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Hybrid working – prizes and pitfalls

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Back to the office? Hybrid working offers big prizes and bruising pitfalls. Policies don’t give any guarantees. The upsides and downsides are emerging in practice as we speak. Have you noticed?

The opportunity to shape the patterns and practices is now. How will you respond?

Hybrid working

Thousands of workers have been heading back to the office over the past month or so. As they do so, the prizes and pitfalls of hybrid ways of working are already becoming reality. When it works well, hybrid working adapts to how people work best and engages everyone. Done poorly, hybrid places extra demands on people and frustrates everyone.

But don’t worry, you’ve been working really hard on this. You’ve got a hybrid working policy. All the procedures are in place. The comms pack is amazing. The exec team are on board. Everyone has been fully briefed. What could go wrong?

Crossing your fingers and hoping that the potential prizes of hybrid working land in your lap is a risky strategy! What many people don’t realise is that all the little things that everyone is saying and doing right now, as they embark on more hybrid ways of working, are already changing the future.

It really is NOT business as usual. As people start to work out how to operate in a hybrid environment, they are effectively changing the ground we all walk on. What’s more, there is no reverse gear. What is said cannot be unsaid. What has happened cannot unhappen.

What happens in the next days and weeks is crucial. In the flux of now, tiny changes to patterns of how people are working together and how they are talking about hybrid is already shifting the landscape of the possible. The prizes and pitfalls are becoming reality. The future potential of hybrid working is already changing. Have you noticed?

Chances are that the potential prizes and pitfalls around hybrid working are emerging together e.g. greater flexibility AND greater duplication; more choice AND more risk; more autonomy AND more bureaucracy. In a complex world, it’s rarely as simple as either/or.

Hybrid working is a complex issue. For one thing, everyone has an opinion on it. And they’re all slightly different! Furthermore, ‘hybrid working’ is entangled with deeply-held beliefs and values around choice, autonomy, fairness and so on. Knee-jerk responses are often unhelpful and can polarise people. Being in the office or out is the tip of the iceberg.

So, what can you do?

First, let’s be clear, you can’t control how hybrid working plays out. That way lies stifling bureaucracy and micro-management. And limiting the potential downside in this way also limits the potential prizes. So hybrid becomes a much-diluted version of what it could be. Is hybrid being tolerated or embraced?

Instead, we want to get on the front foot by engaging learning-informed leadership. The aim is to improve our chances of grasping emerging opportunities (more of the potential prizes) and heading off emerging issues (less of the potential pitfalls) sooner. In short, that involves:

  1. Paying close attention to learning about the nuances of how hybrid working - and talking about hybrid working - is actually playing out (I call this ‘dynamic patterning’)
  1. Using that insight to make more informed choices about how you are playing into that patterning as you interact with other people in the normal course of your everyday work (that’s leadership)
  1. Continuing to stay alive to the ongoing dynamic patterning as it reveals newly emerging issues and affords new opportunities to seize more of the prizes of hybrid working.

Hybrid working offers big prizes.

Hybrid working is full of pitfalls.

Done well, hybrid offers the best of both worlds.

Done poorly, hybrid spells double trouble.

It creates opportunities for greater flexibility, serendipity, collaboration, and innovation.

It can mean developing multiple ways of working for ‘in’ the office, ‘out’ of the office, and various permutations of both.

The organisational prize is an engaged and agile workforce.

That puts already-tired people under extra pressure.

While the individual prize is a happy blend of autonomy, connection, job satisfaction and a productive work-life balance.

And it can be even worse for managers who are both squeezed and stretched at once – creating fertile conditions for micro-management and presenteeism.


Sharon has recently written a new book, ‘Leadership in Complexity and Change’, published by De Gruyter.  There she writes in more depth about topics such as  ‘dynamic patterning’, the ‘vital signs of change’ and ‘learning informed leadership’.

Dr Sharon Varney

Sharon is Director in Practice for The Henley Forum. She also teachers the ‘Leadership of complexity and change’ module on the Henley MA Leadership. Sharon developed her leadership and change expertise working internationally as a senior manager in large organisations. Her research takes a ‘complexity science’ perspective on organisational change and its leadership.

Dr Sharon Varney

Director in Practice of The Henley Forum
Published 19 October 2021
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