Zoe Amar: How to implement hybrid working

It needs to be more than a blend of two binary states of working from the office or at home

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

If 2020 was the great remote working experiment, then 2021 is the hybrid equivalent.

According to the 2021 Charity Digital Skills Report just over two thirds of charities (68 per cent) were planning a hybrid working model.

I’ve spoken to many charities who are now juggling a mix of days in the office and working from home. It’s the biggest shake up of working habits I’ve ever seen and I wanted to find out what charities have learned so far. 

No-one has all the answers yet on hybrid working and most of the charities I spoke to were planning to test and review it. Yet there were clear themes which united their approaches. 

Firstly, you need an idea of what success looks like, which sounds counterintuitive when your ways of working are still in transition. When I spoke to Nicola Upton, chief executive of Age UK Sutton, I was struck by how her team’s new work patterns were driven by staff needs, rather than a top down approach.

Upton’s goal is that staff feel included, whether they prefer working from home or the office. She told me: "We have been really open about recognising that people have different working styles, and that hybrid is a tool to help them work effectively and comfortably."

Successful hybrid working may lead to a shift in culture, upending traditional organisational hierarchies.

Leaders will still need to lead from the top but as staff gain more autonomy they will also have to factor in how teams’ behaviour is changing at the grassroots. 

For example, Upton said she was pleased to see more junior colleagues taking initiative during the height of the pandemic, which she encouraged and reinforced.

How might your people and culture develop as hybrid working becomes embedded?

Secondly, all the charities I spoke to were open about acknowledging that hybrid working has limitations, as does every other way of working.

Andrew Broadbent, chief technology officer at Comic Relief, said he had found that hybrid meetings with up to 10 attendees work well but larger-scale hybrid meetings were more tricky. 

"When you are remote and there are, say, twenty-plus attendees in the meeting room, it’s impossible to see facial expressions," he said. "We’re considering investing in better cameras and ceiling microphones but that would be expensive."

This chimes with my experience. I was at a hybrid board meeting recently and while we made it work it would have been easier if we were kitted out with the latest technology. Yet how many charities can afford this?

Not seeing colleagues as much as you’d like to can be another frustrating element of hybrid.

Upton told me that she’d like to enable more face to face collaboration through team meetings and collaboration, but space was at a premium in her office.

One of the ways in which she aims to develop more of a collaborative culture when there are less opportunities for watercooler chat is to create opportunities for colleagues from different teams to meet, whether formally or casually. 

So how do you deal with these issues? Keep a log of all the challenges, as well as opportunities, that your charity is finding with hybrid and factor it into your review of working arrangements.

Some of the charities I spoke to were planning to review their hybrid model later in the winter and my feeling is that you could also do some shorter, monthly reviews before then, looking at what’s going well, what could be improved and what you can do before your next check in. 

Thirdly, see hybrid workig as an opportunity to celebrate how good your team have become at adapting to change.

Jan Hall, chair of Thomas’s Fund, a charity that provides music therapy to children with life limiting illnesses in Northampton, described to me how her team had to revise their ways of working repeatedly and painstakingly during the pandemic.

But this has helped them develop their creative muscles, she said.

"We have learned not to despair and give up," she told me. "There is always a solution to be found."

It’s this inner resilience and ability to innovate that we must tap into if we want to unlock the opportunities that hybrid offers. 

Going hybrid is a work in progress. To be successful, it needs to be more than a blend of two binary states of working from home or the office.

Embracing hybrid working should be liberating. It is about mixing up different combinations and styles of working to create something that is unique to your charity, guided by what helps your staff to feel motivated, productive and above all, included. 

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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