industrialist who passed away in 2019, used a delightful metaphor whenever people asked about the secret of his success. “When hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits”. Those bouncy rabbits, we know them all too well. They are the M&Ms: meeting and mails. They give us a false feeling of productivity.

Successful hybrid work begins by identifying our elephants: those more challenging tasks we sometimes dare to procrastinate on, but with which we can create high added value for our customers.

Where is the magic in elephant hunting?

The feeling of contributing to something that transcends us as individuals leads to a sense of purpose and meaning. This is what research by psychology professor Michael F. Steger teaches us. Research carried out by social psychologist Baumeister teaches us that finding life meaningful stems from the feeling of giving, especially when giving is accompanied by difficulties, obstacles and plugging away.

Hunting elephants demands courage, discipline and energy. It is more tiring than shooting at bouncy rabbits. But it leads to work that works. It leads to valuable work. It leads to a sense of purpose and meaning.

To me, the term hybrid also signifies a healthy balance between proactiveness and reactiveness, between effort and rest. And here too the advice applies: “the magic is in the mix”.

Away with the tyranny of synchronous collaboration

I discovered the magic of asynchronous communication with Twitter and LinkedIn. When my connections would publish a post, I’m not obliged to react immediately. My answer will come later – after an hour, a day, a week. Communicating non-simultaneously invites one to reflect, to take things into consideration, to slow thinking.

It is as if we, knowledge workers, have actually forgotten how to do knowledge work. We are trapped on a hamster wheel. Knowledge work assumes that we reflect, take the time.

Successful hybrid work means to make more time for slow thinking. I already see two possible examples.

First and foremost, by optimising our meetings, those intrusive synchronous moments of collaboration that pulls us away from meaningful knowledge work. We can pass on information in an asynchronous way before the meeting. With text or video. It’s best not to let our ideas sink in and formulate points of view during the meeting, but before the meeting. Let us just come together only for those activities that require our synchronous presence.

In her book, The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker writes that a gathering is “a social contact”. And it’s true. The participants and host of a meeting form a contract together, and their interaction starts beforehand. Asynchronously. Not simultaneously.

A second example of slow thinking is taking the time to reflect. To stop and think about what we learn every day and share those insights with each other. In French we have a wonderful expression for this: reculer pour mieux sauter.

Get started with these ten questions

I’d like to turn these three tips into the following questionnaire. Why don’t you use them and get started with your team?

1. Which are our high-value activities?

2. How many hours of focus time are we going to block?

3. How are we going to guarantee that we use that focus time to hunt elephants?

4. Which meetings have little added value?

5. Which parts can we take out of our meetings and do up front?

6. For how many of our activities are we in reactive/proactive mode?

7. Which percentage of our time do we want to spend in proactive mode?

8. How are we going to guarantee that we will keep on learning?

9. How are we going to make sure we learn from one another?

10. For which kind of activities do we want to meet physically?

The term “hybrid” makes the grade. It stands for a healthy balance between slow and fast thinking. Between proactiveness and reactiveness. Between effort and rest. Between working together and on your own. Between synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Go and look for a healthy balance together with your team.

And don’t let anyone scorn this movement. Hybrid Work is a cry for work that works. For meaningful work.

Who wouldn't want to embrace this endeavour?

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