Moving beyond hybrid working

Smart working expert Andy Lake talks about how we embed more flexible ways of working.

Man at laptop wearing headphones smiling hybrid working


Scarcely a day goes past now without news stories and opinion pieces about flexible or hybrid working. This week it was the turn of the 4-Day Week campaign which announced a flexible working pilot starting in September.

It’s great that it’s in the news, isn’t it? But often it feels like a case of the more you read, the less you know, with competing narratives, contradictory research and often polarised opinion.

This both reflects and feeds into the uncertainty many organisations are feeling about how best to implement flexibility, now that the genie is out of the bottle.

It’s no wonder we find some organisations are pressing the pause button on further change, and seeking simplistic solutions based around ‘two days here, three days there’. In this post, I’ll take a critical look at where are we now, then explore if there can be a clear way forward amidst the rapid change and multiple options for working practices and workplaces.

The story in 2024 so far

In the national press, we’re seeing regular stories about a backlash against working from home. As the pandemic lockdowns recede into history, it’s true that the amount of fully remote working has declined. But it’s only a small minority of organisations that are going all out for 100% in-office working.

Amongst this minority, we’ve seen some notably extreme actions put forward, such as Dell requiring office attendance as a key factor in performance reviews and promotion. By the way, that’s not working.

More common, and a core topic in the workplace industries, is discussion around ‘magnets, not mandates’ – that is, making the office so attractive it will draw people in voluntarily, rather than compelling them to turn up.

That’s going in the right direction to some extent, with a stronger focus on wellbeing and comfort within offices. But it doesn’t really address the question of why people should come into the office – it often just makes an assumption that it’s a good and necessary thing.

It’s more common to have mandates in hybrid working for part-time attendance at an office. These might be for a number of days per week, specific days, or for a percentage of time over a longer period. Of these, specifying particular days has least regard for the nature of the work tasks that people actually do. Plus it’s very inefficient for best use of the workplace. We’re also finding there’s a big focus on monitoring office occupancy. It’s entirely typical for office occupancy to be around 25% over the working week, even with all those mandates and magnets.

This is about half the pre-pandemic levels. Don’t believe any figures you see with high levels of occupancy gained from building entry data. Those provide data on throughput of people, not average occupancy. It encourages the phenomenon of ‘coffee-badging’. Swipe in, have a coffee, then go where you really want or need to be to get some proper work done!

Sensor-based systems that monitor utilisation of settings across workplaces are more useful, giving insights into how often different spaces are being used. These systems have come down a lot in price, and are becoming common in larger organisations. But I’m not yet convinced the skills or the right kind of future-focused mindset are there in most organisations to interpret the data usefully, and use to as a base for future strategy.

On the positive side, in the UK we’ve had an extension of the right to request flexible working to day 1 of an employment. And as a judge for the WM People Top Employers Awards, I have seen an increasing amount of good practice in implementing flexible working.

We’re seeing this impact smaller businesses and start-ups too, which are much more likely to be founded on a flexible basis and embed flexibility and all the benefits arising as they grow.

Research has also shown that full-time return-to-office and high-control mandates are far more common in companies founded before 2010, while those founded later are more likely to favour more flexible forms of hybrid working that allow greater autonomy for teams and individuals.

Even so, there are persistent pressures to try to nail down flexibility with regulation. This can be with good intentions, but unexpected side-effects.

For example, a European study found that when the ‘right to disconnect’ is put into legislation, many companies have responded by shutting down email and/or access to work systems ‘after working hours’. This is done out of fear of litigation by employees if they are sent messages out of hours. Yet for many people, this cuts across their freedoms to define their own working hours. And once again, it puts the focus on time and presence, rather than on managing by results.

A similar double-edged preoccupation with time worked is evident in the often confused approaches to having a four-day working week. And, of course, the big story in the world of work over the past year or so has been the maturing of generative AI – or perhaps we should say it’s entering an adolescent phase, full of possibilities, egregious errors and capacity for disruption. If the robots (in software or hardware forms) are going to take away our jobs, or at least many of the tasks involved in them, debating how many days to be in the office may be like rearranging the deckchairs as the ship goes down.

Going beyond hybrid working and embracing the future

So what should organisations be doing to navigate through the complexity of the modern world of work?

Taking a strategic approach to flexibility is all about focusing on the benefits you’re looking to achieve. This requires moving beyond a simplistic focus on where work is done, and seeking to transform work by embracing the possibilities of embedding more dynamic forms of flexibility.

This recognises the strong link between autonomy and choice and benefits such as increased engagement, improved retention and improved productivity.

It also requires a thorough and future-focused rethinking of how work can be done, rather than doing the same old work just in different locations. Or indeed of modelling virtual working on office-based assumptions and working practices, for example, with spirit-sapping online meetings rather than rethinking collaboration as a whole.

It also requires getting away from the binary thinking of people working either ‘in the workplace’ or being away from the workplace. Instead it requires seeing everywhere people can work as one ‘extended workplace’ – and then seeking improvements in both work and the work experience, in all physical locations and in the virtual workplace too.

To develop a strategic programme requires an initial evaluation of where the organisation is now in terms of its implementation of flexibility, identifying the benefits to prioritise, and the possibilities for transformative change.

Then it’s about engaging with all levels of the organisation to rethink working practices and processes. This involves a focus on the tasks people do, and how new working arrangements, new styles of workplace and more effective use of technologies can deliver benefits for the business and its customers, and for employees. It should also include seeking benefits for the environment (for example, through reduced travel and resource use) and wider society (for instance, through a wider approach to place-making when redeveloping workplaces, or possibilities for greater employment for marginalised groups).

Creating the future we wish to see

We’ve learned lessons from the pandemic, most strikingly about the possibilities for working on a more distributed basis. But there are also some lessons we need to unlearn, in particular the excessive focus on where we work rather than how we work.

Over the past four years, many organisations have improvised or adopted tactical approaches to aspects of change. Now it’s time to adopt a strategic approach. In my new book, Beyond Hybrid Working, I have many case studies across sectors of organisations that have adopted strategic approaches both before and during the pandemic.

I would say, the key message in addressing an uncertain future, is not to wait for it to happen and react after the fact. Instead we should be shaping the future we wish to see. We have the tools to do it, and organisations just need the vision and the will to make it happen.

*Andy Lake is editor of and a judge on the WM People Top Employer Awards. He is also author of Beyond Hybrid Working – A Smarter & Transformational Approach to Flexible Working, which is available here readers can get 25% off the price on the Routledge website by using the code BHW25 at the checkout. Valid until October 2024.

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