The Death of Hybrid Work Is Greatly Exaggerated
ALSO: do not use these emojis with Gen Z colleagues
Getting past the Hawthorne Effect of change
Every December we are routinely treated to lots of end of year pieces that reflect on the year gone by and project forward for what’s to come.
Several predictions for 2023 that covered work suggested that hybrid working was increasingly being consigned to a bin marked ‘Tried It, Failed’. We were told that bosses were increasingly seeing the light and demanding a Return to the Office. The Telegraph reported that one in seven firms were planning to force more time in the office in 2023.
I was myself commissioned to write a piece for a broadsheet newspaper, a task that became an eye-opening assignment for me. Once I’d submitted my copy (a balanced perspective looking at the downsides as well as the advantages of new ways of working), I was told that the newspaper’s philosophy was at odds with what I was saying. I didn’t change any of my opinions but the final piece ended up more focussed on the disadvantages than I would have liked.
Be in no doubt, traditionally minded leaders are trying to assert that flexible working is a fad soon to go the way of QR-enabled Vaccination Certificates. I’ve seen lots of posts on LinkedIn saying that the new order of work will be four days in the office and Fridays at home. Why? Because hybrid working isn’t delivering what it promised, they claim.
In this version of the story hybrid working was permitted because employees had proved so capable of getting their jobs done from home when the need arose, but since we’ve resumed normal life results have dipped and team culture doesn’t feel the same.
Both of those are worth thinking about.
There’s an old story, more allegory than research, called the Hawthorne Effect. In the late 1920s, as US business was consumed with the idea of optimising industrial efficiencies, a study was commissioned which measured the impact on productivity of improving the lighting on the production line.
The experimenters were impressed to see that an initial lighting enhancement did indeed lead to increased productivity. Until they lowered the lighting again, and they saw this intervention also improved the productivity.
In fact seemingly any action they took seemed to lead to an increase in output. The challenge was that these increases were fleeting. They didn’t stick.
The Hawthorne Effect (the name comes from the town district of Chicago where the Western Electric factory was housed) was seen as an increase that comes as a response to increased attention or novelty. The productivity went up because workers knew all eyes were on them. As soon as the eyes moved away, normal life resumed. There’s something in this fable that is relevant to the last three years of work. Most of us can recall that when the first lockdown happened we all strived to keep our organisations going for fear of what might happen otherwise. If productivity increased then well it’s perhaps understandable, and if it has fallen back since then, well maybe that was inevitable too. Recent research from Microsoft labels the challenge of the moment the “productivity paranoia” – where 87% of employees say they are productive in the remote elements of their jobs, but 85% of managers aren’t convinced that their team members are getting enough work done.
It’s worth saying that any organisation that wants to increase its productivity shouldn’t just rely on introducing hybrid working to do it.
Secondly the idea that work ‘doesn’t feel the same’ is worth focussing on. It was behind Marc Benioff, the boss of Salesforce, gently musing whether spending less time together with colleagues was reducing the tribal spirit felt amongst his employees. The focus for organisations in 2023 shouldn’t be on mandating a return to the office, but on working out how to build strong cultures in a new, sustainable way. Some of that is about optimising the time that teams spend together, curating rather leaving it to chance. If we’re to get the best out of work culture then we all need to accept that this is the moment to reinvent the construction of it.
Why hybrid is here to stay:
A US survey by McKinsey found that flexible working was the third most cited reason for looking for a new job (after more pay and better career opportunities)
The toll and cost of commuting live strongly in our heads, job seekers say they would take 14% less pay if they were able to work remotely
This got a great response on LinkedIn before Christmas - roadtest your understanding of intergenerational communication gaps - GenZ’s think 😗 is a judgmental face, 👍 is 👎, they hate blocks of text, and… the use of elipses. A nice article going deep on the communication differences between generations
Utterly delighted to share the news that the Financial Times declared Fortitude the best business book of the year. The Sunday Times bestselling title was bestowed the honour on its workplace podcast 'Working It'. The FT's Isabel Berwick added: 'I loved it, it changed how I see things at work and in life' - if you’ve read it I’m just waiting for someone to add the 50th 5★ review
If you’re in the market for a long philosophical read about work and the role it plays in our lives this New Yorker piece is worth grabbing a cup of Rooiboos for: a small town in Austria guaranteed a job to anyone who wanted one. You could decline the job you were offered and still keep your unemployment benefit (although no one chose to). This is an area to watch for the next twenty years as AI takes more of our jobs but we seek to keep a population active