Matrix for mobile success


If hybrid collaboration is to be productive, leaders and teams must consider two axes: Location and time. But there is no blueprint that works for everyone. A guide to a collaborative path forward.

We're not going back," said Hiroki Hiramatsu, global head of human resources at Japanese IT company Fujitsu, back in September 2020. "The two hours many people spend commuting is a waste of time - we can use that time more wisely, for education, training and moments with our families."

For years, Fujitsu had the topic of "flexible working" on its agenda - de facto, little had changed for years. According to an internal survey, more than 74 percent of employees in Japan considered the office the best place to work. After the first few months in the home office during the pandemic, this attitude changed radically. According to a follow-up survey of 80,000 Fujitsu employees in May, only 15 percent of employees thought the office was the best place to work. About 30 percent said the best place was their home. And the remaining 55 percent favored a mix of home office and office presence - a hybrid model.

For the past ten years, I've led the Future of Work Consortium, a group that has brought together more than 100 companies from around the world to explore future trends, identify best current practices and learn from new model experiments. Since the pandemic, I have focused our research on the extraordinary impact Covid-19 is having on the workplace. In the process, I have had extensive conversations with numerous executives. Many, like Hiramatsu, report that they have discovered a silver lining in our collective struggle to adapt to the pandemic: Given the astonishing speed at which companies have adopted virtual work and the fact that most employees don't want to return to the ways of working of the past, they see a unique opportunity to redesign work. The hybrid model will enable us to make our work lives more meaningful, productive, agile and flexible if we get it right.

However, managers will have to rethink - and do something they have not been used to doing: They need to develop hybrid work concepts that address people's concerns - not just those of companies.
The elements of hybrid working

To properly design hybrid work, it's important to consider two axes: Place and Time. Place is the axis that has received a lot of attention in recent months. Just like Fujitsu employees, millions of workers worldwide have made an abrupt shift from location-based work (in the office) to location-less work (anywhere) in the past year. Less attention has been paid to the shift along the timeline that many people have made in parallel: from time-bound work (synchronous with others) to time-unbound work (asynchronous, whenever they want).

To help managers see the two-dimensional nature of the problem, I have long used a simple 2x2 matrix built along these axes (see graphic "How work models differ by place and time"). Before Corona, most companies offered minimal flexibility with respect to either dimension. This placed them in the lower left quadrant: Employees worked at prescribed hours in a prescribed location (in the office). Some companies had begun to venture into the lower right quadrant by allowing more flexible work schedules. Others were experimenting in the upper left quadrant, offering their teams more flexibility in where they could work, which generally meant from home. Very few companies, however, moved directly into the upper right quadrant, which represents the concept of "work anywhere, anytime" - the hybrid model.

This dynamic is changing. As we slowly move past the pandemic, companies are already embracing flexible work models that can significantly increase both productivity and employee satisfaction. For this to succeed, however, managers - as my studies have shown - need to look at the challenge from four different angles: (1) tasks and activities, (2) employee preferences, (3) projects and workflows, and(4) inclusion and fairness.

1. Tasks and activities
The first thing to do is to understand the key productivity factors: Energy, Concentration, Coordination, and Cooperation. Next, we need to consider how these factors are affected by changes in work organization along the location and time axes.

To illustrate, let's look at some roles in the organization, their key tasks, and the associated demands in terms of time and place:

Strategist. In this role, concentration is a key driver of productivity. Strategic planners often need to be able to work without interruption, for extended time windows of at least three hours at a time, during which they gather market intelligence and develop business plans, for example. The axis most conducive to concentration is time - especially asynchronous time. When strategic planners no longer have to consider the schedules of others, location becomes incidental: they can then work either in their own homes or in the office.

Team leaders. Here, coordination is the key productivity driver. Managers need to provide regular and timely feedback to their team members. They need to participate in conversations and negotiations, share best practices, and guide and coach employees. The axis most likely to benefit this aspect of productivity is, again, time - but this time it must be synchronous. If this synchronicity can be arranged, location is less important in this case as well: managers can perform their coordination tasks together in the office or from the home office via platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Product innovator. The decisive factor for this role is cooperation. For this, location is the relevant axis. Innovation is stimulated by personal contact with colleagues, employees and customers who generate ideas: during brainstorming in small groups, during chance meetings in the hallway, during spontaneous informal conversations between meetings, during group sessions. This type of collaboration is facilitated by a shared place - an office or creative center that gives people a chance to get to know each other and exchange ideas in person. As a result, collaborative activities need to be synchronized and take place in a specific location. Looking ahead, however, the development of increasingly sophisticated collaboration tools is expected to make shared physical space less important.

Marketing Manager. In this role, as in most roles, perpetual energy is of great importance. Both time and place can be relevant in this regard. As we learned during the pandemic, many people find working at home empowering. Long commutes are eliminated; they can take time during the day to exercise and walk, eat healthier, and spend more time with their families.

The challenge in designing hybrid work models is not only to optimize the benefits, but also to minimize the drawbacks and identify conflicting goals. Working at home can increase energy, but it can also create isolation and make collaboration difficult. Similarly, working on a synchronized schedule can improve coordination with others, but it can also foster constant discussions and interruptions that disrupt concentration.

To counter these potential drawbacks, Hiramatsu and its team at Fujitsu have come up with an ecosystem of places. They call it Borderless Office. Aligned with the specific productivity factors of teams and their members, there are different forms of workspaces: hubs that maximize collaboration, satellites that facilitate coordination, and shared offices that enable concentration.

Fujitsu's hubs, found in many major cities, encourage cross-functional collaboration and chance meetings. They consist of comfortable, inviting open-plan offices, equipped with the latest technical equipment as required for brainstorming, team building and the joint development of new products. When Fujitsu employees want to collaborate creatively with female customers or partners, they invite them to a hub.

The company's satellites, in turn, are spaces designed to facilitate coordination within and between teams working on joint projects. They have meeting rooms where teams can come together, both physically and virtually, supported by secure networks and state-of-the-art video conferencing systems. These opportunities for coordination, especially face-to-face interaction, counteract feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Shared offices, which make up the bulk of Fujitsu's innovative space concept, are spread throughout Japan, often located in the immediate vicinity of a train station or even in the station itself. They can be used for shorter stays when employees are on business trips, or as an alternative to a home office: quiet, easily accessible, minimizing commute time. Their purpose is concentration. Shared offices are equipped with desks and Internet connections. Employees can work independently and undisturbed, take part in online meetings or continue their education online.

2. Employee preferences
How we achieve optimal productivity and performance varies and depends on personal inclinations and preferences. Always consider the preferences of your colleagues when designing hybrid work arrangements. Help them recognize and accommodate these preferences.

Imagine two strategists who have the same job in the same company. For both of them, focus is a critical factor in their performance. One of the two, Jorge, is 40 years old. He lives relatively far from the office with his family, so it takes him about two hours to get to work each day. He has a well-equipped home office, and his children attend school during the day - in this respect, it is obvious that Jorge feels most productive and is most focused when he can save on travel time and work alone at home in peace. He prefers to come into the office only once or twice a week to meet with his team.

The situation of Lillian, 28, is quite different. She lives downtown and shares a small apartment with three other people. Because of her living situation, she can't work at home without being disturbed. To be able to concentrate well, she prefers to go to the office. This is not far from her home.

Jorge and Lillian differ in another respect: their length of service. This also affects their preferences. Jorge has been with the company for eight years and has built a strong network during that time, so being in the office is less critical to his career advancement. Lillian, on the other hand, is new to her job and wants mentoring and coaching - which requires time and face-to-face contact with others in the office.
"New models of hybrid working should never replicate the mistakes of past practice - as was the case decades ago when companies started automating work processes."

Companies that are already moving toward a hybrid work environment are learning to view it from the perspective of their employees. Many of them, such as one IT company in the Future of Work Consortium, are providing survey tools to managers for better diagnostics. These help them better understand their team's personal preferences, work context and main tasks. They show them, for example, where their employees feel particularly energized, whether they have a well-equipped home office and what their needs are in terms of cooperation, coordination and concentration.

Norwegian energy company Equinor recently found a clever way to better understand its employees. It surveyed its employees about their preferences and used them to develop nine personas, to each of which it tailored different guidelines for hybrid forms of work. One of these personas is "Anna." Anna is a division manager in Oslo and has been with the company for 20 years. She has three teenage children and takes 40 minutes to get to the office by bike. Before Corona, she worked from home every other week, mainly to concentrate better. Now that her teens are homeschooling, she is often distracted while working at home. Once the pandemic is behind us and her kids are back in school, she'd like to spend two days a week in the home office to focus and three days in the office to connect with her team.

Managers looking for work models that best fit their team might consider, for example: How do "Anna's" life circumstances and preferences affect her ability to collaborate? More generally: Managers need to consider what it means when different personas work together in virtual teams. What are the risks to the safety and effectiveness of the organization in this case? How do the changes affect collaboration, leadership and culture? What might the consequences be in terms of taxes, compliance, and external reputation?

3. Projects and workflows
For hybrid work to be a success, it is also important to consider how each activity is accomplished. The supervisor of Jorge and Lillian, the two strategists mentioned earlier, must not only consider their needs and preferences, but also coordinate both of their work with that of other team members - as well as others who depend on their work and use its results. Coordination was relatively easy when all team members worked in the same office at the same time. In the era of hybrid working, things have become much more complex. I've observed leaders approach this problem in two ways.

One way is to rely much more heavily on new technologies to coordinate as employees move to more flexible work arrangements. Take Jonas, an Equinor employee: Jonas works as an engineer in Kollsnes, Norway, at a processing plant for natural gas from the North Sea. After the pandemic outbreak, plant management enabled Jonas and his team to perform some inspection tasks from home by providing them with state-of-the-art video and digital tools. These include robots that move around the plant and record detailed up-to-date visual data, which is then streamed to all team members for analysis. Thanks to this innovation, Jonas and his colleagues can now conduct very effective safety inspections remotely.

Managers at Fujitsu, on the other hand, as they experiment with new work models within the time-space matrix, are using a range of digital tools to categorize and visualize the different activities of their teams. This allows them to better assess the workload of individuals and entire groups, analyze mobile working conditions, and validate work forecasts. By evaluating movement data and information on room usage and occupancy, team leaders can also identify employees' work patterns. This helps Fujitsu managers design their workflows and projects in the best possible way.

Other companies see the problem as an opportunity to completely redesign workflows. New hybrid models should never reproduce the mistakes of past practice - as was unfortunately often the case when companies began automating work processes a few decades ago. Instead of redesigning work processes to take full advantage of new technologies, many companies simply piled them on top of existing workflows. In this way, they unintentionally retained their weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and workarounds. Often, it was years later and after painful rounds of reengineering that companies began to make the most of the new technologies.

Getting workflows right from the start is extremely important to developing efficient hybrid work arrangements. Executives at a retail bank in our research network used three critical questions to analyze and redesign workflows:

Are any team tasks redundant? When the bank's executives asked themselves this question, they realized that they had retained far too many traditional meetings in their new hybrid model. By eliminating some and making others (like status updates) asynchronous, they increased productivity.

Could any tasks be automated or delegated to people outside the team? Bank managers realized: When it came to hybrid working, the answer was simply yes in many cases. Take, for example, the process of opening an account for a high-net-worth new customer: Before Corona, the assumption was that this required face-to-face meetings and signatures from the customer. Now, thanks to the novel process introduced during the pandemic, bankers and customers alike appreciate the ease of use and value of electronic signatures.

Can we think of a new use for our workplace? Again, the answer was yes. To make their hybrid model a success, the bank's executives decided to modify the existing space to foster collaboration and creativity. They also invested more heavily in tools that enable employees to work collaboratively and effectively in their home offices.

4. Inclusion and fairness
Pay particular attention to issues of inclusion and fairness when developing hybrid operations, methods, and processes. This is critically important. After all, research shows that a sense of lack of fairness in the workplace can affect productivity, increase the risk of burnout, make collaboration difficult, and weaken employee retention.

In the past, when companies experimented with flexible work models, they typically allowed individual managers to manage the process on an ad hoc basis. This resulted in different departments and teams being granted varying degrees of flexibility and freedom. This inevitably led to accusations of unfairness. And, of course, many employees also had time- and location-dependent jobs that made hybrid working either impossible or allowed only suboptimal solutions. These workers often felt they were treated unfairly.
"When you look at tasks and activities, consider how the productivity factors central to them - energy, concentration, coordination and cooperation - are affected by changes in work organization."

An exemplary leader in inclusion and fairness is Brit Insurance, an international (re)insurance group. When the company's CEO, Matthew Wilson, and its Chief Engagement Officer, Lorraine Denny, began planning and implementing new work models in early 2020, they made a bold decision: Instead of consulting the "usual suspects" in the planning process, they randomly selected employees and colleagues from offices in the U.S., Bermuda and London and invited them to actively participate. In total, they were 10 percent of the workforce, from receptionists to senior underwriters.

Over the next six months, teams of six employees each from different departments, levels and generations worked together virtually. As a first step, they used diagnostic tools to profile and share their own work opportunities and preferences. This was followed by a series of learning modules to find out together what collaboration should look like that best meets the needs of each other and the company as a whole. Finally, they participated in a half-day virtual hackathon where they developed ideas and presented them to the CEO. The result was the "Brit Playbook," which described a few of the new ways everyone would collaborate across the company in the future.

Selina Millstam, vice president and head of talent management at Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson, recently led a similarly inclusive, inclusive project. Any new approach to work, she and the leadership team decided, would have to be rooted in the company's culture, whose key elements include "open and free communication," "empathy," and "cooperation and collaboration."

To ensure this, Millstam and her team invited employees to participate in "jam sessions" last year. These were held virtually over a 72-hour period and supported by a team of moderators, who then analyzed how the conversations unfolded. One of these jams in particular, which took place starting in late April 2020, was critical in enabling Ericsson employees to share how hybrid ways of working might impact the company's culture during the pandemic.

More than 17,000 employees from 132 countries participated in this virtual exchange. The roughly 28,000 comments from participants revealed that working during the pandemic had presented both challenges (such as the lack of social contact) and benefits (such as increased productivity thanks to fewer distractions).

Through the discussions, Ericsson's leadership gained a more nuanced picture of what issues and priorities they needed to consider when planning hybrid work models. Any change, they realized, evokes a sense of unfairness and inequity. Involving as many employees as possible in the design helps prevent negative feelings. The workforce needs to feel heard, to hear the opinions of others, and to sense that the changes are not simply the whim and sensitivities of individual managers.

So how can you move your company toward an "anywhere, anytime" model? First, define the most important tasks and activities. Identify the respective drivers of productivity and performance, and then consider which arrangements promise the greatest success. Involve employees in the process. Elicit what employees really want and need through a combination of surveys, personas and interviews. This will vary significantly from company to company - avoid presumed one-size-fits-all solutions.

Think big and creatively with the goal of eliminating duplication and unproductive elements of the status quo. Communicate openly and broadly so that every employee understands at every point in the process that hybrid working increases productivity, not decreases it. Train managers to lead hybrid teams. Invest in coordination tools that facilitate alignment within and between teams. Last but not least, consider whether your new hybrid work concepts, whatever they may be, reflect your company's values and support its culture. Take stock carefully and thoughtfully: do the changes you've made convey a perspective that everyone in the company finds attractive, fair, inspiring, and meaningful?

The author
Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and founder of HSM, a consultancy focused on the future of work. Her most recent book, co-authored with economics professor Andrew J. Scott, is titled "The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World."

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