It’s a simple sounding question with many complex answers. A panel of BCS experts asks ‘What is hybrid working?’ and discusses ways we can all leverage the approach to achieve its benefits.
If there’s a period in recent history that needs little or no re-telling, its COVID-19’s dank three-year chapter. The virus gave nothing, took a great deal but also changed the world around us.
It’s those changes we’ll focus on here but, hopefully not the obvious ones. Again, certainly for people involved in making, deploying and leading IT, the top level changes are all well storied. Years of promised, delayed and discussed transformation happened in days as organisations dashed to move work from the office into homes. But, was this chapter in our working lives really the birth of hybrid working?
What is hybrid working?
‘Hybrid is a broad agenda and it started before the pandemic,’ says Ali Law FBCS, Managing Partner with Hanya Partners Limited. ‘Lots of different companies were starting to experiment with organisational structures. They were all searching for similar things – pace, adaptability, creativity… competitiveness. It was all about how to create an environment where people can bring their best and creating trust in those environments. Hybrid has emerged out of all this. It’s a much bigger agenda.’
‘Hybrid pre-dates COVID but [the virus] accelerated things,’ agrees Sathpal Singh FBCS, Global Engineering Practice Lead with NatWest Group, Chair of BCS Agile Methods Specialist Group and an organiser of Future of Work Scotland meetup. ‘But, we’re not new to geographically dispersed teams. What changed was scale and speed. Now, some people are at home, some are off site. The question is: How do you effectively come together and work?’
What is hybrid working and how is it different from agility?
COVID, our experts agree, induced a sense of shock in organisations as they pivoted from onsite to offsite working. Organisations needed to spin up the infrastructure necessary to support business-as-usual. As such, the focus was very much on tools and solutions. That was late March 2020 and platforms like Zoom, Teams, SharePoint and Miro (and all the rest) enjoyed huge demand.
By late April 2020, the mood changed. It’s around then, Google Trends shows, a new term gripped the web: Zoom Fatigue. Suddenly organisations started to think not about which solutions were needed, but how to best use them – both for the business and also for the health of their workers. Remote meeting etiquette became a hot topic.
There was as a shift, you could argue, towards valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools. This sounds very familiar, ‘people over tools’, is, of course, one of agile’s core values. Is this coincidental?
‘I’d say certainly not!’ explains Singh. ‘That value is deliberately the first of the manifesto’s four values. When the original 17 put it together, they were reflecting on their own experiences. The problems they’d tried to solve… the failures they’d seen.’
Expanding his point, he says: ‘Tools help; tools enable. At the heart of it though, it’s about people – about creating the most effective environment for collaboration and communication... Letting people come together and swarm around whatever the goal might be.’
‘For me, the agile analogy is strong,’ says Law. ‘We all went home and switched on our laptops the follow morning with a lot of uncertainty. And that’s what agile’s [great] at – dealing with uncertainty. The similarities are strong. We went off-site, followed the same working practices – except through cameras – and started adapting our working practices to explore and try and bring more certainty. The thing is, we still don’t have all the answers. We’re still figuring out how this stuff works.’
The importance of resilience and how to build it
Along with testing and taxing our processes, hybrid also asks another key question: Are we resilient? Can we withstand the unknown and continue doing, making and functioning as businesses?
Thinking back to before COVID struck, business culture often placed a great emphasis on efficiency. At the level of IT within organisations, this might have meant that teams were stripped back to the bare minimum of people needed to run a department or to staff a project. And these people had different and discrete skillsets which, by intention, didn’t overlap. There was no duplication.
Indeed, the recent BCS IT in Your Organisation report adds some weight to this observation. The report found that both IT leaders and professionals believed that, to achieve their objectives, they needed additional staff rather than increased budgets.
Before COVID struck, Brexit introduced another term into headlines: ‘just-in-time supply chains.’ Rather than maintaining costly warehouses full of raw materials and ingredients, organisations focused on efficiency. They built time-dependant processes which relied on components arriving at the factory door, direct from their maker or distributor. Brexit and latterly COVID, of course, showed these systems’ weakness when supply chains were interrupted by border-control issues, shortages of drivers and truckers catching COVID.
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‘I’m glad we’re talking about resilience,’ says Singh. ‘We’ve already talked about IT organisations having to rewrite their IT operating models to accommodate a remote workforce. Effectively, they’ve had to build operational resilience but, we have to think about personal resilience too.’
Resilience, he believes, can be reframed as ‘coping mechanisms’. COVID heralded the shocking arrival of unprecedented times, yet, despite this, organisations still needed to ‘cope’. They still needed to achieve their business outcomes.
‘Some organisations, I’m sure, took a fresh look at their backlogs. They looked at their priorities. I’m sure some made some hard choices. But, for me, it’s the personal response that’s fascinating. It took its toll on teams and organisations at a personal level.’
‘For me, resilience shows up in a number of different ways,’ says Law. ‘The pandemic also shone a light on mental health. But, thinking about the agile community, there’s a been a real drive towards providing psychological safety. That part of resilience – individual resilience – is really starting to shine through.’
Understanding and building trust
Resilience, in all its forms, has many different enablers, underpinnings and ingredients. There is, however, one which our experts highlighted as particularly important: trust.
‘Trust is always a challenging topic,’ says Singh. ‘Managers who focused, maybe, more on micromanagement probably struggled. [It’s about] creating the space and environment for people to succeed. Trusting in them. Leaders who naturally do this probably didn’t find it challenging. But, it is harder to create that environment.’
Expanding on this point, he says: ‘Going back to agile values and principles. If you provide clear direction – which all good leaders should be doing – and your team is clear on what they ought to be doing… People ought to be able to get on with it. You’ve outlined the ‘”why”, you’ve talked about the “what”. Let them get on with the “how”. That’s how a lot of high performance teams operate, that’s how they work. That’s why they’re so successful. And COVID, it’s brought these sort of things to the fore.’
Summing up what working in a hybrid team should feel like, Singh says: ‘It shouldn’t matter. If you’ve nailed it and the tools are all working – where people are, it’s a secondary or tertiary thing. You’ve got the environment, you’ve got the tools, they’re set up correctly, people know what they’re doing... They’re collaborating and they know how to reach each other effectively – when you choose to co-locate – you’re doing it deliberately. It should work.’
Similarly, Law says: ‘If you’re working within an organisation that has a really strong purpose and you’re empowered to work with your colleagues – it unleashes that creativity. If you have the right practices and tools to back it up, it can only be a really engaging and rewarding workplace.’
Hybrid working is then an empowering force which can enable organisations to unlock pace, adaptability, creativity and competitiveness. For workers, it can provide better work life balance, improved mental health and engender a real sense of being trusted. The key to unlocking all of this, our speakers agree, isn’t however just going into the office because it’s Thursday. Rather, everybody – leaders and team members – all need to be deliberate. They need to have mutually understood and acknowledged reasons why they’re co-locating and what their priorities are.
To find out more, watch the ITNOW webinar Hybrid working in IT teams: What works?