Best of Both Worlds or Confusion? “Hybridizing” Needed to Juggle Back and Forth Home-Office Working
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
My colleagues and I recently returned part-time to the office. We are working from there and at home, on a schedule, as there are too many of us to be there all at the same time whilst maintaining social distancing.
Juggling between working from home one day, and then working in the office the next, is challenging. It calls for new ‘hybridizing’ skills.
Challenges of an office return
There are wonderful aspects about getting back into the office - having meetings with actual whole human beings who never have to unmute themselves, as just one example. But, as predicted in my “Four F’s to facilitate re-entry” blog, there’s a bit of reverse culture shock happening. It’s not quite as lovely going back to the office as I was anticipating. Some of my challenges:
· Costs of looking presentable.
Ironing clothes, hair drying, and wearing actual shoes are a pain, but you can’t turn up to work in Ugg boots.
· Lost time.
I’m losing 45 minutes each morning due to ‘looking presentable’ above and commuting, then another 30 minutes getting home.
Losing time creates stress!
· Vibe issues.
There are not many people in the office yet partly because of social distancing restrictions, partly through people’s own choices. The office is not the culture it was.
· Missing person issues.
It’s not clear who will be in, and who won’t, on any particular day, so popping down to chat to a specific person is a hit-and-miss endeavour.
· Mixed mode confusion.
It's confusing figuring out how to cater to people at home and people in the office. For example, do you share screens with people sitting around a table? Do you look at the person on zoom or the people in person around the table? How do you run a seminar for people in the office and on teleconference?
It's worthwhile learning how to work from the office and from home
Despite the challenges of getting back into the office, it is worth persisting in figuring out how to get back into this routine. This is because the office is the best way to interact effectively with coworkers.
A meta-analysis of 46 remote working studies shows that remote working tends to have small but overall beneficial effects in terms of higher task performance, greater job satisfaction, lower turnover intention, and less role stress. But this study also showed that if the remote working is too intense (more than 2.5 days a week) it harms relationships with co-workers.
In a nutshell, working at – home and at the office – is likely to be optimal for most workers' well-being and performance.
How do we get the best of both worlds?
Here are five tips for hybridizing.
1. Get properly set up in both locations.
The first week I was back in the office was messy because I wasn’t set up properly (having previously raided my office for screens, chair, etc. for home working). That led to the shuffle of things from one location to the other, with the effect of not being properly set up in either, as well as repeated forgetting of power cords, cables, or other essentials.
Just as we all had to invest in setting up when we started work from home, we need to now set up properly at home and at work.
Ideally, we'd have nothing more to transport between the two locations than a laptop, with decent ergonomic setups in both places.
2. Maintain the boundary management strategies you have (hopefully) been successfully using while working from home.
People have different strategies for managing the home-work boundary. Some people are ‘integrators’, which means you don’t mind work and family/life aspects blurring together  . For example, you might talk with your partner about work and share family stories about co-workers.
Segmentors, in contrast, like to keep work and family/outside lives separate, which makes transitions between roles more challenging, but also maintains boundaries. In fact, research shows that for many people, segmenting work and family reduces the conflict between these domains and enhances the balance  . This means that most people will be more effective when they segment work from family/life. The key to keeping these aspects separate is through creating and maintaining boundaries.
In the context of working from home – which is where the issues of home-work blurring can be most challenging - I discussed some separation strategies in the "getting dressed" blog, such as doing your work at home in a designated place and getting dressed each morning in ‘work’ clothes to get in a work mindset.
My observation of myself these past few weeks since returning part-time to the office, has been that some of my own separation strategies collapsed during my remote working.
Because I was “only going to be at home one day in the week”, I didn’t go out to my office in the garden gazebo (where everything is set up) but instead, worked on the couch in the lounge-room with my laptop on my knees. This was a disaster, not just for my back, but also for my focus.
So, if you had successful boundary management strategies in place, keep them going in both locations.
3. Be strategic about what tasks you do where.
We’ve lamented frequently during this time the impoverished communication that occurs when remote working. Even collaborative communication technologies like Zoom are more challenging for interpersonally complex work, compared to face to face communication. Face to face meetings in the office are likely to be the best option if your tasks involve collaborating.
On the other hand, free from the temptation of colleagues to chat with, working from home can be less distracting.
So a simple rule of thumb might be: office = collaboration tasks; home = concentration tasks.
But of course, what works best where will also depend on you and your situation. If you have an office to yourself at work, maybe concentration is just as good in the office (or even better, if you have small children at home!).
The point is that you should take the time to plan what sort of tasks you are best able to achieve at home. Then take control of your diary as much as possible to match up the tasks with your working environment.
4. Do your bit to make the work office “worth” coming into.
As we move forward, if flexibility becomes more prominent (as many have predicted), we will need to give more attention to the question workers might ask as to “why should I bother to go in to the office?”. In other words, given the extra effort to get to the office, we need to make sure it is worth it!
This means all of us creating opportunities for socially interacting with each other, having interesting seminars or discussion sessions, or other forms of rich interpersonal connection. It’s not just down to managers, although of course, they play an important role. All of us are responsible for making the office a place we want to be.
5. Learn to handle mixed modes of communication.
With people working flexibly, we have the situation of some people being at home and some people being in the office for meetings, seminars, and other such activities. We need to invest some time to set up and learn how to communicate effectively with these mixed modes.
When there is one person working remotely and everyone else is in the office, sometimes, the person on Zoom gets pretty much forgotten about, except at the end of the meeting perhaps, when everyone remembers him or her and asks if they have something to say. On other occasions - and just as problematic - everyone focuses completely on the person on zoom (speaking loudly and looking just at that person), and the meeting is stilted and the spontaneous conversation is lost.
Similar challenges apply to running seminars. Instead of having everyone in the office watching a live seminar via zoom, we need to get more adept at live streaming (or something!) to maintain the benefits of being face to face, yet it is also a meaningful experience for online attendees.
Right now, our ‘home one day’ and ‘in the office the next’ is a necessity to cope with COVID. In the future, hopefully, this form of hybrid working will become a more prevalent choice as more organizations embrace flexibility.
So, even if things might feel a bit all over the place as we adjust to the mixed model, in the long term, it might just bring us the best of both worlds.
It’s worth learning how to hybridize well.
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