“Hybrid” is the formula for success for post-pandemic work organization. That sounds good, simple, smart, and feasible. And yet hybrid solutions are usually doomed to fail. Why it is not enough to simply do one without abandoning the other – food for thought.
It could be so nice…
Most of the time you are happy when you see a mule – and then you feel pity: Being the product of an impulsive love affair between horse and donkey, the mule’s fate is sealed. Even if, with a little luck, they lead a peaceful and active life – they will never reproduce.
Zoology refers to mules as hybrids. In a broader sense, a hybrid represents the mixture or combination of two entities, systems, or approaches: two drive systems (hybrid cars), two political systems (the combination of federalism and national sovereignty of the European Union), two strategic approaches (the combination of price leadership and quality leadership).
Hybrid solutions come across as attractive, especially in companies, because they suggest advantages on both the content and interpersonal levels:
- In terms of content, they appear to be a win-win solution, combining the benefits of two philosophies – often adding the newer approach to the older one: “What if we offered the power and status of a big engine – and the green conscience (or tax benefit) of an electric car?”
- In interpersonal terms, they offer a seemingly smart way out of grueling decision conflicts: “Let’s just do both – let’s just be both.” In this case, they’re usually the relief-promising end to a complicated discussion in the form of a compromise: “Who’s to say we’re not smart enough to offer cheap and high-quality services?”
Unfortunately, these advantages do not necessarily last.
Combining features initially creates greater complexity – and thus potential for inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. There are more sources of error in a hybrid vehicle than in a comparable internal combustion vehicle. And resolving conflicts by simply bypassing decisions weakens the clarity of the resulting tradeoffs to the outside world. Being all things to all people makes you less recognizable.
Many hybrid solutions therefore appear inconsistent and vulnerable when tested under real-life conditions. These mules of the business world become a footnote in history.
Simply combining features to create a hybrid solution may be effective in the short term, but it is usually not sufficient in the long term. It only becomes promising in the long term when something emerges from it that is defined by the identity of the whole and not by the sum of its parts. Therefore, successful hybrids are characterized by the fact that they are no longer perceived as hybrids. They have developed an independent, reproducible identity. The hybrid ended up being an interim solution toward something new. While the cell phone of the 1990s became more and more complicated by adding more and more functions over time, today we have “smartphones.” The lines of development can be traced, but they do not define the product. This is true in biology as well as in business.
Why is this distinction important? Well, currently the demand for hybrid solutions is particularly high. The world wants climate protection AND economic success, self-fulfillment AND relationships, efficiency AND constant change. “And” is the new imperative – we seem to live in hybrid times. But for all these topics, the following is true: they require decisions, they require organization. They require effort. The great challenges of our time cannot be solved by simply combining existing solutions and then carrying on as before. They will only be mastered if they are rethought as a whole with a forward-looking approach. Consistently.
The return to the office – or maybe not? How to turn your company into a mule
With the apparent end of the pandemic, the latest hybrid is now within reach for most of us: the hybrid organization is currently the most discussed answer to the question of how work can and must be organized. But what’s behind this and how can we ensure that this will result in more than a mule?
Here’s a look back: After the offices closed, after the first few months of shock and immediate change, people did what they always do – they adapted. And as they did, they found that – whether they liked it or not – working remotely changed their perspective. Working from home gave them more autonomy, more freedom, more time to cook and spend with family – and perhaps more challenges in the form of back pain, childcare, endless video meetings and, often, loneliness. These experiences can’t be brushed aside. We’ve tasted the fruit and we like it. Simply going “back” is therefore no longer possible for most people in companies. The question of “how and where” to work demands attention.
At the same time, companies in the market also face many other challenges. And work organization as a topic is not in immediate danger of being considered “sexy” anyway. On the contrary, it has traditionally played a rather subordinate role in the perception of many decision-makers in companies – apart perhaps from production and the “invention” of coffee machines as marketable communication islands.
These are perfect conditions for selling a simple solution that is then designated as an innovation under the “hybrid” label.
The recipe for negative momentum then goes like this: as a company, you have a lot of worries right now anyway and also neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the issue of working conditions for long. In addition, you have lost a lot of control (or shine, efficiency, fun, image, etc.) during the past two years. Now, without deliberately deciding to do so, you take on one of the following three roles, for example:
- The tough guy (m/w/d): You command: “Everything back to the way it was!”, “Everyone back to the office! – or even “We’ll scrap the offices!”, “Let each team decide for itself – but it mustn’t cost anything!” Next!
- The pop star (m/w/d): You realize what’s hot right now. Now it’s time to ride this image wave: “We learned so many incredible things. It was such a liberating experience. With us, anything is possible in the future. It’s up to the individual to decide.” Next! “
- The willfully ignorant (m/w/d): You really have so many issues on your plate right now. Of course you should care about how work is done – but if you don’t earn any money, the question will soon disappear anyway. And you don’t really know how you should approach the whole thing anyway. Therefore – next!
From now on, things will start going downhill. Depending on the solution, you now have employees who may be forced to sit in their offices again, who feel bullied and deprived of recognition for their performance while working from home – “first it was great how flexible we were, now we have to be inflexible again.” Or, if you now have a completely free structure with only remote work, you are faced with the question of what each and every individual is supposed to identify with now that there is no longer a place for them to identify with. If you combine the approaches, you can also expect a number of conflicts and factionalizations, such as the office faction and the remote faction. Not to mention that there will be friction at the interfaces, and the whole thing will cost you a lot of money.
The path to something new and sustainable
The somewhat dystopian vision shown here is not meant to distract from the fact that many companies and entrepreneurs are indeed intensively searching for solutions for the future of cooperation right now. At Profil M we’re in the same position as you are.
So what can be done? How do we create something new that has the potential to grow?
One thing is a given for most companies: We must create a form of work that is determined not by “where?” but by “what for?” The “professional home” can no longer be just a place that creates identity – it must emerge in other ways. Acceptance, commitment, and creative organization are required if a sustainable solution is to be developed. At its core, it is about initiative, about leadership.
The question of the form of work will not solve itself, at least not in a good way. The result will show whether it is a product of chance or a deliberate and actively developed solution. Just as home and office don’t become a coherent unit just because you combine them into one term, the dissolution and recombination of work forms, locations, and hours will not in itself create a coherent picture.
It makes a difference if you are a company where some people sometimes work from home and others don’t – or if you are a company organized around roles and tasks rather than locations. In the former case, you simply have a disorganized mix where most likely some will get what they want while others will become frustrated. In the latter case, you’ve made the decision that the location is simply not a central part of your identity as a company. You may still have an office, you may still have people who come there regularly. But that’s the result of a discussion and decision-making process – not an accident.
How you get there? As is often the case, the right answers are preceded by the right questions. Perhaps the following three will provide inspiration for the discussion process, which you can approach in different formats and with varying degrees of participation:
- The question of identity: “Who do we want to be?” As described above, the form of work(ing together) is a basis for the perception of the company.
Look to the outside and consider the changing conditions in which you operate: what do these mean for your strategy, i.e., for your answers to where and how you want to be successful? Look to the inside and ask yourself what kind of company you want to be, what values are important to you, what is at the core of your organization.
Whatever you create must express your company’s identity – so first discuss whether you actually have an answer to this. Take time to ask this question after the question about the way you work – it seems like a detour, but makes the rest much clearer afterwards.
- The question of functionality: “What makes sense?” When you look at your interfaces and workflows, many challenges will arise when people work at different locations in the future, at least to some extent. There will be fewer chance encounters, fewer meetings with participants on site and elsewhere. So ask yourself what structure is best for your work. How can efficiency, quality, and innovation be achieved? What fosters focus, learning, and development? What form of cooperation will lead you into the future you are aiming for in terms of strategy? Start from the outcome you are aiming for and then backtrack: what processes and structures will get us there? This is a good opportunity to streamline and improve.
- The question of cost-effectiveness: “What do we want to spend?” Office premises often have longer-term leases, renovations are costly, but even a true home office solution is complex and requires resources. Therefore, create transparency about the financial impact of different solutions. Discuss options and weigh short- and medium-term benefits with the necessary investments. What signals do you want to send? What is needed?
Let’s start building
Who we are as individuals or as organizations is defined by what we do. And what we do is strongly influenced by where we do it and how we do it together as a team. This means that at the same time as recognizing that an organization is not defined by a location, we need to create a structure that replaces the location and is able to integrate and direct. The question of the organizational structure still leads to the core of every company. It is the basis on which a culture can develop. And whatever its form, it must stand the test of time. Being more independent of a location does not make it less important, it makes it more relevant.
Whatever format you choose for finding a solution, take time to explore the answers to these questions and the different perspectives before you create facts. Go into learning mode, into start mode, create space for experimentation. Because no matter how you start, you will have to learn. So be prepared for your solution not to work perfectly – or even at all.
At Profil M, we currently talk about hybrid work organization all the time. But when we do, we always keep in mind that it’s not here to stay. It will lead to a new form of cooperation that is no longer defined by locations or buildings – but by relationship and purpose. It will not be called hybrid organization, but simply good organization. What exactly will that look like? There’s only one way to find out.