Olly Headey

June 9, 2023

How hybrid can work

The gloves are off. The work experts are at war. Officista VCs are proclaiming that remote doesn’t work and the media seem to be buying it. AI-generated CEOs are calling it a mistake or, worse, morally wrong. On the flipside, remoterinos continue to disagree. As for a hybrid arrangement, that’s a total clusterfuck.

The funny thing is they’re all right because, as with anything nuanced that isn’t literally black or white, it depends!

I prefer working from home at the moment (not that I’m actually doing much work right now 😳). I find it rather liberating and much more relaxing. I used to really enjoy being in the FreeAgent office back in the day, and being able (i.e. privileged enough) to walk to work was a treat. Granted many people’s commutes, especially in the smoggy metropoles, can be a suffocating experience but I always enjoyed working in the West End and felt it worth the morning mauling on the tube. Getting some daily exercise is way more of a grind when you’re working from home.

I prefer it at home but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with insisting your staff work from an office. It would be churlish to suggest remote working is for everyone since being co-located might make sense for some businesses, and many people actually prefer being in an office, around other people, in a bustling city centre. Whether it’s more or less productive for workers, or even a Machiavellian plot by evil-doing managers, is beside the point. It’s a legit and sensible option in lots of cases.

While my working persuasion is more remote-leaning, I’d still class myself as something of a hybridarian but not with this “New Hybrid” approach. To me, a hybrid team means you have some staff that are fully remote, and some who are not. New Hybrid is just “flexible working”. It can't be “remote” if it’s part time. There needs to be a distinction here but I get that naming things is hard.

I definitely have a beef with how this New Hybrid is being implemented, which seems to be via fixed days in the office with some at home. Mandated days are a stick, pure and simple, since there’s little evidence that in-person collaboration or in-office productivity is better. Maybe I'm wrong, but I get the feeling that leaders are just trying to control something, or that they don’t trust their staff for some reason. If your company has an office and you want people who prefer working from home to come in (even if only to justify having the office expense), then allow people to come and go as they please. Let them be free to treat the office like a co-working space, and allow people to use their time in the office as much for socialising and human interaction as work. Don’t mandate days. You can't mandate creativity on a Tuesday morning. Just give people some agency, and trust them. Evaluate people on their output. You also need to take a more asynchronous, remote-first approach across the board. This will result in fewer meetings, which means more work getting done. Write things down and afford people the time to digest it and craft a thoughtful response. Rely less on whiteboards, post-its, or even Slack and email (which is where discussions go to die). Nurture this culture. 

The other option for "making hybrid work" is to take the old school hybrid approach. I ran the FreeAgent engineering team like this from way back in 2010. If you lived in Edinburgh, you came to the office. Otherwise you were remote. We weren't very flexible other than that which was of it's time, I guess. We went down this path because we couldn’t hire enough Ruby talent locally, so we looked further afield to find the most talented people we possibly could. And we found some amazing people! 

In the early days running a team this way was tricky. Without question there was some initial skepticism about how this would work, and the default culture outwith engineering was naturally pro-office, because that's where everyone else worked. Remote staff would visit the office periodically (sometimes every few weeks, sometimes once a year) which helped bond the team, but we had to work hard to build a remote-first culture using online tools, lots of writing and being intentional about including everyone, all the time. Over time the team grew and we reached a decent critical mass of remote staff, then worked to keep the ratio around 40-50% remote to maintain the balance and the culture. I think this worked remarkably well, and it felt genuinely like a "best of both worlds" situation which is why I think hybrid, in this way, can work!

This isn't to say it's easy, and it requires someone at the top (👋) to be the remote champion, reinforcing all the time why we need to work a certain way, correcting behaviours and listening to remote staff to make sure the environment is working for them. If the people at the top have a fixed in-office mindset, it just isn't going to end well, so why bother?

Remote working isn’t over, and in-office working isn’t dead. Proper hybrid means running a mix of in-office and distributed staff. Companies can choose to go New Hybrid and offer flexible working so staff can work from home a few days, but this will require a change in the working culture. Treat your staff like adults and allow them to work where they like, when they like, and make being in the office a treat rather than a punishment.

You can make any arrangement work, all you need to do is actually believe in it.

About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.