Mastering the Dynamics of Hybrid Work

Hosted by

Mervyn Dinnen

Analyst, Author, Commentator & Influencer

About this episode

HR Means Business 13: Mastering the Dynamics of Hybrid Work

Host: Mervyn Dinnen

Guest: Gary Cookson

In this episode Mervyn talks to Gary Cookson, author of the book ‘HR For Hybrid Working’ about how hybrid working is different and why HR professionals need to adapt their approaches to make sure that it works for everyone.

They discuss:

– Redesigning work to meet employees’ needs, and why we shouldn’t be led by tasks

– Importance of defining hybrid working

– Impact on organisational design

– Designing home as a co-working space

– Maintaining relationships and connectivity with team members while supporting our people


Thanks for listening! Remember to subscribe to all of the HR Happy Hour Media Network shows on your favorite podcast app!

Transcript follows:

Mervyn Dinnen 0:15
Hello, and welcome to the HR Means Business podcast, which is part of the HR Happy Hour Network. I’m your host, Mervyn Dinnen. And today I’m going to be talking to Gary Cookson, who’s somebody I’ve known for many years about a topic, which maybe doesn’t get as much coverage. And that’s hybrid working. We hear a lot. And in fact, I’ve recorded podcasts already this year around flexible working around a kind of offer, kind of the mix of going into the office, remote working. But hybrid working in itself is a very different kind of approach. Gary has written a book about hybrid working, and in fact, he’s currently researching a second book. So Gary, would you like to introduce yourself and tell people a bit about your background?

Gary Cookson 1:02
Yeah, thank you moving taxonomy on and hello to everybody who’s listening to this? Yeah, my name is Gary Cookson. And I introduced myself in in a particular way to people when when they asked me what I do, and I always say, I’m a father of four, husband of one, and I get a little bit of spare time. And in that spare time, I run my own business. And that’s because I live my life in those kinds of proportions. And in that sense of priority as well. My business is epic. And I, my work involves me working with individuals, teams, organizations all over the world, helping them to become better at whatever matters to them, which is, of course, quite a broad church. But my background is in HR, L&D, you’ve got 20 something years experience at director level in the public, private and voluntary sector. And now run my own business, which have been doing for nearly six years. And my work, as I say, will theoretically takes me all over the world. It doesn’t actually, the people who I work with, they’re based all over the world in some lovely location. But I’m usually stood here in a bedroom in my own house, which if I’m honest with you move in when I was growing up and imagining what running a global business was going to be like, this wasn’t it. But that’s the reality of the world of work that we live in the hybrid world of work. And, and hence some of my research, but I’ve been doing that for 20 odd years isn’t something that came new to me when the pandemic hit. So my first book was all trying to distill some of my experiences down about how we lead HR and l&d teams in a remote or hybrid working environment. Because that’s what I’ve always done. And in 2020, the world caught up to me.

Mervyn Dinnen 2:40
That’s, that’s good. It’s a great explanation, and it all catches up with you eventually, you know, if you’re a thought leader, the world will catch up. So I suppose the first question would be, you know, what is hybrid work? You know, how is it different? As I said, when I introduced this, we a lot of the conversation is about in the office out the office, it’s kind of, you know, remote. But I suppose for listeners, yeah. How do you define for the purpose of your research in the books? How do you define hybrid work?

Gary Cookson 3:15
Well, in books, I don’t find it sounds really strange. But we have real problems, I think you’ll agree in what it is. If you went on to say, you know, I do a lot of speeches and presentations and I images from stock image sites for my slides, and so on. And I have to find slides that represent hybrid work. If you go and search for the term hybrid working on any stock image site, you don’t get anything. That’s the problem, you don’t do anything. Because we’ve nobody really knows what it is. You get images of hybrid dogs, hybrid cars, hybrid plants, but you don’t get anything about hybrid work. Because there’s no real definition about what it is. The only way you can actually get close to understanding what it is, is by starting out, looking at what it isn’t. And that’s the only thing that’s really clear what hybrid working isn’t and it isn’t fixed time, fixed location working. Nobody likes it. If you were to do a straw poll of people listening to this podcast now and ask them if, if they like being told their work must take place at a six time fixed location. Yet hardly anybody saying yes, they like that. And so everybody agrees what they don’t want. Everybody agrees that they don’t want sick time fixed location working. And that’s the opposite of hybrid working. But then when you try and understand what it is, you get into real difficulty, because there isn’t a one size fits all approach. What you think hybrid working is Merv and what everybody else listen to this thing. So this is likely different than everybody else and different to what I think you might be. There’s no one size fits all approach to it. We all have a very personalized and Play experience and vibrant working, never has been, never could be the same for everybody. We just know what it isn’t. What it is, is very, very contextual to whoever it is that’s doing the work.

Mervyn Dinnen 5:18
That was create, I suppose, a great deal of ambiguity, shall we say, for HR for people who manage and lead teams? So what’s the I suppose what? At the beginning then if you say, to a client of yours, if you say to somebody that you’re working with about hybrid work, how do you how, how does the conversation evolve? Firstly, you have to get them to define what they believe hybrid work is for them and their business.

Gary Cookson 5:51
Ideally, yes. And sometimes they done that already. And often I will challenge the assumptions on which that definition has been built. But if they haven’t, and they wanted to start from scratch, that’s often much easier, because you can really contextualize it to the organization’s environment and the people within it. The problem is with with hybrid working, is that organizations often go with an often arbitrary split based on days of the week, two days here, three days there, or some variation that has that. And they’ve usually chosen that first. And then they try to make everything fit a particular model. But that’s not helpful. That’s putting the cart before the horse. If you start with arbitrary days of the week split, you’ve got some real challenges, then in terms of organization design, the way that people communicate with each other, the way that work flows around the organization has got to be shoehorned into that particular approach. Whereas if you started by examining that flow of work, and the the organization design and the principles on which the organization is built, you do that first, you then get to a point that you realize what the best and most appropriate hybrid working model is. That might be who days here, three days there, if you get to that point, that’s your endpoint, not your start point. So sometimes I find with my clients, they’ve got it back to front. And I have to challenge them quite a lot. So to unpick, why did you come up with two days here? Three is that what’s the science behind that? What’s the analysis? And often, there’s not? So there’s real problems with with organizations in that they’ve they’ve not just started with the end in mind, they’ve gone straight to the end, without doing all the hard work first.

Mervyn Dinnen 7:42
Is that led by individuals employees? Is it because they don’t really know what they want? I mean, what, as an employee, I suppose that you’ve said you can’t really define what hybrid work is because it’s different for different people. And for some people, it will be hours and time. I suppose for some it will be days for some it’ll be location. For some it will get a mix. But obviously, that there are a number of people in in the workforce who have other outside responsibilities, you know, carers are being childcare be caring for the elderly. So is hybrid work ever definable as to what it is? Or is it just? What is it the way the individual feels they can achieve the results they need to achieve?

Gary Cookson 8:30
It’s not definable. But I also think we don’t need to try to define it. What how would we define work. So if we leave off the label hybrid and talk about work, there’s no universal agreement on what work means. And we don’t try to make it so either. Because every job is different, every task is different. The way individuals do it, the way they think the way they act, the way they communicate, is all different. If you went on to those stock image sites and put in work, you get a myriad of different definitions of images that represent work. Why should hybrid work be any different? Why do we feel that when we’re trying to do hybrid, we have to land on a rigid one size fits all model? When if we just took away the labor hybrid and tried to design work, we would realize we couldn’t. It is different for all the reasons you say people have different needs and demands on their time and different outside work responsibilities. And what we’re doing now with remote and hybrid working is recognizing that some of that work, maybe all of it can be done in a different location that people don’t need to be all their time hole located physically close to other people. The technology is there to enable that to be grown at different time, different locations, and it’s changing the nature of what work is and it’s changing the dynamic because the the employment relationship as well. It’s a very personalized approach now that we have because even if you and I are moving we might do the same job. And if we’re co located, we might sit next to each other doing that same job. Or if we’ve got an element of remote and hybrid working, but some days of our week, we’re doing that same job in a different location with different equipment and different environment around us. Because we don’t live in the same house. And you know, that might be advantageous to lots of reasons, but we don’t. And therefore, your values and the way you approach your work, when you’re not in the office is going to be different than mine. And therefore, we have to build something that reflects that. And currently, organizations are not really doing that.

Mervyn Dinnen 10:43
What would you say is the big mistake? All that I suppose the two or three big mistakes they make at the start? who say they’re not doing that at the moment? And how are they how are they starting on the wrong path, shall we say?

Gary Cookson 10:57
Well, often they start the wrong path by going with the arbitrary days of the week split and thinking that that is doing people save it, it sounds really good, isn’t it? Two days in the office three days at home or the other way around? It sounds like you’re doing people a favor. But that isn’t hybrid work. And that is flexible work in which is something else, what you’ve got, there is some people working at home for some of their days of the week, and in the office for the rest. That’s it. That’s not hybrid working, though, that’s the most common mistake is you start with that principle. What you do need to start with where you can avoid the mistakes is being led by the tasks themselves. Think about your job description, your job description has got a dozen or more tasks on it that you perform on a regular basis, probably not all the tasks, but certainly the big ones are there, we need to look at each one of those, we need to look at whether those tasks individually need to be done at a fixed time or fixed location and work out the balance of the overall job. Now much of that needs to be done in a fixed time fixed location, and which bits go, then we’ll be able to see for that person doing that job, what percentage of their time they must be on site, and what percentage they’ve got some wriggle room about to do something else with what once you get it for one job, you can then do it for the next and you build up job by job team by team department by department until you know what the approach is for the whole organization, or your debt is a different model, different approach and hybrid working for each job. Because the tasks being done, and the individual doing them are different, you’ve got something that will work, you’ve got something that will be reflective of how the work is done. And if you wanted to try and standardize that, then across the organization with that, two days here three days here, there could at that point, by changing the tasks themselves in the way the tasks are done. So this is job redesign this huge job crafting moving processes from one person to another, or automating them, or outsourcing them, or looking for ways to do them in different ways. And it’s redesigning work itself, so that we can get something that matches the way the individual wants to live their life and do their work.

Mervyn Dinnen 13:20
That’s, that’s interesting. It’s a whole different, as you say, approach and maybe a way of looking at things. And you’re right, we historically and I guess I say I guess I suppose for a lot of this, we are looking at kind of knowledge work office based work as opposed to I suppose manual work, shall we say? But having said that, I mean, are we at a time when you know this, this kind of approach will go or will be adopted outside of the, I suppose the most obvious sectors?

Gary Cookson 13:53
Yeah, I think so it’s obviously lends itself better to knowledge work. But if you think about the disruption we’re facing in, in work through things like artificial intelligence and, and automation of lots of different things, it will open up possibilities to do the tasks in different ways to lots of jobs at the moment that how not to do hybrid work involve either float, work with another person, so bearing type jobs, or they involve using machinery or moving things about physically. Now, some of those things will be disrupted by artificial intelligence in the future, and there is your opportunity to actually redesign some of that job, so that some of it has more flexibility than it riously had. That doesn’t mean you have to go and work at home. To do that those tasks are now successful. It means they could or it means they can be done at different times of the day or the week it opens up more possibilities that get hybrid working into every single job as opposed to a blanket No, you can’t do it because you My job involves moving this box from there to there. Well, eventually, there’ll be a robot that can do that. So what do you do in the intervening time? And where and when do you do that? There’s opportunities come in for every single job.

Mervyn Dinnen 15:13
What’s, what would you say from the research you’ve done, I suppose is the impact on individuals, because work for some is obviously, I mean, we talk all the time. And I’m, I’ve written and talked a lot about, you know, employee experience and things like that, did it which was really as an employee experiences worker experience. But in terms of the future, how does it impact things like that? Also, I’m thinking of connectivity in the workplace, the relationships that you build up with individuals, younger or more recent entrants to the workplace, sometimes how they pick up that necessary knowledge is from working with people, other people around them. So how is it impacting the I suppose the relationship and connection side of work.

Gary Cookson 16:02
It is definitely impacting those things and and it will. But it’s been left to chance with a lot of organizations and there is that that’s the nub of the issue really, is that you shouldn’t leave such things to chance, because if you do, then you might succeed. But it’s more through luck than judgment, mostly though, you’ll fail. And those things that you mentioned are suffer because you’re leaving things to chance, you have to be intentional about those things, you have to consciously deliberately design opportunities for that mentoring or the learning by watching others to take place or the relationship building, if you just let people do as they want, and come in and not come in whenever they want to, without any structure. So that then naturally, yes, relationships will deteriorate and naturally collaboration will suffer. And organizational culture will deteriorate as well. What if you craft the right opportunities for people to come in and do something with other people, whether that’s a new entrant spending time watching somebody who had commented on a certain data, so they do as well, and then somebody else comes in the next day, and that person watches them. And there’s more structured relationship building and mentoring opportunities and collaboration opportunities, and get togethers and socialization. If you do all those things on purpose, you will succeed. If you leave it to chance, you’ve no chance.

Mervyn Dinnen 17:28
So how would you define the role, I suppose of people working in HR, what what is their? I wouldn’t say relationship with this. But I mean, what are their responsibilities for enabling all of this to happen?

Gary Cookson 17:44
Well, I can recommend a good book that covers this in in a lot more detail than I can cover here.

Mervyn Dinnen 17:50
And let’s get the advert in. What’s that book called?

Gary Cookson 17:54
The book is called HR for Hybrid Work. And it’s available for from all good booksellers, including Amazon and lots of other places. And and it covers the HR role and what’s changed in in hybrid work, and how does that impact what we do when we’re bringing people into an organization? And how do we integrate them successfully into it, it changes the way that we manage performance as well. So it talks about how we need to give managers Guidance on Managing buy outcomes, as opposed to import, it talks to about the importance of noticing how people are feeling when you’re not co located with them and checking in with them in different ways, changes the HR role there also changes l&d And how we provide learning how we create learning opportunities for people. So the book covers a lot of things like that in a lot more detail. Well, the HR role has changed a lot. Because of this, we have to be comfortable, not having close physical proximity to all our stakeholders anymore, and therefore interacting with them in different ways, and encouraging them to interact in different ways. This that skill sets come to the fore at that point and some of the things I’ve been talking about a leanness towards an OD organization design or development skill set, being really critical to be in a successful people practitioner in the future. And I think that’s really important. We’ve got to navigate our organizations through this change, we’ve got to graph organization, build them up in different ways than we’ve ever done before. We’ve got to have the right skill set to be able to do that. So I think there’s a real challenge for people professionals to upskill on od books still on change management upskill on coaching and mentoring and things like that.

Mervyn Dinnen 19:40
Okay. One of the things when when we’ve had a chat in the past that was interesting to me was the concept of homeless being effectively a co working space. So you’ve got two three could be four people, depending on I suppose age ranges in the fire. money. Or if you’re renting, as I’ve given example, before the property opposite, where I’m sitting now where I live, five people flatshare, and they all work and they all work from home a lot of the time. So it’s home as co working space. And and the, I know, the concept you and I’ve spoken before is about, you’ve got three or four people, different people working in this home co working space, you’ve got three or four different employers who’ve got three or four different priorities. So how does that impact? I suppose what you’re seeing on hybrid working, what, how do you make that work?

Gary Cookson 20:42
Well, and make it impossible for some people and the example you give the flat opposite you where there’s five people, it might be that there just isn’t the space for them or to work from home on the same day, when it may be impossible for them to coordinate that successfully. So for those people, and many others who haven’t got the right environment at home to do it, I will work in is not something that they can necessarily do successfully in the home. And that means we have to give them a space to do the type of work they would do at home, or on site in the office. So right now I’m hearing it in a bedroom, it’s set up for me to work on solo stuff focused work. And your study looks very similar. where nobody’s going to find you, nobody’s going to interrupt you, you can get stuff born without fear of anybody coming in saying to just have a word, you need to have those kinds of spaces in the workplace as well. Let people who would like to do this type of stuff at home, but haven’t got the right home space to do it. Workplace. For other people where there is much more flexibility about your homework in space, you’ve got to almost re in your household, how things are gone. Now, there’s just me and my wife in this household. But that’s tricky enough when when we both work at home, because there are certain spaces in our house that are good for certain things. I’m here in a bedroom right now. And it’s got the best technical setup in the whole house. And it’s good for lighting, it’s good for audio, it’s good for internet connections. So when I need something need to do something that requires me to have top notch bits of those, I’ve got to be in this particular room to do it. No other room in the house. What if my wife needs those things, we’ve only got one space in the house where that can happen. And we have to come to some kind of agreement who’s going to say we’d fight over it. But that sounds more dramatic than it is we have to come to some agreement about who uses which bits of debt and which spaces are into which tasks we’re doing.

Gary Cookson 22:50
We also have to be mindful of things like interruptions, so there might be a knock on the door. And what if we’re both on a call like you and I are on right now we can’t go to the door. So we have to make sure if we’re scheduling deliveries, we talk to the other people about whether that person can collect the delivery, or can answer the door to whoever might arrive. We’ve got issues around bandwidth on on our Wi Fi, and it ebbs and flows through the day like many people’s well. But if we’re both doing things that require big uploads, like video calls, so upload speed is quite important for those. That can be a real issue. download speed tends not to be an issue, but offload tends to be an issue for both on video calls, then we’ve got things like household chores, this sounds quite a domestic thing. But if your house is your workplace, when you’re both working for the majority of the day, who does things like when the washing out and emptying the dishwasher? And when did those things? So it’s almost like in you need to have an agreement? How are you going to manage the the integration of work and lights, school runs and other issue we have to coordinate those a bit more, with a bit more thought than we ever have. And then the issue of confidentiality as well, my wife and I both work from laptops, and we can be sat next to each other of the kitchen table or on our on our sofa. And we can see what the other person is working on and that board lead to client confidentiality issues. And therefore we need to have an agreement about how we’re going to manage that type of stuff. Now that doesn’t mean writing it down. Because I think if you write some of those things down, it takes away some of the magic of how it makes a relationship work. But we certainly need to discuss it we certainly need to talk about those issues. And the more hybrid workers that may be in a particular household, the more important there will be to reach agreement and all of those things, because again, if you leave it to chance, it could go badly wrong.

Mervyn Dinnen 24:55
So what would you say is hrs role in this. What you’ve described just now is very much, you know, 2, 3, 4, it could be individuals in a home space or working space. And that’s, I suppose away some of the things that you were talking about there, but in some respects has nothing to do with with HR in your employer or your your manager or team leader. So what should the employer I mean, does HR need to understand everybody’s working arrangements or is it just is it just results oriented, and as long as the reason.

Gary Cookson 25:37
I think we do need to understand everybody’s working arrangements, not suddenly, when we in HR need to, but certainly the person’s manager needs to, because the person’s manager needs to be comfortable that the environment around each individual is the right one the most conducive one for the tasks been undertaken. That doesn’t mean to say they need to do a home visit or the need the the nuances of all that, but they need to feel confident that the individual has got the right setup, the right environment, the right support around them. And we in HR, we need to be swamped in managers to have those kinds of conversations, much like if somebody were coming on site into the office, we wouldn’t just leave them to fend for themselves that making sure that they had a desk that had a laptop that had a connection, that they had all the different things they needed, and knew all the different policies that are important to to operate the workplace, you wouldn’t leave that to chance. So why do we think we should when we let them go home? We can’t?

Mervyn Dinnen 26:38
Well, this has been a fascinating chat, that you’ve you’ve raised a lot of things that I’ve never thought of, because I just talked about, you know, remote, flexible, hybrid, a synchronous working has been one thing, but of course it’s not. And the I suppose it’s an ever evolving, it will be an ever evolving topic. Yes. As more more people who come into the workplace will want this flexibility in how when and where they work and how they approach it. So the I suppose to wrap up, I mean, if if, if, hopefully there are HR professionals there or our managers leaders, listening to this podcast, what would you say the first two or three things that they need to do if they think I’ve never thought about any of this before?

Gary Cookson 27:30
And I’ll have to say one of those could be buy and read my book. Okay. Yeah,

Mervyn Dinnen 27:34
We shall mention again, Gary’s book, which is HR for Hybrid Working. And that’s obviously a great place to start.

Gary Cookson 27:46
Aaside from that? Yes, yeah, the first talk to people things, talk to people, it’s so critical. Yeah, talk to people talk to as many people in the organization as you can, about the way they want to work, the tasks that they are doing, and how they’re doing those tasks, and build a picture of how work is currently being done. And then figure out whether anything at all needs to change about that, in order to make hybrid working works, chances are quite a lot needs to change, but until you’ve spoken to people you don’t know. So consultation and engagement at the outset is the most critical thing to do. Don’t be led by the arbitrary days of the week split, because that’s dumping many, many steps ahead. So think carefully about it.

Mervyn Dinnen 28:34
Okay, Gary, there’s lots to ponder on from our chat today. And how can if people want to know more other than buying your book, how can they contact you? What are your contact me on?

Gary Cookson 28:48
Yeah, well, my website is You can find me on LinkedIn as well. I’m Gary Cookson and you can find me on Twitter, Threads, and Instagram, as at Gary underscore Cookson.

Mervyn Dinnen 29:02
Okay, Gary, it has been a pleasure to talk to you, as always, and thank you for your time. Thanks.

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