Joy and anomie: How hybrid working is working out

New approaches to how and where we work are still being refined after a shock transition.

Illustration of hybrid team colleagues with distant online video call, each person in a bubble

One of the most intriguing impacts of the Covid pandemic on everyday life has been a pronounced change as to how, when and where many of us work. Like much else in these fractious times, hybrid working appears to have polarised opinion. Many welcome what they see as a much-needed correction to work/life imbalance. Others see it as part of a drift towards practices that will reduce productivity and undermine leadership. And a wise few admit that, as we’re collapsing a system that has pervaded for over a century among white-collar workers, it’s really too early to know...

Ever since the pandemic changed our world, I’ve been talking to people about how work has been altered for them: their hopes, fears and opinions. Many of those conversations were casual, others were formal and on the record. For this article I’ve gone back to check if people were happy to be quoted and conducted new interviews. I hope the result is an interesting kaleidoscope of views.

When it happened

The issuing of stay-in-place orders was a surreal event for many of us: even if we had been following the news cycle closely, the actual day when it took place evoked a strange sense of dislocation.

One immediate impact was a sudden burst in the use of conferencing tools. Zoom was arguably the biggest beneficiary of this as the conferencing service became the conduit for conversations both personal and work-related. In a world where face-to-face interactions were necessarily limited, it seemed that we chased comfort in the next best thing: a simulacrum of our real world. I had interviewed Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in 2018 and soon after the ‘Zoom boom’ he had become one of the richest people in the world with shares steepling at $559 in October 2020, up a multiple of about eight times on the year start. If that felt strange for what had been only a somewhat well-known software company, life was getting pretty odd for the rest of us too.

“It’s weird,” emailed the communications manager of a well-known software company, “but I’m getting everything done faster and I don’t have to do the commute every day. Why were we doing all that stuff to ourselves in the first place? I now have no pointless meetings, no water-cooler chit-chat, no showing up to prove a point…”

Another told me: “Most days I’m running, doing home schooling, taking the dog out and I still have work finished by 4. It’s a productivity bonanza.”

Others weren’t so keen. A corporate communications consultant said she felt a “sense of anomie … I’m a very social person so this is just a disaster for me”. Many firms rushed out wellbeing services and set up group chats and informal discussions in virtual rooms.

Under pressure

But for those charged with creating a remote-working infrastructure, the pressure was on.

Sally Conway, senior marketing and strategy manager at Shawbrook Bank, told me back in November 2021:

“We had to react pretty rapidly to the needs of customers and partners at the same time. [Fortunately,] we are set up to be quite digitally ready in the consumer division because 90% of what we do is online.”

Forced to move fast, Shawbrook turned to cloud productivity suite provider, Zoho.

“We wanted one source of truth for our partner finance initiative and [to] take inefficient processes into more automated, easier activities. Zoho offered us a platform that was ready to use but also customisable.” Price (“we don’t have the smallest budget but we don’t have the biggest budgets either”) and speed of action were also key.

“Sales and communications directors all got involved and we worked with Zoho. For me, that’s fundamental: you have the right people at the start feeding in. Although it could have taken maybe 18 months, the pace we were able to put it in place was much quicker because of the time needed. It too six to nine months from RFP to implementation.”

For Shawbrook, it wasn’t only about setting up staff to be productive: it also needed the new system to support partners in B2B financing, such as Anglian Home Improvements.

“They work quite face-to-face,” Conway told me. “You can imagine someone from Anglian goes into a potential customer’s house to have a chat about what kind of windows they want, financing, then they measure it up and they do a deal. Obviously, when the pandemic hit that wasn’t an option and it was important for us to stay close to them.”

Shawbrook already had a progressive attitude to where work took place but Conway doesn’t believe that the office is a relic.

“We’re seeing more and more people actually wanting to come back into the office,” she said. “It’s great to be able to work from home but there’s the social element too. I don’t think it’s ever going to be like it was before. Maybe it will flip a bit and be one or two days in the office versus three or four at home. But I also think it’s not healthy to be working from home all the time.”

This was a story typical of the pandemic spirit: systems for remote working often were set up in hours and days because they had to be. But the revolution was not without casualties and stories of bandwidth contention in shared accommodation or among families were legion. Other challenges included issues with using non-ergonomic desks and chairs, spousal arguments caused by unaccustomed proximity, and battles with making printers and scanners work. One contact centre provider had to buy laptops for hundreds of staff because they had been using desktop PCs. UK software giant Sage told me about wellbeing apps for staff and remote software development teams. CIOs at law firms reported their surprise that junior staff were among the least appreciative of working from home policies because often they shared flats and they wanted to socialise and learn by example of seasoned colleagues.

For most of us, it was a case of muddling through and perhaps 90% or more of us were surprised in how smoothly it went… on the work front at least.

Dealing with an uncertain future

Dee Coakley is the CEO and co-founder of Boundless, a company as close to the hybrid-working zeitgeist as it’s possible to get. People have used remote hybrid working as a catalyst to move to dream locations, be closer to families or to move country for other reasons now that the imperative to be in the office is no longer there. Employers also welcome the chance to hire from more locations to get better quality people. Boundless helps those companies deal with the complexities of running operations and staying compliant with tax and legal rules where staff are located, all over the world.

“This space has gotten extremely busy since Covid,” Coakley told me on a recent call. Regimes vary hugely from digitally-literate to those based on offline, ink and fax. And then there are the tax and legal complications to deal with and the fact that even conservative sectors are seeing demand to work from new locations.

“When we founded the company, we raised pre-seed and evaluated market size and discounted civil service and financial services and assumed people [in those sectors] would never employ cross-border. But the market is still growing. A lot have still not experimented with cross-border, but a lot are starting to realise that location [is important].”

The joys of flex

Anita Sjarek, CFO at expense management company Pleo, is a prime example of why services such as Boundless are proving popular. “It’s a supercompetitive fight for talent but as we lean towards working with virtual teams, I have much more access,” she told me on a recent call.

As an example, Szarek says she made a key hire in Switzerland despite the fact that Pleo has no office there. The company has also moved away somewhat from the notion of having a corporate headquarters.

“I am a little bit against the ‘HQ culture’ because it builds distance between those in HQ and the others. Now, we travel as the senior management team to different locations and have offsite meetings with colleagues there. We’re in the field with colleagues and customers and the quality of face-to-face meetings is better because we have better preparation and agendas. But it’s not just business meetings: we are there to build bonds and teams. Face-to-face has a completely different appreciation.”

In tech especially, we are seeing some of the most radical steps away from presenteeism and office culture. Nutanix CEO Rajiv Ramaswami told me recently that he only expects most staff to work from offices for four or five days per month and the company is actively closing facilities. The CEO of enigmatically named presentation service mmhmm went even further, telling me the company and its wider portfolio won’t even have an HQ because it is better to hire talent from anywhere in the world and offer drop-in facilities for those that want them.

So here we are today. Many companies are redesigning workspaces to align with a world where communication is global rather than office-bound. There is a boom in building suites for immersive videoconferencing, cubicles and pods are fading and offices are increasingly resembling social spaces where people meet rather than just get work done.

A few outliers remain: Goldman Sachs took the view that the best work gets done in offices together and outgoing UK Prime Minister concurred, suggesting, in characteristic fashion, that people will squander time seeking out cheese from their fridges. Few say they have settled on a happy medium. Most have already tweaked plans and continue to monitor and take feedback. It’s a hybrid working world and it hasn’t stopped changing yet, you feel.