Over the last 2 years of this new world of work, I’ve noticed that part time work is becoming much more easily accepted – its no longer so strange to ‘not be in the office that day’ or even ‘not working at that time’. As we have changed our ways of working due to COVID, more and more people are in the position of working this way – its now becoming more of a cultural norm.
In Australia, it has long been the law that if you have school age children or younger an employer must allow you to work part time ‘unless there are reasonable business grounds’ (this is in fact our legal definition of flexible working). The reality of this meant many companies technically permitted part time but individual managers, might not make it easy or comfortable. It was also common for this to be accompanied by little opportunities for pay rises and career progression . So it’s wasn’t surprising many part time workers ended up feeling like second class citizens. Finding an employer and team that genuinely supported and believed in part time was a difficult proposition. Promises made at a corporate level or at interviews didn’t always translate to reality.
Particularly when employers are finding it hard to get great employees, employers and managers might sell their company culture as being genuinely friendly and positive to part time employees when it’s only surface deep. The same is now happening with remote and hybrid work. Whilst some employers feel the power is with the employees they will “allow” hybrid (or part time or remote). For anyone looking for a company or team that genuinely believes in different ways of working – the fact they use the word ‘allow’ demonstrates straight away their true beliefs on the subject!
While part time work is now better accepted and easier to fit within the framework of a hybrid work culture, these challenges still remain, the difference is that now a larger group of employees are potentially being exposed to this attitude – will remote, hybrid or asynchronous work hurt peoples careers? Many organisations and teams are still struggling to build cultures and processes that support all these ways of working, and at the same time support employees who want to work part time too. A culture that supports these kinds of working should also easily translate to a culture that supports dispersed working over multiple geographic locations (something almost every larger or multi office company has longed to achieve) as well as asynchronous work (allowing working at different times – creating more flexibility and the ability for team members in multiple time zones to work together) Perhaps even more boldly in the future – could these cultures also support the idea of everyone working 4 days a week with the same pay for reduced hours?
What all of these kinds of working have in common is that not everyone is there is one place all the time (or at the same time). There are a couple of different challenges with all of these kinds of working.
One is the most obvious difficulties that everyone talks about is the challenge of mixed presence or hybrid video meetings. Just 10 years ago the idea that we could all communicate and meet via video this easily was possible but still incredible, using expensive meeting room based VC was still considered somewhat wow. But now people complain that hybrid meetings are not good enough. Technically this is still some way off from being solved. For now though the best solution is quite simple. All participants to have their own laptop/device cameras, and reduce reverberation by using a single microphone and choosing your room carefully. Otherwise – you are better to choose an all remote meeting. Its surprising to me to see how many people don’t seem to get this basic right and still try to cram 6 people into a room with one camera, a crappy laptop mic and poor acoustics. Then wonder why the people on the hybrid end are getting frustrated by not being able to hear and everyone is having a poor meeting experience. Get this right and for many kinds of meetings, hybrid works.
That is not to say that we should be spending our day on teams or zoom. There are many kinds of meeting that benefit from being in person. From meeting new people, to performance discussions to networking – meetings or events that require an emotional connection and are not just about facts are better conducted in person. But if possible, they are better conducted with everyone in person – not some people in one place and other people as faces on a screen. If essential these things can be done online (as we provided during lockdowns) but these are the kinds of interactions people want to come to a workplace for – regardless of if its 3 days per week, 1 or 4 times per year. People don’t want to come to the office to spend all the time sending emails or on Zoom/Teams. I think most of us accept that some of our office time on these things is inevitable but not whole days.
Regardless of if meetings are online or in person, the biggest challenge to the part time, hybrid or asynchronous worker is a lack of planning. Not just planning for meetings and on site physical presence but planning around who does what and when. If there is an assumption that everyone is always available and you can grab them anytime for input, meetings or even team social events then those that work part time have historically often been left out – both from gaining relevant information and building connections. Ad hoc is the enemy of sometimes there. Ad hoc can be good for friendships, for networking, for social media. Ad hoc and the serendipitous can be great for business relationships too. But as hoc shouldn’t be the cornerstone of how you deliver in your business. It’s not how to get a project done. Relying on ad hoc literally means you are relying on chance to get work done well. Everyone benefits when there is some level of planning and expectations are clearly set.
Planning is not just about booking meetings and all these ways of working shouldn’t mean more meetings but can in fact mean less. By planning work in different ways, you should need less meetings. Often a meeting isn’t the best way to allocate or check someones work. Meetings are best used for questions and interactions not listing tasks and deadlines or reading documents in front of someone else. Working collaboratively in documents using comments and tracking, using tools like Trello or Monday, or specialised collaborative software like Revizto or BIMtrack allow for people to allocate, comment and work together as a team regardless of if they are in the same place or working at the same time. Not all of this has to be about typing or writing either, tools like Loom allow for creating screen recordings and videos to share with colleagues. Yes, sometimes there will be some things won’t get solved as quickly as they would in a phone call or a meeting, but then a short meeting can resolve the important or misunderstood issues. Overall the time saved for everyone and people can spend more of their time focussed on getting work done.
Planning isn’t just about being organised. Its also about respecting the time of the people you work with and trusting that they will get it done. If you work in this way – you don’t need to be constantly ‘checking in’. Planning doesn’t mean that something can’t ever happen by chance, that you can’t have an ad hoc coffee with a colleague, it just means that its not the primary basis of how work gets done. Serendipitous, cross team encounters and overhead knowledge are one of the biggest challenges to overcome, and perhaps another subject for a blog post on their own sometime – although interestingly enough this old one from 2013 actually still covers most of it!
Often the complaint that “it’s easier” in person (sitting alongside this is always how we have done it) means it’s easier for the manager. It doesn’t mean it easier for the organisation or in fact that it’s either the most efficient or effective way to get things done.
Personally I think of all the emerging description for all of these different mixes of working which don’t involve 9-5 at the office, I’d choose ‘liberated work’ a terminology and concept from John Preece from Hub Australia originally in this article , with a further paper that can be downloaded here as well as frequently discussed in his Linkedin Posts. The concept of liberated work is all about choice and true flexibility not just of place but also time. At its heart success at liberated work relies on mutual trust, respect and consideration. It doesn’t matter if you work part time, hybrid or asynchronous – these all require the same ingredients to succeed. Some companies have always worked with these kind of ideals. Others will never get there. What will be interesting to see is how this plays out now that more flexible work options are the wish of many employees and not just a small minority. Will these new ways of working end up like activity based work did, with many companies claiming they offer a version of ‘hybrid’ but doing it poorly because they don’t truly believe in it?
Image Jon Tyson via Unsplash