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Hybrid office tribes are here, and they’re a problem

Cryptocurrency company Koda Finance has a peculiar work culture. James Gale, the company’s CEO, says his 40-strong team treats the office as both a workplace and a lifestyle choice. “We are a very social bunch in and out the office. The Koda Whatsapp groups never sleep,” he says. When the team started splitting their time between working at home and the office in May, some of his colleagues go into the office once or twice a week, others five. But they quickly realised that some people could end up never seeing each other again. Already the company has started offering team lunches and football tournaments over fears that some people in the team may feel left out.

Like Koda, many office-based companies are moving to a hybrid model. In the US, research shows that around 70 per cent of firms, from small businesses to giant corporations like Google, Citi, and HSBC, plan to ask employees to come into the office regularly. Nine out of ten industry executives told McKinsey & Company earlier this year that their organisations will be combining remote and onsite working. However, 68 per cent of organisations have no detailed plan as to how they’ll actually do it.

Failure to prepare brings all manner of problems. Key staff become unhappy, burnt out, and leave. But the strategy of many companies to let people choose their preferred days in the office, to coincide with people they want to see in person, is also problematic. The splitting of the office in siloed days means that it also enforces a classic office trope: the workplace clique.

Once, cliques were formed at desks, split between different departments and evidenced at Christmas parties and after work drinks. Now, the causes of cliques are a little more convoluted as staff are divided between the office and home, as well as those who only work certain days of the week.

“Work tribes aren’t a new thing,” says Amy Butterworth, a psychologist and principal consultant at Timewise, a workplace consultancy. “We tend to gravitate to those with similar lives and experiences to us.”

Cliques can lead to “groupthink” and a loss of creativity, says Butterworth, but they can also open up “influence gaps” between office-based in-crowds and their more remote-based peers. These gaps can have a negative effect on diversity and inclusion, especially for carers, people with health issues, introverts, or anyone more likely to work from home. “It’s essential their voices are heard just as strongly,” says Butterworth.

A return to the office campaign can also disproportionately affect part-time workers, too. In June, Timewise published a report which found that during lockdown, half the UK’s part-time workforce either had their hours reduced or were recorded as being ‘temporarily away from work’ (furloughed). For full-time staff, it was a third. If their allocated schedules do not match with the people coming into the office, they could find themselves in a worse position still.

Timewise predicts that many part-time workers will face redundancy. “We are warning that those with caring responsibilities – predominantly women – will be forced into difficult choices between unemployment or taking jobs with longer hours they cannot sustain,” says Butterworth.

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Another big challenge with cliques is that there is a danger of creating what Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT, calls a ‘two speed organisation’: a disjointed workforce who fail to collaborate. “To quote Frankie Goes to Hollywood, we know that two tribes can very easily go to war,” says Millard.

The office tribe, explains Millard, tends to operate to a fixed block of time of 9-5, copes with more friction – commuting, desk-based collaboration – and forges relationships face-to-face.

The remote tribe, meanwhile, works in a mode Millard describes as “time confetti”. They generally start earlier, finish later, work frictionlessly and take more breaks, but their social ties tend to be weaker because the majority have been formed online. “One casualty might be the office romance, but tribalism and distrust of ‘out groups’ can cause serious damage to people’s willingness and ability to collaborate with others,” says Millard. “This is why the ability to network – both in digital and physical space – is a skill that we all need in a hybrid workplace.”

Sometimes, these divides are more about perception than reality, says Millard. “People might choose to go into the office on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday because that's when they think the boss will be in,” she says. “You might, quite quickly, become concerned about the opportunities you might be missing out on, even though that may not be the reality."

Few people see commitment and long hours outside the office, says Butterworth, so employers need to lead from the front and make invisible work visible. “The most senior people need to role model and normalise remote working in a highly visible way, and proactively review with teams how to ensure communication and interaction can be managed as inclusively as possible,” she says.

Managers also need to “skill up” and undertake training for the challenges hybrid working poses, says Butterworth. Bosses should ask themselves if people really need to coincide in person: does a matter require a full team meeting, or can it just be an email? Bosses should also prepare for meetings and decision making involving both in-office and remote colleagues, to give those dialling in a fair platform.

Employers can’t be too secretive with their inner workings either, thinks Millard. Transparency of presence, workflow and calendars is important, but that relies on bosses being willing to open up their data for all to see. “Coordination is an important aspect to productive hybrid working,” she says.

But while the back to work scramble poses challenges it also provides opportunity, especially for collaboration. Through her research, Butterworth has found that teams working entirely in the office can sometimes create some negative behaviours. “Most people in office will turn to whoever happens there that day, to bounce ideas off and ask questions that then help inform their decisions,” says Butterworth. “But they might not be the right people to ask.

Remote first organisations tend to have a more open, written culture, says Butterworth, where the work can be seen and discussed by everyone at any time. Millard agrees. “The pandemic has shown us that digital is a great leveller,” she says. “When everyone is sitting in their own virtual celebrity video square, everyone is equally visible. This suggests that the hybrid office is digital first.”

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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