Think at London Business School
Six LBS faculty share tips for business leaders wanting to make sense of the new working world
By Julian Birkinshaw, Luisa Alemany, Lynda Gratton, Niro Sivanathan, Selin Kesebir, Randall S Peterson
Hiroki Hiramatsu, Head of Global HR at Fujitsu, can pinpoint the moment he realised hybrid work was here to stay. In late February 2020 an internal survey found more than 74% of the firm’s 80,000 Japan-based employees considered the office the best place to work. A long-hours office culture was very much the norm.
Less than a month later, the pandemic struck and most of those people were working from home. It didn’t take long for them to appreciate the advantages. In a follow-up survey, only 15% said they considered the office the best place to work; 30% said the best place was home, and the remaining 55% favoured a blend of home and office. This was a profound change. Hiramatsu told me: “We’re not going back.”
Since the pandemic I’ve talked extensively to executives about the impact that Covid-19 is having on their working arrangements. Like Hiramatsu, many are seeing this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset work using a hybrid model – one that will make our work lives more purposeful, productive and flexible.
If leaders want to make this transition successfully, they’ll have to do something they’re not used to doing: create hybrid work arrangements with individual human concerns in mind, not just institutional ones. To design hybrid work properly, it has to be thought about along two axes: place and time.
Place is the axis that’s getting the most attention right now. Millions of workers have made a sudden shift from being place-constrained (working in the office) to being place-unconstrained (working anywhere). Perhaps less noticed is the shift many have also made along the time axis, from being time-constrained (working synchronously with others) to being time-unconstrained (working asynchronously whenever they choose).
Before Covid-19, working 9 to 5 in the office was the norm, with limited flexibility allowed. Now managers are recognising that many employees can work productively anywhere, anytime: the hybrid model. Making this happen requires managers to consider the challenge from four distinct perspectives:
When thinking about jobs and tasks, start by understanding the critical drivers of productivity – energy, focus, coordination and cooperation – for each. Now consider how those drivers will be affected by changes in working arrangements along the axes of time and place. We can see how this strategy works by applying it to four different jobs:
Strategic planner: A critical driver of productivity for this role is focus. The axis that best enables focus is time; specifically, asynchronous time. If planners are freed from the scheduled demands of others, place becomes less critical. They can work at home or in the office.
Team manager: Here the critical driver of productivity is coordination. Managers need to communicate feedback with their team. The axis most likely to encourage this is also time, but the time needs to be synchronous. If that can be arranged, place again becomes less critical: managers and employees can do their coordination tasks together in the office or from home, on platforms such as Zoom.
Product innovator: The critical driver here is cooperation. But the important axis is place. Innovation is stimulated by face-to-face contact with colleagues and clients. This kind of cooperation is fostered most effectively in a shared location – an office or a creative hub.
Marketing manager: Productivity in this role requires sustained energy. Both time and place can play a role here. Many people find working at home energising, as they are freed from the burden of commutes, can take time out to exercise and can eat more healthily. But it can also be isolating in a way that hinders cooperation. Working on a synchronous schedule can improve coordination, but can also mean constant communications that disrupt focus.
To combat these potential downsides, Hiramatsu and his team at Fujitsu have committed to creating an ecosystem of spaces that make up what they call the “borderless office”. These spaces can take several forms: hubs, which maximise cooperation; satellites, which facilitate coordination; and shared offices, which enable focus.
Our capacity to operate at peak performance varies dramatically according to our personal preferences. So, in designing hybrid work, consider employees’ preferences. Imagine two strategic planners doing the same job at the same company, with focus as a critical driver of performance. One of them, Jorge, is 40. He lives some distance from the company, has a well-equipped home office and his children are at school during the day – so he feels most focused when he can stay home to work. He prefers to commute to the office only once or twice a week, to meet with his team.
Lillian’s situation is very different. She’s 28, lives in the centre of town and shares a small apartment with three others – so she can’t work for long stretches at home without being disturbed. To focus, she prefers to be in the office, which is close to where she lives.
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“Feelings of unfairness can hurt productivity, increase burnout, and reduce collaboration and retention”
Jorge and Lillian differ in another way: tenure with the company. Jorge has been with the firm for eight years and has established a strong network, so time in the office is less crucial for his development. Lillian, new to her role, is keen to be mentored and coached – activities that demand time with others in the office.
Companies are now providing managers with simple diagnostic survey tools to better understand personal preferences – to learn, for example, where employees feel most energised, whether they have a well-functioning home office, and what their needs are for cooperation, coordination and focus.
To make hybrid a success, you will need to reconsider projects and workflows. An executive who manages Jorge and Lillian, for example, must not only consider their preferences but coordinate their work with that of others on their team.
I’ve observed executives tackling this in two ways. One is to boost the use of technology to coordinate activities as employees move to flexible work arrangements. Fujitsu uses a range of digital tools to visualise the types of work its teams are performing as they experiment with arrangements on the axes of time and place. That has enabled the company to better assess individual and team workloads, analyse remote working conditions and confirm work projections.
Other companies are using this moment to reimagine workflows – and they need to work hard to get them right the first time. Leaders at one of the retail banks in our Future of Work Consortium analysed and reimagined workflows by asking three crucial questions: Are any team tasks redundant? Can any tasks be automated or reassigned to outside the team? Can we reimagine a new purpose for our place of work?
Research has shown that feelings of unfairness can hurt productivity, increase burnout, and reduce collaboration and retention. In the past, when companies began experimenting with flexible approaches, they typically allowed managers to drive the process on an ad hoc basis. Different teams were afforded varying degrees of flexibility, which led to accusations of unfairness. And many employees had time- and place-dependent jobs that made hybrid arrangements impossible or far from optimal. They often felt treated unfairly.
Selina Millstam, Vice President of Swedish multinational Ericsson, has done some admirable work on inclusion. Every new work arrangement has to be rooted in the company culture; important aspects of which are “a speak-up environment,” “empathy” and “cooperation and collaboration”. To facilitate this, Millstam’s team engaged employees in “jams” conducted virtually over a 72-hour period.
One such jam gave employees a platform to talk about how hybrid ways of working during the pandemic might affect the company culture. Over 17,000 people from 132 countries participated in the conversation and made 28,000 comments. The exercise helped Ericsson develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues the company needs to take into account as it designs hybrid arrangements. Leadership realised that the best way to address feelings of uncertainty and unfairness was to ensure that employees had their voices heard and understand that any changes weren’t simply managerial whims.
So, how can you propel your firm towards an anywhere/any time model? Start by identifying key jobs and tasks, determine what the drivers of productivity and performance are for each, consider which arrangements would serve them best, and engage employees in the process.
Lastly, ask yourself if your new hybrid arrangements support your firm’s values and culture. Carefully take stock: have you created a foundation for the future that everybody in the company will find engaging, fair, inspiring and meaningful? That is your challenge – and your big opportunity.
Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School. A longer version of this article appears in the May-June 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review.