Any forum on the topic of work these days inevitably comes to the question of the hybrid workplace. It’s a question that’s dominated the discourse surrounding the future of work since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. We know that the nature of work and the workplace has already changed forever, but when pressed to forecast what it will look like, the only consistent answer is that it will be different.
In some organizations and industries, of course, it will be more different than others. Sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, health care, social care, and childcare, for example, will continue to require a high degree of physical presence, so hybrid work will be far less viable. On the other hand, information industries such as IT, engineering, financial services, and media can function productively in hybrid or sometimes even in entirely remote formats (but data are contradictory anyway, with a Deloitte’s survey showing that 87% of clients were able to close deals remotely, vis-à-vis the result of a Zoom’s survey that 70% of respondents see it necessary to meet clients in person1). Moreover, people have their own individual views of hybrid, ranging from the most welcome opportunity to find a healthy work/life balance to a a hideous predicament affecting their social interaction and career opportunities. And this reveals gender differences, as well as dependence on distance between home and the office. Much as we long for the certainty of a set of guidelines that tell us in which ways hybrid work will have the most positive impact on our organizations and our people, the truth is that every organization will have to come up with a form of work that is most conducive to a healthy, productive, creative environment for everyone in the organization.
There are almost infinite variations on how hybrid work could be carried out. Remote and flexible work options can be combined and modified in various ways depending upon the needs of an organization and the people in it. But in some sense, the focus on the logistics of remote work options is simply the tip of a much more complex iceberg. The urgent push to develop new modes of hybrid work has revealed profound underlying challenges to our current conceptions of work that may have an even more profound impact on our social and professional frameworks than we have yet realized. The uncertainties we face around the way forward with hybrid work beg the question of the very nature of decision-making, of leadership, of ethics, and of trust-building, among other fundamental concerns. Good practice ought to ensure that all members of a team have equal access to being heard, when statistics show that women are more likely to be interrupted in online meetings and remote attendees are listened to less than those present in the room.
We are, around the world, collectively going through a major paradigm shift in our perspectives on work and education. How we respond to this tectonic movement will shape not only our methods and practices around hybrid work into the future, it will also inform the structures of our societies in a manner nearly as transformative as the shift from pre-digital to digital economies.
The challenge that educators ought to take onboard is to equip students to thrive in this brave new world, by: 1) integrating hybrid modes of learning and work dynamics through pedagogical innovation, and 2) preparing students to face the major paradigm shift that’s currently taking place in the world of work and in our broader societies.
Consider, for example, how the question of ethics in the workplace is affected by the advent of hybrid work. What is a “fair” way of determining who can do remote work and when? Since the industrial revolution, humankind has evaluated the value of most work primarily on the basis of hours put in. The remote work experience under the pandemic has revealed that, in most cases, this is a very poor way to measure or encourage productivity. Also, how do we determine the value of work in a hybrid, and more project-based, as opposed to time-based, work environment? These are just a few of the ethical questions that have emerged from the current shaking up of work practices. As educators, we strive to provide students with the critical apparatus necessary to participate in the ongoing debates around these questions as well as the practical skills needed to succeed in working environments where these changes are ongoing. We also engage with companies to help them develop best practice in decision-making in the new work environment.
Leadership is another area that’s being reimagined due to the shift to hybrid work models. At The University of Law Business School (ULBS) we consider the ways in which remote and hybrid working have created new perceptions of effective leadership. One of the striking observations to arise out of more than a year of video meetings is how it creates the opportunity for a more egalitarian dynamics between participants on a call, yet magnifying the risk of disparity (by gender, physical/online attendance, etc.) if the meetings are not well-managed. For leaders who embrace this egalitarian mode, though, the potential for growth and innovation is enormous. The very idea of leadership is then one in which leadership can be reimagined as a collective project, in which leaders facilitate and encourage a “tapestry” version of leadership in which everyone contributes some aspect of leadership in interwoven and mutually interdependent parts.
We have been deeply engaged at ULBS in researching and discussing the key skills necessary for students to achieve successful employability in the developing professional landscape. The result has been the creation of our “employability pyramid”, a set of key skills we have embedded throughout our academic programmes in response to the increasing demands for individuals who possess skills such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, cultural awareness, resilience, flexibility, and growth mindset. These skills are not in themselves recent innovations. As long as human beings have been telling stories, these traits have been recognized as essential to the development of character. What’s new is that employers are now recognizing these skills as the key factors that help individuals thrive and organizations succeed.
The questions raised around what will happen in a new world of hybrid work – what it will look like and how we can make it work best – have informed these larger discussions about the very nature of learning and working. The future of work will be hybrid. This is not in doubt. How it will work, what models we adopt, and its pros and cons will be determined by how we respond to the larger challenge of how we envision a future that offers the greatest fairness and opportunity to the greatest number.