In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream! Five ways to avoid alienating a hybrid workforce

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The problem with selling a horror movie is trying to make sure it gets as much publicity as possible without giving away the scary bits. This was the challenge faced by film producer Ridley Scott when promoting his 1979 sci-fi horror movie, Alien.

As everyone knows, the star of Alien isn’t Sigourney Weaver; it’s the alien. Scott was determined that the monster’s big screen debut had to be as dramatic as possible. But he also knew that should images of the alien leak out before the launch, the film’s shock value with audiences would fizzle away. A plan was therefore “hatched” where the film posters would show an egg-like sphere breaking open, emitting a strange yellow glow. Beneath it would be a short tagline, carefully worded to reflect the film’s themes of loneliness, isolation and fear: 


It worked. Interest in the film rocketed. Today, Alien is ranked 33rd greatest film of all time and those eight words have become one of the most famous taglines in movie history.

Hyper-travel forward by forty-two years and like the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, work crews are again preparing to voyage into space – in this case, cyberspace. For these are the millions of new hybrid workers who from now on will be spending large parts of their careers working between home and office.  

So far, the signs look good. Microsoft estimates that up to 70 per cent of office workers would welcome more flexible hybrid working arrangements. Managers too are generally enthusiastic. Almost seven out of 10 senior staff are currently making changes to offices to accommodate hybrid workers. As JP Morgan Chase’s chief executive Jamie Dimon, told the FT: 

“As a result, for every 100 employees, we may need seats for only 60 on average. This will significantly reduce our need for real estate.”

Other banks are heading in a similar direction. Both Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC envisage their office footprints shrinking by 20 and 40 per cent respectively.

But although hybrid working is likely to generate numerous opportunities and benefits, it’s also likely to bring new challenges. If not addressed, like acidic gunge from a space monster’s maw, loneliness, isolation and fear could ooze in, transforming once-thriving workplaces into alien landscapes.

Somewhere versus anywhere

In many organisations, hybrid working overturns decades of workplace traditions. The idea that work takes place “somewhere” and between designated hours, is deeply engraved in our work psyches, leading to things like city centres, job descriptions, business suits, commuting, multi-storey car parks, annual leave and bank holidays. 

But even before the pandemic, this idea was being challenged by the realisation that with a laptop and Wi-Fi, work can take place not “somewhere,” but “anywhere.”

More than eight-out-of-ten jobs in the UK now involve the use of computers. From a technical perspective, it’s possible that the majority of these are likely to be suitable for some degree of hybrid working.

This doesn’t mean that offices are no longer needed. Employers remain undecided about what might be gained, and lost, by the new way of working. Innovation and creativity in particular may be hard to replicate when teams are dividing their time between home and offices.

What is clear, however, is just because businesses have spent the past year and a half working remotely, it doesn’t mean that the move to hybrid will be hassle-free. Hybrid represents one of the biggest shifts in the world of work since the rise of Information Technology in the 1990s. Kristi Woolsey, an associate director at Boston Consulting Group, says: “A lot of people assume that because we know how to work together, we know how to work apart, then we can do hybrid. But hybrid is a third way. It’s incredibly difficult to do. This is the problem everyone will have to solve post Covid. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be different.”

Below are the five biggest challenges to hybrid working along with tips for how they can be tackled.  

1.     What’s the vision?

While businesses remain focused on the short term, few as yet have a longer-term vision about how they want hybrid working to develop in their organisations. As the pandemic recedes, now is the time to engage with employees, customers and stakeholders to develop the organisation’s vision for the future of hybrid working. As yourself: what is the long-term vision for hybrid working and what will success look like? If you don’t know where you’re going, chances are, you’ll end up somewhere else.

Tip: When discussing hybrid working with employees, don’t just focus on the what and how: make sure to talk about WHY it’s important to the organisation and what success will look like. 

2.     FOMO

In any organisation, the biggest threat to hybrid working is “FOMO” – the Fear of Missing Out. We’re all susceptible to FOMO: if not tackled, it gnaws away, convincing us that everyone else is having a fantastic time, while, for some reason, you alone are being frozen out. FOMO increases when some employees work from home while others remain in the office. If left alone, FOMO can cause a downward cycle of self-limiting thoughts. Being ultimately about power and one’s proximity to it, FOMO is as important today as it was in the court of Henry VIII. If those with the power are back in the office, be assured, it won’t be long before everyone else is.

Tip: To diffuse FOMO, hybrid working needs organisation-wide commitment involving as many levels of workers as possible – including the C-suite.  

3.     JOMO

JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out – is Jekyll to FOMO’s Hyde. Employees skilled in the arts of JOMO can view hybrid working as a perfect get out clause from the sort of routine transactional activities that keep organisations running but which lack glamour, status or reward. Although studies suggest that hybrid workers actually work longer and harder than those in the office, for the sake of team cohesion, it’s essential that routine activities are evenly distributed.

Tip: Hybrid working doesn’t mean a get-out clause for avoiding tasks that can only be carried out in person, on-site. To avoid tensions, managers need to be clear about what these tasks are and make sure they are distributed evenly across the team.

4.     ‘Netpotism’

In lockdown, businesses became increasingly reliant on personal networks and word of mouth recommendations. ‘Netpotism’ or recruiting those from one’s own social media network is a major barrier to equality and diversity. As could working from home. Home working offers many benefits, especially for those with family commitments. There is a risk, however, that if unmanaged, it could limit an employee’s access to key networks and new career opportunities.

Tip: No one yet knows what impact hybrid working will have on careers, particularly those from under-represented groups. Listen to your employees and gauge their experiences – particularly new parents and those from minorities and disabled groups.

5.     Evaluating hybrid

Learning from any new innovation or experiment requires careful evaluation, which, if it’s to be effective, needs to be designed as early as possible. Particularly important is listening to customers and other key stakeholders – since the move to hybrid, have they noticed an improvement in customer service or have certain aspects of the service slipped? What are the key touchpoints when customers expect to deal in person with a member of staff? How are levels of engagement among staff themselves? Compared to those on-site, are hybrid more or less motivated?

Tip: Devising and implementing an evaluation process is the best way of finding out how hybrid is working in your business. Best of all, it gives you a rigorous framework for listening to your employees as they get used to a new way of working. As the saying goes, ‘Your customers will never be any happier than your staff’, and this includes your hybrid workers.