Hybrid working: A matter of time, not location

Com­pa­nies are cur­rent­ly grap­pling with the ques­tion of how much their employ­ees should work in the office and how much home office or remote work­ing should be allowed. After the expe­ri­ence of the last two years of the Coro­na pan­dem­ic, the desire to com­bine the best of home and office in hybrid forms of work­ing is laud­able. Still, it should not be reduced to the ques­tion of the pos­si­ble and per­mit­ted place of work. In essence, it is more about flex­i­bil­i­ty in terms of time than location.

The ques­tion of geo­graph­i­cal flex­i­bil­i­ty pri­mar­i­ly char­ac­ter­izes the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing hybrid forms of work­ing after the Coro­na pan­dem­ic. For some employ­ees, espe­cial­ly younger ones, it may indeed be essen­tial to work flex­i­bly in terms of loca­tion and, in extreme cas­es, to indulge in dig­i­tal nomadism. In essence, it is less a ques­tion of local flex­i­bil­i­ty than of tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. In the pan­dem­ic, work-life bal­ance became work-life inte­gra­tion, and now no one wants to miss out on this flexibility.

We have three chil­dren, and even with our two daugh­ters, Marie and Ella, I’ve always spent much time with fam­i­ly (e.g., tak­ing parental leave, reduc­ing trav­el and evening events, care­ful­ly con­sid­er­ing extra miles). Com­pared to our youngest, how­ev­er, I’ve had lit­tle of their ear­ly years: Valentin was born in Jan­u­ary 2020, and I was in the home office a lot dur­ing his first two years. In addi­tion, our old­est daugh­ter also had her start of school in 2020, and I was always able to help her with home­work and home­school­ing and give her moral sup­port. I’ve also nev­er been as fit as I was dur­ing this time because I can eas­i­ly inte­grate the short run or yoga ses­sion into my dai­ly rou­tine. This seam­less inte­gra­tion of work and pri­vate life leads to a bet­ter bal­ance and less stress for me, lead­ing to bet­ter performance.

Unlike most, I have already made the unsat­is­fac­to­ry step from a lot of time flex­i­bil­i­ty to less and, in my extreme case, to a clas­sic pres­ence cul­ture with 8 hours or more in the office. Our con­sult­ing firm esc Solu­tions, which I helped build from 2010 to 2015, ini­tial­ly had no office at all and lat­er only a small one where the man­age­ment team met once a week. We were at the client site or in our home office most of the time. Part of my sig­nif­i­cant pain of adap­ta­tion when I moved to the cor­po­rate world in 2015 stemmed from its tem­po­ral and local rigid­i­ty. Hav­ing a new­born child inten­si­fied this pain back then, as I would have liked to spend more time with the family.

The pan­dem­ic has shown many peo­ple how ful­fill­ing it can be to inte­grate work and pri­vate life flex­i­bly. Of course, this has a local aspect, as this work-life inte­gra­tion can only occur at the respec­tive cen­ter of the employ­ee’s life. How­ev­er, local flex­i­bil­i­ty alone is of lit­tle use if the cul­ture and man­age­ment expect con­stant avail­abil­i­ty and the work is nev­er­the­less, or pre­cise­ly because of this, too dense­ly packed, and it boils down to the tir­ing pat­tern of “eat, sleep, zoom, repeat.”

Let’s sup­pose the core issue is indeed tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. In that case, the ques­tion of hybrid forms of work­ing can­not be answered exclu­sive­ly by joint times around the office and home office arrange­ments, and cer­tain­ly not by hybrid meet­ings. The ques­tion of hybrid work­ing also aims at a mix of syn­chro­nous and asyn­chro­nous work­ing in the team, and this is the only way to main­tain the beloved tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. I wrote at the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic that video con­fer­ences are not a solu­tion either. Today, I would say that hybrid video­con­fer­enc­ing is only part of the solu­tion and rather miss­es the point in terms of the actu­al question.

The pan­dem­ic has made many knowl­edge work­ers think about what is impor­tant to them and, at the same time, has shown that the pre-pan­dem­ic work­ing world is not a god-giv­en but can also be changed, and then many things might even work bet­ter. We see this effect in Amer­i­ca as the “Great Res­ig­na­tion,” but this trend is also becom­ing increas­ing­ly appar­ent in Ger­many. On the ques­tion of what peo­ple need and want now and what employ­ers must offer them, Mar­cus Buck­ing­ham sum­ma­rizes very apt­ly in this inter­view on the occa­sion of an exten­sive study of 27 coun­tries with thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants being at the core of his asso­ci­at­ed book:

What peo­ple are real­ly look­ing for isn’t flex­i­bil­i­ty of loca­tion. It’s flex­i­bil­i­ty of time. The pan­dem­ic has kind of shown every­body that we’re whole humans. [Ed. Note: At this point in the inter­view, my 3‑year-old daugh­ter ran into the room.] Like your kid today on spring break, we now know what she looks like and that she runs in every now and again. We want flex­i­bil­i­ty to go pick up my kid or pick up my grand­ma. All this hybrid talk miss­es the fact that it’s not the geog­ra­phy, the loca­tion. It’s the flex­i­bil­i­ty of being a whole human.

Mar­cus Buckingham

I believe this is the key: offer­ing employ­ees an envi­ron­ment where they can be not just employ­ees (in the sense of cogs in Fred­er­ic Laloux’s machine mod­el) but peo­ple with a fam­i­ly, needs, and hopes. Work-life inte­gra­tion means wel­com­ing the whole per­son and under­stand­ing the com­pa­ny as a work­shop for a pros­per­ous life, as Bodo Janssen puts it, refer­ring to the rules of St. Bene­dict of Nursia.

The core mes­sage in the dis­cus­sion about hybrid forms of work and a deci­sive assur­ance should be loose­ly based on Goethe: Here I am a human being, here I am allowed to be one. As man­agers, we have a lead­er­ship and role mod­el func­tion here. We must lead through visions, frame­work con­di­tions, and results (wher­ev­er and how­ev­er these are achieved), but also as role mod­els, with a life out­side of work and the need for flex­i­ble inte­gra­tion of work and pri­vate life and, not least, family.

Pho­to by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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