January 4, 2023
In an uncharacteristically Waddellian moment*, the Word of the Year for 2022 according to The Economist was ‘hybrid work’. Yet despite its ubiquity, in the comparative calm of social channels over the holiday period lurked claims that no-one knows what hybrid working is. Even though millions of people are doing it. Given that such an assertion came as a surprise, there was only ever going to be one opening post for 2023: an attempt to explain it.
In workplace circles we have a fairly miserable track record of defining and using terms, hence the rather amusing critique of the mainstream press from the safe-seating terraces for using ‘hybrid’ with no sign of embarrassment. The confusion that can arise in defining terms is captured beautifully on the website of the Agile Organisation. I believe there’s a simpler route.
The term ‘hybrid’ itself means a thing made by combining two different elements. As such, in the early days of the pandemic it was naturally prefixed to ‘work’ to refer to spending time labouring at the office and (as was the requirement at the time for many) at home.
The awkwardness of the term ‘hybrid work’ arises from hybrid being added as a prefix to work, as though it describes a characteristic of the work. That the work itself comprises two different elements. But it’s not of the work, the work is the same even if the methods in each location may vary slightly. And so it’s better used with work as a verb, rather than a noun – hybrid working.
As an aside, even at this stage it was clear – but not clear enough, it seemed – that there was no such thing as a ‘hybrid workplace’ unless it comprised two different types of space. Office and prototype workshop, say. If it can’t satisfy this test, while it may be a workplace that supports and enables hybrid working, it’s not a hybrid workplace.
Helpfully, when we get to the term ‘hybridity’ we’re into what is generally regarded as simply a mixture, without a specific limitation to two elements. This enables hybrid working to extend beyond the limits of just office and home, to encompass anywhere that suits. With lockdown restrictions lifted, for many the practice of working in cafes, libraries, hotels and anywhere in shade returned, and the idea of hybrid working as simply office or home wasn’t enough. It also didn’t say which office, as the tired old idea of ‘hub and spokes’ had the latest in its never-ending series of ‘flares are back!’ moments.
In which case while hybrid working began with a focus on two locations, it’s arguably meaningful now to consider it covering not being confined to one place of work only.
There’s a residual problem of terms such as ‘remote working’, ‘distributed working’ and ‘work anywhere’ as they relate to not working exclusively in an office, but could clearly comprise more than one location – home and a cowork space, for example. And so hybrid working needs to include an office belonging to the organisation in which we work as one of the multiple places of work. Otherwise another term applies.
We’re getting somewhere – but what about the effects of ‘hybrid working’ on other terms in use pre-pandemic? Principally ‘flexible’ and ‘agile’ working. This is especially problematic when some such as ACAS begin nesting the terms – stating that: “Hybrid working is a type of flexible working where an employee splits their time between the workplace and remote working”.
I’m going to argue that this is both unhelpful and incorrect – and that there’s a simpler way to see the three terms and how they might complement one another to create a full picture of the nature of a role:
WHERE: hybrid working (hybridity) – the physical location in which we work
WHEN: flexible working (flexibility) – the times of day and days of the week we work
HOW: agile working (agility) – the methods, processes and technology we use to undertake our work
There’s no science involved here, it’s simply a reflection of the often pitched idea of us being able to choose when, where and how we work. Yet it avoids the need for nesting and hierarchy, where we assume one is more important than the other. They’re all important. We can have one or more but not the other(s).
It also lifts us out of the focus on office work alone, as the three apply to all work. Yet it doesn’t follow that the more hybridity, flexibility and agility associated with a role the more advanced or progressive it is. A surgeon for example may have a highly flexible role based at a hospital using a combination of pre-determined manual processes supported by advanced technology. An operation isn’t a time for fail-fast-fail-often experimentation. It’s a highly regulated role, for good reason.
A new context
Each term therefore has a profile related to the degree to which its applied and the manner, that add understanding but don’t affect the definition. They merely add context. Which is where much of the confusion, I’d argue, has arisen. There’s no limit to the characteristics we can apply, but here are some examples – noting that they’re not fixed, either, and may vary from time to time:
- Right: are we able to request and be granted the freedom to work where, when and how we like? Is it contractual or informal?
- Mandate: are we told where, when or how to work? Is it a recommendation? Or is it entirely up to us?
- Enforcement: what happens when we don’t do what we are asked or told in respect of when, where and how we work?
It’s safe to argue too that over the last several decades each of the three features of a role has been on a path of progression, and remain so, for those roles, disciplines or professions where it is practicable and makes sense. Hybrid working is very much here, in the mainstream, but as with flexibility and agility, it exists in a state of both opportunity and risk.
I’m hoping that this attempt at an explanation works. It’s been useful in the course of my work so far. Back to The Economist to help us close: “As a coinage, hybrid work[ing] is no beauty. But it will reshape cities, careers, family life and free time.” Yet so will flexible and agile working, too.
It’s the trinity of work.
Neil Usher is Chief Workplace and Change Strategist at GoSpace AI, an internationally renowned workplace strategist and former Workplace Director at Sky. His books Unf*cking Work, The Elemental Workplace and Elemental Change and blog are a must read for anybody with an interest in work and workplaces.
*As in “There’s only one word for that – magic darts!” Attributed to legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell