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Hybrid Work Manifesto: the book

Let me tell you the story about the genesis of the book.

The Manifest on Hybrid Work didn’t drop down onto my lap just like that. Over all these years the book has been taking shape in my mind. I’d like to talk about the 7 seeds that were planted in my head. 7 seeds that grew and lead me to writing the book during the Easter holidays of 2021.

Seed 1

As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She is not the kind of grandmother to spoil her grandchildren and whip up luscious cakes. Whenever I was with her, there were chores to be done. Laziness is the devil’s pillow.

My grandmother is convinced that girls are meant to have a classical upbringing. To her mind, this means... you speak fluent French, you play the piano, and you are able to join in on just about any conversation.

But don’t be mistaken. For my grandmother this is not the groundwork for marriage with a suited man. It is the groundwork for a life where women fend for themselves.

I remember it as if it were yesterday when we were sitting around the table in her living room.

My grandmother has an acute form of rheumatism. She can’t move around the house that easily, but she rules her kingdom from that same room with the power of her voice. She writes letters, she engages in long conversations on the phone, and she receives guests.

It is December 1975.

“Isabel, we’re going to write Christmas cards together, for those people I used to have a good relationship with when I was Headmistress at my school. Don’t forget, build up a network and continue to learn by keeping in touch with interesting people. That is very important.”

I am hardly 7 years of age.

My grandmother has always been Headmistress at a school. For her, autonomy and self-determination go without saying. Self-realisation through learning is paramount.

Whenever we go on holiday with the family to the south of France, a notebook travels along in the suitcase – a gift from my grandmother. A notebook packed with extra exercises for solfège and French grammar.

“Study for half an hour every day, that gives the day rhythm, even on holiday. Ideal to start the day.” She says when she hands the notebook to my mother. One for my sister and one for me.

There is no escaping it.

That was seed number 1.

We are travelling through to 1996.

“The future of learning is clear! People will take their learning processes into their own hands. They will be in the driver’s seat of their own development. I am convinced that technology will help with that.”

Speaking is a certain Valère Meus. At that moment he is in charge of the centre I work for: the Language Centre of the University of Gent. He is a visionary man.

To my great disappointment, his positive view on learning does not get translated to the day-to-day functioning of the centre. There are only 25 of us, yet a strict hierarchy dictates the group. Leaders have the right to a better parking space and have more holidays. They also have access to more information.

I capture this last insight when I try to connect with a professor at a Dutch university carrying out research about e-learning. I call the Netherlands from my desk in Sint-Pietersnieuwsstraat in Gent. I simply cannot get to him. When I tell the director about it, he says “Of course not. Your position in the hierarchy does not allow you to call abroad.”

His words hit me. So, a position in hierarchy can deny people access to knowledge. And so, it is possible to deprive people of opportunities to develop, of opportunities for professional happiness. Yes, I am convinced that knowledge equals happiness. Knowledge is power. Denying people access to knowledge trespasses the border of criminality.

That was seed number 2.

In August 2005 I become Account Manager at Kluwer Opleidingen. My first day at work was a disaster. At the University of Gent I had my own office. At Kluwer Opleidingen most people sit in an open-plan office. There is an overwhelming chit chat buzzing through the day and, to make matters worse, in my office space the radio is always on. I simply cannot focus, so I regularly flee to meeting rooms.

I am rescued in 2012. Rescue comes in the form of home working, which was already being promoted by my employer.

Working from home isn’t an immediate success: I am stressed. Every evening I send my boss an email with a list of the things I have done that day. I work longer hours and send out more emails, and it all serves to prove how hard I am working.

“Isabel”, my boss says in a meeting, “stop sending me those emails – I trust you. Being transparent about your work is important, of course, but I want you to approach it differently: at the end of each week, send me the answer to the following question: with what kind of activities are you creating added value for Kluwer Opleidingen?”

This is the best question I have ever been asked. I am still grateful to my (then) boss Johan De Meyer for it. So, I start to become more conscious about how I spend my time.

Something in my mindset changes: work is no longer a commitment of effort, but of results.

And yes, that demands discipline.

Starting the day with high-value activities that demand focus, without checking your emails, is still difficult after all these years. It is just as Port of Antwerp CDO, Erwin Verstraelen, put it: “productivity is a daily fight”.

Every day I think about the discipline my grandmother introduced me to.

That is seed number 3.

When I do go to work to sit in a meeting with my boss and colleagues something catches my attention. Recurring meetings always take place and are always fully consumed. Even when there is nothing to talk about. My boss never prepares for our meetings. I find this a complete waste of our time. So I tell him what I have just read about in a book called REMOTE. “Meetings are intrusive moments. They take you away from meaningful knowledge work. It is thus important to keep them shorter and more intense by preparing for them in an asynchronous way.”

My boss isn’t listening.

Discovering the magic of asynchronous collaboration is seed number 4.

In 2012, apart from working from home, something else comes my way: social media.

I start with Twitter and soon discover LinkedIn. No one can stop me from connecting with people who are smarter than I am. Social media as the emancipation of the knowledge worker. Social media as the portal to lifelong learning.

Remember my experience at the University of Gent ?

Discovering social media encourages me to fervently start communicating in an asynchronous way, allowing me to react to things in my own time, with short and snappy versions of what I want to convey. That is the beauty of social media.

And then we come to 2015.

The emancipating power of social media is no longer an individual endeavour. Organisations are also gearing up for it. I interview ENGIE, Robert Bosch, Daimler, Evonik, the Bank of Australia and New Zealand, all of which roll out social technologies to promote knowledge sharing.

“Knowledge sharing isn’t soft, Isabel, it allows you to make knowledge explicit and reuse it to suit the customer’s needs. And yes, it is also soft, Isabel, because it allows people to raise their voices, to make them be heard across hierarchical borders, and to find solutions without having to confer with their bosses. It is actually all about empowerment.”

Willem Van Twembeke is speaking, a top executive at ENGIE in 2015. He explains that this kind of technology doesn’t dehumanise. On the contrary: “I see that people feel more connected to the organisation” he explains.

Emancipation, autonomy, lifelong learning by learning from and with each other, across all borders, asynchronous collaboration… It all comes together in social technology.

A few years before that, in 2012, Frank Van Massenhove launches The New Way of Working. “Employees who are in the driver’s seat of their professional lives are happier and perform better.” Here he binds 2 elements together: happiness at work and delivering results. People and results are not opposites. They are Yin and Yan. And yes, Willem Van Twembeke’s words make it obvious that social technologies can encourage this.

Discovering the power of social media, for the individual and the organisation is seed number 5.

It has become a tradition. Every Christmas my mother hands out a Christmas card to each of us. Here, she reflects upon the past year and expresses her wishes for the year to come. “Isn’t it time for a new book, Isabel?”.

That’s what my mum writes in mine. It is December 2019.

Her card is seed number 6.

The seventh and last seed that I needed is the way in which organisations reacted to Hybrid Work.

Hybrid Work: that enriching notion of results- and people-driven collaboration, of self-leadership and autonomy, of empowerment through technology and lifelong learning. All this is threatened to be reduced to 2 days working from home.

Or worse still: conservative voices call employees to go back to working fulltime in the office.

I get a kick up my backside.

A voice within me starts to stir: are you going to just sit and watch how the rich notion of Hybrid Work is reduced to 2 days working from home? Do you agree that Hybrid Work gets reduced to managing Hybrid meetings? Do you want Hybrid Work to die out before it is born?

The cry of that voice is so loud I can’t ignore it.

And there it is. A book. A message of hope.

Hope that after corona we foster meaningful knowledge work that will better serve the customer.

Hope that after corona we foster workdays with more focus, less interruptions, more happiness.

Hybrid Work is not about 2 days working from home.

It’s about Yin and yan. About a healthy balance.

Between working on your own and together.

Between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.

Between focussed work for a few hours and letting the mind loose for less focussed work.

Between working on paper and on the screen.

Between physical and digital.

To create more value for the customer.

Let’s set sail together to find that new, healthy balance.

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