Is Hybrid Working Working?

Dom Hawes
Group CEO, Selbey Anderson

Is Hybrid Working Working?

Group CEO, Selbey Anderson
Group CEO, Selbey Anderson
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Camilla Cavendish wrote a bold opinion piece in the Financial Times in early January this year: “It’s time to admit that hybrid is not working”, she said.

As a leader, this is a tricky topic to navigate. She was brave to voice something so unpopular, but as the year has unfolded, bit by bit, more companies are taking a harder line on hybrid.

On July 14th, I was sent a link to a Times article that puts evidence behind Cavendish’s assertion.

Emma Duncan says: “WFH is appealing but it’s just not working”. In the piece she puts paid to the myth that productivity increases when working at home. Many of us questioned the validity of early conclusions of the benefits of home working. Duncan adds: “Pigs do not fly, lunches are not free and as more data has rolled in those initial happy conclusions have been contradicted.” The data in question is from Harvard.

"Pigs do not fly, lunches are not free and as more data has rolled in those initial happy conclusions have been contradicted.”

Emma Duncan, The Times

What does leadership want from hybrid?

As a leader, the question of work environment is front of mind and many of our senior leadership team are fired up by the subject. When I’m asked what I want from our working environment and practice, this is what I say.

I want maximum flexibility, an attractive culture and personalised working conditions. I want creative productivity, superior execution and fully engaged, committed people.

You may think I want a lot? I guess I do if you’re looking at my list and thinking outside in. But that’s the wrong lens through which to gauge a creative agency group.

The right lens is to focus on What Really Matters (WRM): creating value for clients.

That’s thinking outside in, not inside out and it’s the starting point for my list of wants. So, instead of asking what we all ‘want’, you and I should be asking what our clients ‘need’ in order to win. Then, we should design our working environment around that.  

What we must deliver is success for our clients. Everything else is subordinated to that. But, to deliver success, I think we need the environment described above.


The loudest voice is seldom the smartest

The loudest voices on LinkedIn are still telling us that the future is hybrid (i.e. office and home), that the world has changed and if you don’t 'get that' you’re a dinosaur.

In my opinion, these are voices of people thinking inside out.

They’re looking at what suits them personally instead of what works best for their clients or customers. Does an individual’s needs trump both team and task at the expense of WRM? Mr Adair has a well proven view with his Action-Centred Leadership model. The answer is no.

When these types talk about hybrid, their starting point is how many days they are going to work from home. That’s flawed thinking. Quite apart from the evidence presented in Emma Duncan’s article, if a person can genuinely do their job from a home office in Dorking, why wouldn’t that job be in Durban? 100% home workers should be careful what they wish for. You may find out they have rather more leisure time than work time at home.


Hybridity and the creative industries

I think the future of work in the creative industry is very definitely hybrid. What? Am I contradicting myself?


The future is hybrid, but not in the way most people currently think. Back to Cavendish.

She wrote: “The pandemic has spawned a huge literature focused on employee wellbeing, but rather less about the wellbeing of the customers and organisations they serve. In 1970s Britain, it was often said that nationalised industries such as British Rail were run for the benefit of their staff, not their customers. In parts of the public sector, it feels like we are back there again.”

It's not just the public sector that feels like this. In post-pandemic Britain, there’s a delicate balance for any leader to strike. Piss off your people and they’ll quiet quit. And, although the skills shortage is waning, it’s still evident that in most sectors, people have more power than their employers. That sounds rather basic. It’s not just about power, obviously. Modern employer park their people’s happiness right at the top of their priority list. For the time being, the people get what the people want.

In today’s Times, Emma Duncan says that the work location dilemma is “particularly acute in this country”. “Only Canadians work from home more than we do,” she says.

Commuting is expensive and slow so it’s no surprise that home working is popular.

Gerry Hopkinson, Selbey Labs

I wanted to understand the reasons behind this better, so I sought out Gerry Hopkinson, Selbey Labs’ CEO. Gerry and his team are all over social intelligence and behavioural understanding.

 “There are a few things going on here,” explains Gerry. “Firstly, in the professions many people built a financial cushion during the pandemic. They can afford to leave a job now without having one to go to. Most will need to get another job eventually, but they can afford to leave something they don’t like and take their time.

“But many people, particularly in the over-50s who have left the workforce are not coming back. They’ve downshifted or changed sector.

“Secondly, this country has bad infrastructure. Commuting is expensive and slow so it’s no surprise that home working is popular. The average human sleeps eight hours, works eight hours and has eight hours to themselves. If you commute an hour each way, you’re giving up at least 25% of your personal time.”

Duncan tells us that out of 21 countries, only the Japanese and South Koreans spend more time than we do getting to the office. Our average is 39 minutes.

This is not an easy subject.


Future hybrid means agency and client fusion

To me, it’s clear that the future is most definitely hybrid. But, maybe the hybridity will be between client and agency teams; between client and agency workspaces; not just home and the office. We will all get to work from home – certainly more than we did pre-pandemic for all the reasons stated above. Home working isn’t a permanent two or three day a week gig for most, so it’s not where we should be focusing.

Instead, why not integrate your agency team more tightly with your in-house team? Ask them to implant or co-locate some of the time. With shorter communication lines and specialist resource on tap, you’ll shorten your cycle times, increase productivity and I bet you’ll increase the effectiveness of your work too.

While there’s no one size fits all, perhaps the future looks like three days in the agency offices, one day in client offices and one day at home? To make this work, your team needs to be as good as mine. You need to have people who will accept accountability for client or customer success and put them first. I’m sure that describes your team perfectly.

With shorter communication lines and specialist resource on tap, you’ll shorten your cycle times, increase productivity and I bet you’ll increase the effectiveness of your work too.

What next?

In future blogs on hybridity, I’m going to explore three inter-related reasons why we need to change how we’re thinking.

  • I’ll dig deep into why we need to achieve more with less and explore how you can use AI, offshoring and automation to help.
  • I’ll propose that marketers need to become more objective-oriented. As things stand, agencies, marketers and the businesses they both serve are out of sync. Procurement has made marketing focus on their agency’s inputs (rate cards etc) and agencies focus on their outputs (deliverables). What does the business want? Outcomes. But no-one’s talking about. That’s what I mean by objective-oriented.
  • I’ll argue that everyone involved in value creation needs to simplify the complexity that digital acceleration and channel proliferation have created.

Camilla Cavendish called out the problems with hybrid early and I think she was right… to a point. As long as we think outside in, as long as we put client or customer needs first, and as long as we tailor our working environment to promote focus and flow, we’ll have happy team mates and better businesses.

Dom Hawes

Group CEO, Selbey Anderson
Dom leads group development at Selbey Anderson and has been in the marketing business for over 25 years. He started his professional career after serving six years in the British Army and spent his early career in agency before moving in-house and into general management.