The writer is author of ‘How to Be a Better Leader’ and is a visiting professor at Bayes Business School, City, University of London

Malcolm Gladwell is upset. “I know it’s a hassle to come into the office,” the writer told the Diary of a CEO podcast recently, “but if you’re just sitting in your pyjamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don’t you want to feel part of something?” And he continued: “I’m really getting very frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to explain this effectively to their employees.”

Many bosses have been trying for months now to persuade, or command, colleagues to spend more time in the office. But the results have been mixed. Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook has made more than one attempt to introduce a policy of three fixed days in the office, and has been met with resistance each time. The company’s new policy of three days a week in the office takes effect from September 5.

The low point, from Apple’s point of view, came in May when Ian Goodfellow, their former director of machine learning, quit to join Google after objecting to the company’s return-to-the-office policy. When the top machine learning person quits because his employer is treating him too much like a machine something has gone wrong.

Around that time 200 Apple employees offered a  forceful written response to the company’s leaders about their proposed working model. “Please get out of our way, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, let us decide how we work best, and let us do the best work of our lives,” their letter concluded.

How to make hybrid arrangements work is the management question of the moment. That may seem obvious, but its complexities mean that the majority of companies are in the thick of figuring out what hybrid means for them and their workforce. The conundrum was the theme of a one-day conference hosted earlier this year by the Corporate Research Forum, a London-based organisation focusing on expertise in human resources, held to mark the publication of their report, “ The realities of the new working environment”.

Nicholas Bloom sits on an outside table with his feet on the bench
Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom describes the move to working from home as ‘the largest shock to labour markets in decades’

The CRF’s research, published in May, echoed many of the findings of pioneering work by economics professor Nicholas Bloom at Stanford, who has been at the forefront of research into the effects of homeworking since long before the pandemic. He calls the shift to working from home “the largest shock to labour markets in decades”. The CRF’s research found that about nine in 10 UK employers are now operating a hybrid model of some kind, with two or three days in the office being the most common formula.

On the whole, organisations are happy with these arrangements, although employees seem to be more positive about it than their employers. As many as 67 per cent of respondents to the CRF survey (mainly HR directors) said they were experiencing some difficulty in persuading people to come back in.

As Jonathan Crookall, chief people officer for Costa Coffee, the UK coffee shop chain, told researchers: “We’ve been encouraging, suggesting and asking, rather than mandating. Essentially, we’ve been trying to make sure that when we are asking people to go back into an office, we’re doing it for a good reason.”

A question managers might also be asking is not “what is the office for?”, but “what are people for?”

There was much discussion at the CRF conference on this issue of compulsion. Is returning to the office a matter of guidance or policy? Or perhaps “guidance is the new policy”, as one seasoned HR professional put it. Only 34 per cent of employers surveyed by CRF are making attendance in the workplace a formal policy matter.

A “test and learn” approach was advocated by many as flexibility has to be made meaningful and effective, for all. Employees notice if their leaders are back in the office, or not: “Why should I come in if they don’t?” is a frequently asked question. Pragmatism is required. The benefit for employees of coming in has to be greater than the savings (in time, energy and money) made by not commuting. As one speaker highlighted, managers will need to focus on first principles: what work is best done when people are together, and what is done best when people are apart?

Putting new practices into place is proving to be tricky. Anthony Painter, director of policy at the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, argues that bonds of trust have been weakened during lockdown, which could be problematic. “Authority works in a strange way in organisations, but it’s better for everyone if there’s a bedrock of trust. Remote-only engagement makes that far more difficult,” he says.

Rachael Brassey, global lead for people and change at PA Consulting, agrees that problems have arisen in the emerging work from home world. “We are now seeing many negative consequences of remote working, including the impact on people’s mental health, feelings of exclusion and isolation, and a lack of human engagement,” she says.

One difficulty may be a lack of competence in the management cadre to make these new arrangements work. A recent CMI survey found about 60 per cent of UK managers did not feel they had had adequate training in how to manage remote workers. If work, and performance, are what matter, some guidance from those who understand performance could help. London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art runs training for managers under its Rada Business arm.

One of its tutors, Charlie Walker-Wise, says a lot has been learnt about managing hybrid teams following lockdowns and remote working.

An uninterrupted day of screen-based remote meetings, sitting at the same desk, is unappealing. His experience during the pandemic was that the subject or topic for each meeting would change but the environment would not. “That was extremely draining,” he says.

But remote working will continue, and Walker-Wise has some useful ideas about how to run online meetings better. Leading hybrid work is a new and demanding role. “We often use the term ‘host’,” Walker-Wise says. “If the idea is that you’re a host, your responsibility is to make sure everyone is engaged.”

The disciplines of online and hybrid work require an understanding of space, even “stagecraft”. The split focus of managing people in the room with those at home can be a problem. As Walker-Wise explains, the “audience” at home may have a very different experience of the meeting.

“If something funny happens in the room, off camera, others can’t see it,” he says. “Do you have to explain it? Does that make people feel excluded? Suddenly you’ve got a whole bunch of people at home thinking ‘I really didn’t enjoy that meeting’. Whereas in the office people are having a great time.”

And what about those who prefer to have their camera off? “I think it’s harder to have the camera off in a hybrid world,” he says. “Pre-pandemic, it wouldn’t have been OK to put a bag over your head in a meeting. It wasn’t OK for you not to be able to see what my expressions were. I have a suspicion that it’s going to be [even] harder for people to do that [now].”

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Making the hybrid model work will require versatility from managers, and perhaps a greater range of responses than was required in the past. “If you want people to be in the office and to come in more, you’ve got to offer an environment they want to be in,” Walker-Wise says. “You can’t expect people to turn up and there’s nothing for them there. There’s no one there, there’s nothing fun happening.”

Work is going to carry on both in the office and away from it. As Andrew Dimitriou, chief executive of Europe, Middle East and Africa for ad agency VMLY&R, part of advertising group WPP, says: “That balance — feeling a sense of belonging to a company and culture, and having the sense of freedom to be able to work wherever you want — is the balance you have to get right.”

This calls for flexibility, engagement, a coaching style, and trust. It turns out that the management skills we need are the ones we were talking about all along.

Making hybrid succeed

Andrew Dimitriou sits behind his desk, smiling, with this hands loosely clasped on the desk
Andrew Dimitriou says he is a big believer in human interactions. VMLY&R is trying a variety of approaches to attract staff back to the office © Remy Carteret

Andrew Dimitriou has been chief executive of Emea at VMLY&R advertising agency since 2018. The company has 4,500 staff based in 20 countries.

“We believe our culture is a point of difference for us,” he explains. He may have a point. The company recently won Campaign magazine’s global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Best Place to Work award.

To incentivise people to come back to the office, he says the company is trying to use its space in a more imaginative way, creating more areas where employees can collaborate with each other and with clients. “If we do that right, people will want to come back,” he says. “It will be like a magnet and it will be better for our culture”.

However, he says, not all Covid recovery rates are the same, “so you can’t mandate something across such a diverse region. In our larger offices our team leaders discuss it — by the end of the summer we’ll take more of a stance. For me four days [in the office]/one [at home] is probably the right kind of balance. Or three/two at the limit. It depends on the team.”

He says that since the job of agencies is to embed brands in culture, “we need people to interact and build on ideas”. He acknowledges that perhaps one day we will all be in the metaverse, “but right now I’m still a big believer in human interaction . . . If you’re in the home office and all your social interactions are with the computer, it’s not a very happy place.”

But the health crisis accelerated some positive changes, he believes, such as reducing the prevalence of presenteeism and alleviating excessive business travel.

Overall, he is optimistic: “This is a reset moment.”

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