BEYOND HYBRID WORKING – A Smarter & Transformational Approach to Flexible Working

Book Review

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Moving beyond the ‘hybrid’ tropes

We are all learning, constantly, and continuously over time.  Then a global and catastrophic event happens, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and we all learn very quickly. We must, for survival. But also, in any crisis, there are people and groups who think that they spot an opportunity. One such opportunity, in early 2020, was to seize the term ‘hybrid’ and apply it to the world of work and place (in almost every article written, it seemed at the time).  Commentators are polarised into proposing two different approaches: ‘work from home’ or ‘back to the office’.  Critically, this polarised positioning misses the spectrum of work and workstyles which co-exist in the equally broad spectrum of organisations and cultures around the world.

He could have called this new book Way Before, and Way Beyond the fuss about Hybrid Working, because the author has been fully immersed in new ways of working since the 1990s. And this long-timeline view is vital to put the often-weak contemporary debate into context.

Andy Lake is certainly not one of those opportunists. He has been writing and teaching about ‘work’ for decades and recently for Work&Place here.  Andy has both led, and participated in, research around the world, focused on Smarter and Flexible Working.  He could have called this new book “Way Before, and Way Beyond the fuss about Hybrid Working”, because he has been fully immersed in new ways of working since the 1990s.  And this is vital, to put the often-weak contemporary debate into context.

Roots of flexible working

What Andy does so eloquently in this book is not only go ‘beyond hybrid working’ as the title suggests, but also to trace the roots of flexible working.  That starts with a five-page Glossary, explaining all the terms which we have heard over the years, and putting each into context.  Including ‘telecommuting’, which Andy says has “a historic feel to it”.  But of course, this is important history, as it takes us back to where this all started. I.e., the ability to unchain ourselves from places full of paper (early offices) and dial-in to a network from somewhere else.  The personal computer and modem connected to a phone socket allowed some of us to do that in the 90s (a few, even before that).

Smart Working Maturity Model

Alongside the Glossary, Chapter 1 – What is Smart Working? – is essential reading for anyone involved with change in organisations.  It is as broad and fundamental as that.  This is the best essay I have read on the subject and which explains what Andy calls the “many faces of work flexibility” – flexible working, new ways of working, agile working, smart working.  Then ‘hybrid working’ came along (not new – just some commentators think it is).  Then there are organisations’ own terms for their change programmes e.g. The Way We Work (TW3), WorkWise.  A key point made in this section is that Flexible Working is an umbrella term, and in many countries there is a legal ‘right to request’ some form of flexible working.  That right may be time based (varied hours) or place based (e.g., working at home) or a combination.

Toward Flexibility as Normal 

One of the central messages of Andy Lake’s new book is to get beyond this need to ‘request’ flexibility, and thus move to Smarter Working (Andy Lake’s preferred term) which will “incorporate flexibility in a more dynamic way to provide flexibility-as-normal without the need for making a request”.

Lake describes Smart Working succinctly:

Smart Working is about transformation – actively pursuing benefits by working in smarter ways, rather than being driven by the choices of individual employees. Ideally it provides a framework in which individuals and teams can make choices about the most appropriate times and places for work, and as far as possible balance individual preferences into the mix.

One standalone reason to buy this book is the use of diagrams throughout.  I find them really useful, to capture the text into a visual form which my mind remembers (like ‘mind maps’ for anyone who has used them).  They all contribute towards the Smart Working Maturity Model presented in the final chapter.  This model plots a progression, from isolated initiatives, to basic flexibility, and on to ‘emerging’ and later ‘mature’ smart working.  In fact, I would recommend reading Chapter 1, jumping to the final Chapter 16 to understand the smart working maturity model, then go back through other chapters. It is a well-written and easy to read textbook – but it is a textbook! You will not get through it in one long read.

Strategy and Programme

Chapter 2 sets the context for developing Smarter Working, taking the reader through ten trends of changing work in a changing world.  The author then moves on in Chapter 3 to explore the more specific business drivers for change, and the benefits of a clear strategy and programme for implementation.  This is focused on three areas of benefit: business (effectiveness, cost), employee (autonomy, trust, engagement, etc.) and the environment (sustainability and wider society).  An area which is covered, which Work&Place has also written about over the years, is the need for an inter-disciplinary high-level team. In addition to senior managers from directorates undergoing change, Andy recommends including senior representatives from HR, Property, Facilities, IT and Finance.

Chapter 4 progresses these ideas onto the business case, metrics and evaluation, to ensure that “all the business benefits highlighted in this book are measurable”.  Some organisations will no longer need a business case, as Smart Working has become normalised – they will just do it.  For the rest of us, this is a good summary of surveys, interviewing, group work, analysing space use, storage, travel, and includes evaluation checklists to review.

People and Culture

it’s essential to recognise it’s about tasks, not roles”, and strongly emphasises the need to work with groups to assess how time specific and location specific their tasks are.

Chapters 5 to 8 focus around people and culture, taking a practical approach to making the best choices for where, when and how work is done.  A key point made is about who can work flexibly – far more people than we often consider.  Andy says “it’s essential to recognise it’s about tasks, not roles”, and strongly emphasises the need to work with groups to assess how time specific and location specific their tasks are.  Again, this is backed with useful diagrams.  The author introduces a new model of the places, both physical and virtual, where we will increasingly work in an “Extended Workplace”.  This aims to raise awareness of a “whole range of possible spaces people may work in” and the factors which guide that choice.

This naturally leads to a useful section on capacity assessment and suitability assessment for Smart Working, looking at both the organisation and its physical form (real estate).  Whereas activity-based working (ABW) is often applied within buildings, Andy is really extending this to a wider world outside of the organisation.  I first heard Frank Duffy discuss these ideas in the early 90s, which Lake fully acknowledges, but now advances in comms tech have turned these ideas into everyday tools. Chapter 8 focuses on this tech revolution.

Implementing Flexible Working

At this point, you are only half-way through the book! Chapters 9 to 15 offer an in-depth look at the transformational approach to implementing Flexible Working.  This begins with embedding a Smart Working culture, including the CAN Test: Challenge the Assumption of Necessity, about the where, when, why and how of doing things.  The author provides many worked examples; e.g., assumptions that ‘face-to-face’ means physical face-to-face, and that the latter provides more effective outcomes.  Then reconstructing with new ideas, and the challenges to achieving this, including the need to change systems and structures, and provide training to both staff and managers.  Chapter 10 looks at leading the ‘anywhere, anytime’ team, and management by outcomes, being essential parts of the transformative process.

Productivity & Smarter Homeworking

Chapter 11 asks whether Smart Working increases productivity – yes, if a strategic and comprehensive approach is adopted.  Less likely, the author suggests, if people do “what they have always done, but in different environments and at different times”.  Chapter 12 is dedicated to Smarter Homeworking, as one of the domains of the Extended Workplace.

5 domains of the Extended Workplace

In this framework, ‘home’ isn’t just that – it becomes about what are the best options and settings that suit the tasks required “and that fit well with how you want to live your life and the other things you – and those close to you – want or need to do”.  Chapters 13 to 15 take a more in-depth look at Smarter Working and wellbeing and inclusion (Ch.13), Smart Government, public services and public policy (Ch.14) and the complex interrelationship with sustainability and wider impacts on work and society.

Beyond Hybrid

Finally, in Ch.16, as mentioned above, Andy describes the Smart Working Maturity Model and reflects on how the future might pan out.  There are case studies throughout the book, and here the reader can think about how these organisations – and their own – are positioned.  And more importantly, take the learning from each of the earlier chapters and as Andy puts it “start to see the future as the one we create, rather than one that happens to us”.

For those of you who read this book cover-to-cover, then dip back into sections regularly for Andy Lake’s many generous gifts of wisdom, this book will truly take you ‘beyond hybrid’.  Beyond that chatter in the magazines and PR mailshots claiming either ‘everyone can work from home; the office is dead’ or the other camp pressing for a ‘back to the office’ future.  The author paints a far more intelligent and nuanced picture, with a spectrum of work and place possibilities, and a clear set of management and organisational competencies and tasks required to move an organisation towards a better future W&P.

About the Author

Andy Lake – Director, Flexibility.co.uk & Founder, Smart Work Network

[email protected] | www.flexibility.co.uk | www.smart-work.net  | www.linkedin.com/in/andylakewriter

Review Information

Book review by Paul Carder for Work&Place, 10 February 2024

Diagram of the 5 domains of the Extended Workplace reproduced by permission of Andy Lake 2024

Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon. web site book page

 

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