As I reflect on the past year and look ahead to the equality, diversity and inclusion opportunities and challenges of 2022, I find myself pondering ‘hybrid working’.
It’s been 2 years like no others. 2022, maybe, will see Covid 19 brought under control, such that every twist and turn doesn’t change our lives daily. (We can only hope.) For sure, we will not know the full impacts, for who knows how long. As the mother of teens, it is something that really worries me – what has been the lasting, indelible impact for my children?
For sure, it feels like it has changed the world of work, certainly in the UK, forever. Covid feels as transformational as the internet and all the digital tech we now take for granted. Two years ago, working from home – working from anywhere apart from a designated workplace at the specified times – was not the norm. Personally, I have worked flexibly pretty much forever. In 1995 I joined the Civil Service Fast Stream, in the Inland Revenue doing tax inspector training (yes, it’s true, I was a tax inspector). That was three years of a day a week at college and another weekly study day. A dual workplace was normal for me from the get-
In 2003 Kaela, who turned 18 on November 5, came along. (2022 (hopefully) sees her off to university, a departure and milestone I am in much denial about!). 2006 saw Lyra’s birth and me returning part time, 27 hours, three days ‘on’ two days ‘off’. 15 years ago, it was a different world for part time workers. I HATED it, always racing to something, always feeling things were incomplete, always feeling like I was playing catch up. No ability to log on from home. Not to mention being written off career-wise, lack of quality work and connection to my workplace.
Then I found compressed hours, working 5 days’ worth of full-time hours in 4 days. Compressed hours were my paradise. 4 long days (8 am to 5 pm), often with one at home. For me, it created a great balance of time to dedicate and focus on work with some me-time and quality time for my family. It worked for me and for my job. I had to give it up for my current role in 2017, where a less mature, less trusting employer, at that time, just couldn’t entertain compressed hours. The ‘best’ offer was ad hoc working from home, the organisational mindset being working from home was code for doing nothing. Nevertheless, I cajoled some flexibility such that pre-pandemic I was working at least one if not 2 days a week at home. This really helped me manage my workload, wellbeing and work-life balance. I would do 3 full-on days – loads of meetings, loads of human interaction. Then a day or two meeting- and people-free. Ploughing through emails, following up on actions I had accumulated, catching up on reading and, most importantly, having thinking space – a must for my role.
The pandemic hit me hard – the transition of everyone moving to working from home and digital meetings being the forced norm. I suddenly found myself occupied all day, every day, online. Somehow, working longer hours with less time to do anything or think! I wasn’t special. This was true for many. Those of us fortunate enough to have a job that survived the pandemic, privileged enough to be able to work from our homes, had to adapt, including dealing with the isolation, unpredictability and anxiety the pandemic brought. I had to consciously rebalance. I purposefully thought about how to create time to do my ploughing, following-up, reading and thinking.
Summer 2021 saw a new transition and the advent of ‘hybrid’ working. This shift is a (forced) acknowledgement that there are multiple ways of working and multiple locations that someone can be productive in. Coronavirus has altered, perhaps irrevocably, employer attitudes about the possibilities of the when and the where that work can be or should be delivered. It has also enabled new possibilities for employees in terms of how they can balance work and their ‘life’. There are some real positives for, for example, parents and carers, and for those with disabilities. The pandemic has brought about previously strongly-
resisted and undreamt-of improvements for many in their day-to-day experience. Overnight it proved incontrovertibly many points that all those fighting the EDI fight had been making for years.
But we know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Transitioning to hybrid working is a juggle; one that I personally found very hard. I had got used to just in time prep; being able to wake up, potter around working in my dressing gown, yet be screen ready speedily. My dressing-gown-to-on-screen-presentable timing is roughly 8 mins – be that for conference keynotes, committee meetings or 1-to-1s. Re-establishing the time and discipline of prepping with all Covid essentials and remote meeting supplies is a grind. Remembering I don’t have a teleporter and so need to allow travel time is bizarrely hard. The knock-on effects of readjusting to having to schedule the jigsaw puzzle of domestic admin across household diaries takes me back to the early days of new children. Don’t even get me started on food, the ease and quality of home v expense and inferior options on the move. Let alone thinking about leading a team and the multidimensional logic puzzle with exponential permutations that hybrid working presents – is it a coincidence there is a new Matrix movie?
I was shocked at how exhausting I found it actually meeting people. I realised I’d been managing through ‘multitasking’ whilst theoretically attending a meeting. It’s been a strain. I’ve had to take myself in hand. I’ve designated two ‘on-site’ days. Here I aim for face-to-face contact and no digital meetings. Maybe bookending them with some social stuff. 3 days will be at-home days. I plan a weekly ‘meeting-light’ day for that ploughing, following up, reading and thinking!
Putting my practitioner hat on, if the norm/preferred option is hybrid working, employers will need to provide proactive and conscious support for it. That includes training for managers and individuals as to how to manage and work in hybrid teams effectively. We will have to actively review what it means for recognising performance, communication, collaboration, scheduling and maintaining connection.
Business systems and processes will need adapting. Hybrid working could really lead us into the flexible, inclusive future we have always wanted, or it could bring about all kinds of tension and exclusion. As always, we need to intentionally act to prevent structural inequality from replicating itself into the new normal. For some great guidance, check out Working Families https://workingfamilies.org.uk.
My personal journey highlights a multiplicity of productive, flexible working possibilities. My New Year’s resolution is to be to use my influence to prevent us getting swept up in a single model of hybrid working; to encourage everyone to attend to the detail and so maximise the opportunities to bring about the best outcomes for each individual, role and employer. Happy New Year.