Episode 6: Navigating hybrid working and how we can reinvent the world of work

Jo Taylor is joined by Kursty Groves to discuss the realities of hybrid working and how we can reinvent the world of work. Fundamentally we don’t think that hybrid working as a term will be around in 10 years time. It will become a new way of working that gets adopted more widely.

Let’s discuss how you as a HR, your people and your organisation can embrace this change, listen to your people and start working towards the future of work now.

LTT Podcast Transcript

Navigating hybrid working and how we can reinvent the world of work

Jo Taylor: So hi, everybody, I’m Jo Taylor, MD of Let’s Talk Talent, and I want to welcome you to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast. Let’s Talk Talent’s aim and purpose is to make organisations simply irresistible by unlocking the potential in people. And this Episode Six in our podcast series is going to be discussing hybrid working and how we can reinvent work. Now some of you who may have listened to our podcast before will know Kursty, I’m really excited to welcome her back to the LTT podcast. And for those of you that don’t know Kursty, she’s a great friend of mine, but also is an absolute amazing star. She’s a workplace strategist and founder of Shape WorkLife, a consulting firm that specialises in creating the best places to work. She also, when she’s not doing all of that, advises companies across a range of sectors, including financial services, to help businesses shape the future of workspaces. She’s also a postgraduate professor and author of two books on workplace strategy and as a podcast series called The Office Chronicles, which explores the impact of covid-19 on workplaces so high. Kursty, how are you doing?

Kursty Groves: I’m very well today, Jo. How are you?

Jo Taylor: I’m really good and I’m excited to have a natter with you for the next 20-25 minutes if you’re up for that?

Kursty Groves: Me too. Definitely. I’ve got a nice cup of tea here. Ready to go.

Jo Taylor: Awesome. Let’s start with a bit of a doozy because when we think about hybrid working, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen so many papers over the last couple of weeks and I can’t quite get my head around what is hybrid working and what isn’t it. So would you lay out what you think it is?

Kursty Groves: Oh, my God. You can’t move for the word hybrid at the moment, can you? It’s incredible.

Before Covid, hybrid was a car, now it’s to do with with work. Hybrid working is a model. It’s the name for a model that embraces and supports people working across different places and times. And there are a number of different ways you can approach it. Now, what I think people have done wrong is they’ve just taken this name “hybrid” and assumed that there was just one right way of doing it. And it isn’t. Effectively, it’s just a combination of working on sites or in your office or you’re hub, or whatever you want to call it, your HQ – and also working remotely from that space. There can also be situations where you’re working offsite, travelling or in third spaces. But it’s really just something that embraces all of those different scenarios for working. And as I said, it’s both time and place.

Jo Taylor: So do you think we can finally get rid of the mantra of virtual working and flexible working? Is hybrid, now, the reinvention of work?

Kursty Groves: Hybrid is really a label that is allowing us to explore this new way of working. I think because traditionally we had teleworking or we had virtual working, or we had remote working. And now I think what is happening is in the world of work, we are exploring how to better support a more holistic approach to work and in a way that benefits the employee, but also makes sense for the employer as well. And I think this is where the big head scratching is happening at the moment. Organisations are really going, OK, how is this actually going to work? Yes, I get it. I get that working from home is not only beneficial for lots of people, but there are downsides to it too, both at an individual team and organisational level. So I think really that’s what it’s all about. If we go back to the dictionary definition of what hybrid working is, it’s effectively the different modes of place and time and just trying to figure out how that’s going to work for an organisation.

Jo Taylor: It’s really interesting, because I was looking yesterday, I was talking to an HR director at BUPA and they’ve just published a paper around the way that they want people to think about work. And they looked at it from a leadership perspective. They’ve looked at it, as you said, from a time and place perspective. But they’re still going about it. And I’ve talked to a lot of HRDs over the last couple of weeks from a consultation process perspective, which for me feels completely wrong, because actually you’re then in a way, putting rules around something that should be much more agile. Have you seen that in some of your clients and people you’ve been talking to?

Kursty Groves: Yeah. 100 percent. I think the big misnomer that I’ve seen, the big thing that people are doing that I think is just – it’s tail wagging dog – and that is starting from the policies, starting from the “well how many days exactly are they going to be on site and which days are they going to be on site?” as opposed to stepping back and saying “what is the best way of working?” This is an opportunity for us to say “how do we work best as an organisation, now knowing that we have these alternative places and times that we can – and a synchronicity – that we can be using to benefit the performance of people and teams?” So, yeah, I think I’ve 100% seen that. And I think the real kind of mistakes that I’m seeing organisations make is starting at that policy-driven level. And the consultation is fine, but that is not going to give you the answers. It’s a bit like the Henry Ford quote, which is, “if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse,” when he was inventing the car. They don’t really know what they don’t know. And you’ve got this coupled with a very, very highly emotionally-charged situation that people are in right now, which is very different to the emotionally-charged situation that people were in six months ago. This past 12+ months has seen all sorts of pendulum swings from “working from home is the panacea, it’s the thing that’s going to change the world” to, “Oh my God, working from home absolutely sucks because I’ve got Zoom fatigue and I miss people”. So asking people what they want right now is really, really difficult. It’s absolutely essential that you don’t take that as the gospel, but it’s really difficult for people to project into what might be. So I think that’s only just part of the picture.

Jo Taylor: I think you’re right. The worry that I have from a human-centric perspective is that you could end up creating two tiers. There’s certain roles, so you look at, say, customer service or retail, for example, where you can’t do that from home. And the danger is that you create two tiers of communities. You know, those people that are in, those people that are not. You don’t create that team, that synergy, that collaboration. You have a leadership question, don’t you, around how leaders actually manage in that space. What’s quite interesting is that people are seeking those answers. But in a way, we’ve got to go through it, like we did with Covid. You know, there were people struggling for years about trying to get a good percentage of people working flexibly and freeing up real estate and “oh no, that job can’t be done”. And Covid has kind of disproved that. How do you think we should be looking at it? I mean, you talked about time and place and there’s obviously the social health aspect, but how do we stop it becoming two tier, and actually just the norm rather than something new all the time?

Kursty Groves: Yeah, that’s really good. And I love the way you said people are looking for the answer. I feel as if people are looking for, they want this kind of multiple choice answer thing, where they can just… tell me which is the right box to tick? And I think that it’s that mindset that is creating the potential for the two tier. Because actually, if you are able to approach the discovery of what’s next for your organisation, given the experiences that you as an organisation and your people have had, then that’s a very, very different approach to “tell me what the answer is for hybrid working?” Because also what you find is that it’s so much more complex. The experience that we have gone through is is quite complex. We’ve all gone through a massive, massive work from home experiment, but we’ve all had different experiences, depending on the role that you’re in and the service that you play in the organisation, depending on your own personal circumstances, depending on your seniority within the organisation. And so without really understanding the tapestry or the patchwork of your organisation, you are in danger of just creating some kind of very inflexible model that has at best a short-lived, at worst can actually damage, the productivity and the culture of your organisation. So I would say something else that just – on the back of what you were saying about two tier – people who might be in a more front line service position and they’re on site, right? Clearly, they are not working from home. But there’s also the flip to that, in that there’s been quite a lot of research done around, prior to the pandemic and then since also, that shows that you are much more likely to have a promotion if you are on site. It’s kind of “out of sight, out of mind”. So actually, your potential for forming stronger relationships and being seen in the organisation is greater if you’re on site. So I don’t think it’s a case of a duality of “it’s one or the other”. I think there’s very much more, lots of shades of grey, in between. And so that’s why it’s important to approach it with an experimental mindset and, really curious to understand what’s best for the organisation that you’re in.

Jo Taylor: I think there’s there’s there’s definitely a leadership question isn’t there, about how leaders become role models for this?

Kursty Groves: Oh, my goodness, yeah.

Jo Taylor: I know that you talked about Zoom fatigue and that kind of “always on”. I definitely think, I think you told me this, that the working day has got 45 minutes longer. There’s like,10 million or 10 billion – I can’t remember the exact number – who are on Zoom and Teams. I definitely have found days even now with clients where I’ll be on meetings from 8 in the morning til 6 at night, and more tired than if I was travelling to see a couple of people.

Kursty Groves: Absolutely. Because you’re not getting any stimulation. You’re not moving your body. You are experiencing a screen for that huge period of time, what was that, 10 hours or so? And you’re not moving. Whereas when you are going from a meeting room to a meeting room, or travelling to go and meet or do some work, then you’re experiencing all sorts of different sights and sounds and experiences. You’re moving your body. I mean, it’s just at the most basic, fundamental human level it’s really, really draining. And I think, again, there’s been more studies done around the cognitive drain of being on Zoom calls all day. You just don’t get that kind of energy back from the interactions that you have with other people face-to-face, not to mention – and this is something that will go away anyway in the world of hybrid – because the fact of the matter is, as I said before, we are in a very, very strange situation whereby, you know, in lockdown, having to work from home with no other choice, you’ve got the same four walls. I’ve been seeing some people, really even some of my clients. It’s really nice, we’re experimenting with just being in a slightly different place to the last time that we saw each other. It like getting to know each other’s environments a little bit more. But just to mix it up a bit,

Jo Taylor: I think you’re right. I think there’s definitely been some brilliant things. Personalisation is definitely changing. You feel like you get to know people on a deeper level because they’re letting you into their life. And some of the – I suppose the corporateness – has disappeared. You know, people are sitting there in their sweatpants and they’re just being a little bit more relaxed. So I think I’m really hopeful. I’m always an optimist that I don’t think – we can’t go back, so we won’t be going back. But I’m also a realist in thinking about how we as consultants who have a passion for making organisations really come alive. Our kind of role. And I’ve been playing with it in my mind and I’ve been thinking about, is there things that we can learn from consumer, some consumer language around customer journeys or persona mapping in understanding not only the space need, but the actual psychological contract. What do you think about that?

Kursty Groves: Yeah, this is the stuff I love. I’ve been working with mapping out employee experiences through work for quite a long time. And what I’ve found is that I started out by doing by – you know this Jo, my background is design thinking – and in innovation. So this is really moving into the space of workplace. I was just bringing all of those tools, in terms of ethnography and customer experience mapping, etc. And so I started doing that a while back to say, well, “what is the experience that we want our employees to have and our visitors to have, and the people who enter a building to have?” What I found it pretty quickly was actually I was much more interested in everything, not just the building, how people work and how they interact because you’ve got those other – it’s not just the physicality, it’s the experience. It’s the cultural experience. It’s also the cognitive places where people think better or interact better. So there are some fantastic tools that are out there that we can use to really step into the shoes of the people that are delivering the business and find the best ways for them to be able to get their best work done and also to interact with each other. And I think that’s where I would be starting. If, you know, if anyone came to me and said, where do I start? That’s where you start. I don’t think you start by going, “how many days do you want to be on site?” I also think you don’t start by saying, “okay, so what technology do you need? Which application do you need? Is it Teams or Zoom?” Because that’s just tail-wagging.

Jo Taylor: It’s the process, right? It’s the output. You know, I always talk about it: “what are your outcomes?” We want to change from an emotional, from a heart perspective. And what do you want the outputs to be, which is the kind of KPIs which is: “do we need to invest in Zoom? Or are we going to go with Teams, or are we going to buy everybody a laptop?” But if most businesses start from the output – because what is happening is that people are becoming obsessed around performance and output. Rather than thinking about how they’re motivating and measuring contribution in a different way, and that’s going to really come to the fore more in hybrid working than when you’re in the same office or you’re in a little meeting room or – because it’s much less tangible. But those things are going to be much more important to harness in a hybrid working environment than worrying about whether someone’s working 9 to 5 or… it doesn’t really matter. That’s just an output, right?

Kursty Groves: Yeah, yeah. I love that. And it aligns completely with the approach that I’ve always talked about when it comes to designing space, because typically what happens is people design the space and then they go, oh, that looks good. And then they just put people in it and hope to God that it works, you know, as opposed to, I call it upside-down or back-to-front thinking and design, because you need to start with the human, with the person and what activities they need to perform, how they need to do it, and the experience they need to have. Then you wrap around the tools and the physicality, if you like, the stuff that you can see. It’s the same philosophy that you’re talking about here. And that is, rather than trying to jump to the answer, you need to understand, I think, a little bit more, what is the experience that people need to have in order to do their best work. Because then the answers become very, very easy; they just present themselves. So, for example, if you know, “so what does the hybrid work environment look like?” First of all, you need to know what your hybrid working model is. How are you doing it? Are you an organisation that is going to mandate everybody to be fully on site, in which case you don’t have a hybrid model, you just have a little bit of flexitime and working – fine, that’s fine. If that works best for your organisation, then great. Or are you going to be right at the other end of the spectrum, which is fully remote, and I would wager that most organisations who have started from a place-based culture, and they’ve built a place-based culture, they’ll find it much more difficult to go fully remote. Because by virtue of the fact that their ways of working, their operating system, relies on that kind of physical face-to-face interaction. If you did want to go fully remote, I think you really have to tear up the rulebook and start from scratch because there are all sorts of mechanisms and procedures and ways of working that you really do have to build in order to make sure that collaboration works. That said, you can learn a lot from all remote companies. They’ve done some great things around building culture remotely. So work out what that is in principle, and why, whether it’s role-based, people are going to be more or less on site or off site due to their role, whether it’s team-based and then also layering on top of that personal preference as well, and personal circumstances. You can quite quickly understand how you are going to operate as an organisation, having mapped out those different roles and personas. And then you can say: “where are those different areas, those spaces that people work?” You’ve got the online space, you’ve got the off site space and you’ve got the on site space. What are those like? How do people interact in those spaces? What do those experiences need to be in those spaces? And when it comes to the actual on site space, which is the office or the hub or whatever you want to call it, then what do people come to that for? Why do people come there? And that’s when you can say, OK, we know, for example, in many of the clients I’m working with, a lot of people are realising that deep thinking, head-down work, gets done at home. And a lot of the reasons that people are coming together is for learning, for a cultural injection, for stimulation, for energy, for socialisation, mentoring, all of those great things. But the spaces and the mechanisms that you need to design in that situation are very different to the traditional office. So that’s what is super exciting, that people are really, really switching on to the fact that they need to create these really magnetic – I like to call them “magnetic, not mandated” – these are places that people are really drawn towards as opposed to being forced into. So that’s what I think is super exciting about the time that we’re going through now.

Jo Taylor: I think it’s really interesting because I think people are going to have to change their value proposition quite heavily. I look at it from a talent perspective, and I think that organisations that aren’t ahead of the curve and aren’t thinking about this are going to really struggle. The old adage of the McKinsey paper on “The War for Talent” has never really gone away, even though that paper’s I think about 15, 20 years old now. It’s both generational, it’s environmental, it’s global. You and I, when we were planning this podcast were talking about it, it’s actually reinventing work and all the conversations that we’ve ever had with clients and when we’ve worked in house. And we can’t do that now, all of that’s gone out the window. But what’s interesting in what you’ve been saying so far around time and place is the third angle, around social health. Because that seems to have really bubbled to the surface and is a part of that culture. And culture is always something that people want to define, but it’s much more – it’s much deeper. It is the ecosystem ultimately. But how social health is going to play a part in attracting and retaining talent is going to be hugely important. I mean, what are you seeing or am I over-exaggerating it from a people perspective?

Kursty Groves: Oh, no, absolutely. And just to underline that: the term social health, I think was coined by – I think she coined it – but the paper that you and I have read called “The Nowhere Office”, which is super. I’ve learned since that the author of that, Julia Hobsbawm, she’s writing a book about it. She also wrote a couple of books: one’s called The Simplicity Principle. And one is called – I can’t remember the title – but it’s about how to deal with overload in a completely over-connected world. And what’s really interesting about her position on this is that she worked with the WHO and she talked about social health as being one of the most important things in the next ten years. Because as human beings, we are absolutely hardwired to connect. And what we found through this past year is that we’ve been disconnected. That’s really, really taken its toll on lots of people’s mental health. Isolation, loneliness, all sorts of real problems that have come out of this kind of disconnection. But interestingly, again, there’s this other end of the spectrum around connection, that’s human connection. We’ve also had the extreme of “hyper tech connection”. You know, the whole thing about being on Zoom for 10 hours a day. But yeah, so social health is everything from the connections that we have with people, how we are interacting with people – it’s also down to individual health as well. Well-being is a huge part of it. But I think we can’t un-experience the last 12 months. Right?

Jo Taylor: I think we have to learn from it and realise that – we were self-isolating, you know, because Dave was ill. And I wouldn’t go back and change a thing because I got to have an amazing nine months of being in the same space as my husband. That was hugely defining because he died in January. But I wouldn’t go back and give that up for the world. And I don’t feel sad because of that, because I was given a gift. But I know that a lot of other people who may be younger than me, who were in flats in London or students, you know, have missed out on a huge experience. So it’s affected everything and therefore we need to learn from it. But we also don’t want to replicate and try and completely erase it from history. Because that is seminal in my working life and a lot of people’s working life who are listening to this and that in some ways needs to be treasured. But also, as you said, understood and taken – the good bits – but also to lose some of the bad habits. Not finding the time for connection, having that hybrid, that balance.

Kursty Groves: That’s right. You’re talking about the generations as well and is this an important time for social health? I think, yeah, absolutely. More than ever, for the reasons that you’ve just described. Yeah, 100%. And I think the phrase that came to mind when I was hearing you talk just then was “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. There’s so many things that do work that we make sure that we take forward. You’re absolutely right. We have got to learn, and that’s why I think the reason people say the future is hybrid is just because the future is definitely different to how it’s been in the past.

Jo Taylor: Love it. So before we finish, maybe you could give our listeners three tips, if they were going to get started? I know, I’m giving you a limit, Kursty. What are your top tips? If people want to know more or they don’t know where to start, where would you suggest they actually spend their time thinking about that hybrid question that we posed today?

Kursty Groves: I think it’s really, really important to start with getting really clear on the vision that you have for your workplace. And when I talk about workplace, it’s not just the office, right? It’s what is the environment, or the environments that people are going to be in, and getting really clear on it. And why? Why do it? And don’t just jump on the hybrid bandwagon, and making sure that you’re really care about who’s on board because – OK, maybe this is overelaborating – but you just have to look at the Goldman Sachs and the BlackRock situation whereby that was all about “let’s sell all the offices because we can make loads of money on real estate. Oh, no, wait, no, everybody has to go back.” I mean, that kind of control and command style. Oh my goodness.

Jo Taylor: So ego-driven. It was really sad to watch, but you’re right. But it is individual to that business. Which is important to remember, right?

Kursty Groves: Oh yeah, absolutely. And this goes back to your point about, Gen Y, Gen Z – it’s not going to fly for them.

Jo Taylor: They’re going to walk.

Kursty Groves: Absolutely. And so I think it’s really important for you as an organisation to get really clear on what is the vision and why you’re doing it and making sure that you’re really aligned about it. Because then you can start to define the path forward. So that’s tip number one. And then I would say spend some time really just understanding those different axes of time and place. What can, should, can’t, won’t be done – either colocated or remote, alone, together, synchronously, asynchronously. Because that’s really interesting. Lots of people have learned that actually we don’t have to work on the same thing at the same time; we can pass the baton backwards and forwards and get things done in a much more efficient way. What things need to be controlled and what things can free-flow and be a bit more flexible? So if you can understand that around the way you do work, then you’ve got a ton of information around how you can start to define new ways of working. The third thing I would say is: define a model that really suits your organisational context. We’ve said that before, but it’s making sure that it’s for you and it’s not just because you’ve seen it in some HBR article.

Jo Taylor: I totally agree with you. The only thing that I would add is – and a plea to the HR people that are listening to this – is let’s think about this from a people perspective, not from a process perspective. Think about your outcomes. How do you build trust? How are you listening? How are your leaders role-modelling? Think about it from a real people perspective – get your managers completely aligned, and if that means giving them some support, then do that and then think about the process. Because the process will come once you understand your people, not the other way around.

Kursty Groves: Yeah, I would say absolutely. And I really do think: don’t underestimate the amount of support that people are going to need. Sometimes I think that they probably needed it before, anyway. This is just a time to really give them a bit more support and you’re only going to become a better employer for that reason.

Jo Taylor: I totally agree with you. For anyone that’s listening to this as an HR leader, and you want support, then please feel free to get in touch with myself through the Let’s Talk Talent website, or we will make sure that on the link to this podcast that we also have Kursty’s. So if you’re looking at this from a workspace perspective then absolutely please do reach out to Kursty and I. Because as I said at the top, our mission in life is to create simply irresistible organisations. We come at it from different perspectives, but ultimately we have a huge amount of synergy because ultimately we believe people are, with purpose, critical in driving the reinvention of work. So I hope this has been really, really useful. As always, I love talking to Kursty, we could go on for ever and ever.

Kursty Groves: I know, and I love it.

Jo Taylor: Thank you so much for listening and please tune in to the next podcast. Thank you.