Hybrid working: A matter of time, not location

Companies are currently grappling with the question of how much their employees should work in the office and how much home office or remote working should be allowed. After the experience of the last two years of the Corona pandemic, the desire to combine the best of home and office in hybrid forms of working is laudable. Still, it should not be reduced to the question of the possible and permitted place of work. In essence, it is more about flexibility in terms of time than location.

The ques­tion of geo­graph­i­cal flex­i­bil­i­ty pri­mar­i­ly char­ac­ter­izes the dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing hybrid forms of work­ing after the Coro­na pan­dem­ic. For some employ­ees, espe­cial­ly younger ones, it may indeed be essen­tial to work flex­i­bly in terms of loca­tion and, in extreme cas­es, to indulge in dig­i­tal nomadism. In essence, it is less a ques­tion of local flex­i­bil­i­ty than of tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. In the pan­dem­ic, work-life bal­ance became work-life inte­gra­tion, and now no one wants to miss out on this flexibility.

We have three chil­dren, and even with our two daugh­ters, Marie and Ella, I’ve always spent much time with fam­i­ly (e.g., tak­ing parental leave, reduc­ing trav­el and evening events, care­ful­ly con­sid­er­ing extra miles). Com­pared to our youngest, how­ev­er, I’ve had lit­tle of their ear­ly years: Valentin was born in Jan­u­ary 2020, and I was in the home office a lot dur­ing his first two years. In addi­tion, our old­est daugh­ter also had her start of school in 2020, and I was always able to help her with home­work and home­school­ing and give her moral sup­port. I’ve also nev­er been as fit as I was dur­ing this time because I can eas­i­ly inte­grate the short run or yoga ses­sion into my dai­ly rou­tine. This seam­less inte­gra­tion of work and pri­vate life leads to a bet­ter bal­ance and less stress for me, lead­ing to bet­ter performance.

Unlike most, I have already made the unsat­is­fac­to­ry step from a lot of time flex­i­bil­i­ty to less and, in my extreme case, to a clas­sic pres­ence cul­ture with 8 hours or more in the office. Our con­sult­ing firm esc Solu­tions, which I helped build from 2010 to 2015, ini­tial­ly had no office at all and lat­er only a small one where the man­age­ment team met once a week. We were at the client site or in our home office most of the time. Part of my sig­nif­i­cant pain of adap­ta­tion when I moved to the cor­po­rate world in 2015 stemmed from its tem­po­ral and local rigid­i­ty. Hav­ing a new­born child inten­si­fied this pain back then, as I would have liked to spend more time with the family.

The pan­dem­ic has shown many peo­ple how ful­fill­ing it can be to inte­grate work and pri­vate life flex­i­bly. Of course, this has a local aspect, as this work-life inte­gra­tion can only occur at the respec­tive cen­ter of the employee’s life. How­ev­er, local flex­i­bil­i­ty alone is of lit­tle use if the cul­ture and man­age­ment expect con­stant avail­abil­i­ty and the work is nev­er­the­less, or pre­cise­ly because of this, too dense­ly packed, and it boils down to the tir­ing pat­tern of “eat, sleep, zoom, repeat.”

Let’s sup­pose the core issue is indeed tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. In that case, the ques­tion of hybrid forms of work­ing can­not be answered exclu­sive­ly by joint times around the office and home office arrange­ments, and cer­tain­ly not by hybrid meet­ings. The ques­tion of hybrid work­ing also aims at a mix of syn­chro­nous and asyn­chro­nous work­ing in the team, and this is the only way to main­tain the beloved tem­po­ral flex­i­bil­i­ty. I wrote at the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic that video con­fer­ences are not a solu­tion either. Today, I would say that hybrid video­con­fer­enc­ing is only part of the solu­tion and rather miss­es the point in terms of the actu­al question.

The pan­dem­ic has made many knowl­edge work­ers think about what is impor­tant to them and, at the same time, has shown that the pre-pan­dem­ic work­ing world is not a god-giv­en but can also be changed, and then many things might even work bet­ter. We see this effect in Amer­i­ca as the “Great Res­ig­na­tion,” but this trend is also becom­ing increas­ing­ly appar­ent in Ger­many. On the ques­tion of what peo­ple need and want now and what employ­ers must offer them, Mar­cus Buck­ing­ham sum­ma­rizes very apt­ly in this inter­view on the occa­sion of an exten­sive study of 27 coun­tries with thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants being at the core of his asso­ci­at­ed book:

What peo­ple are real­ly look­ing for isn’t flex­i­bil­i­ty of loca­tion. It’s flex­i­bil­i­ty of time. The pan­dem­ic has kind of shown every­body that we’re whole humans. [Ed. Note: At this point in the inter­view, my 3‑year-old daugh­ter ran into the room.] Like your kid today on spring break, we now know what she looks like and that she runs in every now and again. We want flex­i­bil­i­ty to go pick up my kid or pick up my grand­ma. All this hybrid talk miss­es the fact that it’s not the geog­ra­phy, the loca­tion. It’s the flex­i­bil­i­ty of being a whole human.

Mar­cus Buckingham

I believe this is the key: offer­ing employ­ees an envi­ron­ment where they can be not just employ­ees (in the sense of cogs in Fred­er­ic Laloux’s machine mod­el) but peo­ple with a fam­i­ly, needs, and hopes. Work-life inte­gra­tion means wel­com­ing the whole per­son and under­stand­ing the com­pa­ny as a work­shop for a pros­per­ous life, as Bodo Janssen puts it, refer­ring to the rules of St. Bene­dict of Nursia.

The core mes­sage in the dis­cus­sion about hybrid forms of work and a deci­sive assur­ance should be loose­ly based on Goethe: Here I am a human being, here I am allowed to be one. As man­agers, we have a lead­er­ship and role mod­el func­tion here. We must lead through visions, frame­work con­di­tions, and results (wher­ev­er and how­ev­er these are achieved), but also as role mod­els, with a life out­side of work and the need for flex­i­ble inte­gra­tion of work and pri­vate life and, not least, family.

Pho­to by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

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