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Sharon Varney

space for learning ltd


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HR’s biggest organisation design challenge

Stop treating hybrid working as a policy change when it's our top organisation design challenge.

What’s the biggest organisation design challenge facing HR right now? You’ve got it, it’s hybrid working. 

So, here’s another question. What’s the biggest organisation design opportunity facing HR right now? Right again, it’s hybrid working.

Start thinking about hybrid working as an organisation design challenge, rather than an HR policy or a management challenge.

Why is it a design challenge? 

Hybrid working is a little label. But it invites some fundamental questions about how we organise work. If you’re embracing hybrid working in any way, such as through new policies or practices, you are effectively re-designing how the organisation works. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

Most organisations are still in flux. People are experimenting with various patterns and practices of hybrid, and that is a good thing. We are stepping into complex new territory here, with many prizes to grasp and pitfalls to avoid.

Why bother? 

The world we live and work in will continue to surprise us and we need to be ready for this.

Hybrid working is not just about individual flexibility, it also offers valuable opportunities to design adaptability into your organisation. In a volatile and changing world, that is gold dust! 

The questions raised by hybrid working, such as where, when and how we work, are pretty fundamental. And they open the door for new ways of working that enable greater adaptability.

Are you up for the challenge?

I hope so! As good organisation designers know, if you change one thing, you potentially change everything. So, a change in strategic direction, for example, is often accompanied by a look at staffing, capabilities, formal structures, cultural patterns, ways of working, rewards, and so on.

It is vital to start thinking about hybrid working as an organisation design challenge, rather than an HR policy or a management challenge.

Here’s how.

Essential organisation design questions

Organisation design thinking raises important questions that many organisations are already bumping into. For example, who is hybrid for? And how does it enable organisational strategy?  

Who is hybrid for?

Design thinking starts with the customer or end user needs in mind. But who is the customer in hybrid working, and what are their needs? This is more complex than it first sounds.

Is the customer those managers who are asking HR for hybrid working policies? Or is it wider than that? You might think that the customer is ‘employees’, but there will be a wide range of needs in that large group. So, a key challenge is to understand the variety of customer needs and to balance them.

Maybe the real customers here are the people who buy or use the services and products that your organisation offers. How does – and, more importantly,  how could – hybrid working practices enable your organisation to better deliver value to end users? 

Organisation design is a process of making choices. There are always balances to be struck.

How can hybrid working deliver strategic value?

We know that offering flexible patterns of working can help in attracting, retaining and engaging valuable knowledge workers. It can also open up precious new talent pools.

But let’s now think beyond the employee value proposition. How can hybrid enable your strategic goals? For example, how could internal flexibility help you increase customer retention? Or how could you improve productivity with cross-functional teams? 

But why stop there! How about considering what new strategic possibilities are now available through hybrid working. Where is there valuable organisational adaptability, for example?

What else needs to change?

As you adapt patterns of working to include a wider range of hybrid and flexible working opportunities, think about what else needs to adapt.

Most people think about physical and technological infrastructure. But organisation design looks more broadly.

Think about your cultural norms, capabilities and management styles, for example. Are they helping you to make the most of hybrid working? How are key systems and processes, rewards and structures aligned to help you realise the benefits of hybrid working? How well do they support what you are trying to achieve?

It’s a reminder that hybrid working isn’t just a policy issue. It signifies a set of design choices that will have ripple effects and must be considered in the round.

One killer question

Organisation design is a process of making choices. There are always balances to be struck. For example, some design choices might be good at making levels of authority crystal clear, others might be better at supporting innovation. Which do you want? Of course, you want both.

There is a killer organisation design question at the heart of hybrid working. How will you balance flexibility and coordination? It is easy to get one or the other, but organisations need both. 

Taking a policy route to implement hybrid working, such as a number of days ‘in the office’, can lead to compromises that give too little of each. That’s a lose-lose. What we need is a win-win.

Balancing flexibility and coordination

There is no optimum balance of flexibility and coordination. It will be different for every organisation. There is no one route to get there as everyone starts from a unique place. 

You will need to find the right balance of flexibility and coordination for your context. In your quest to do that, here are some questions you might find useful.

  • Patterns and practices. Where, when and how is this already working? What are the conditions that are enabling it to work here? What skills, resources, capabilities and human qualities are making it possible?

  • Autonomy, empowerment and governance. Who gets to choose what, based on what?

  • Equality, diversity, inclusion and talent. Whose needs are being served? What EDI opportunities and risks are arising in shifting working patterns? 

  • Coordination and collaboration. What mechanisms and practices support coordination and collaboration? What role does management play? How could that change?

  • Learning and adaptation. How will you share learning and adapt hybrid working practices to meet changing conditions and expectations?

HR’s key role

Hybrid working is an organisational opportunity, not an HR issue. But HR professionals have a vital role to play. By getting to grips with organisation design and treating hybrid working as an organisation design challenge, HR can help to unlock the strategic opportunities that hybrid affords.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘HR’s role in a new organisation design

3 Responses

  1. This is an interesting
    This is an interesting challenge that has become prominent within Hr. With COVID-19 introducing and making remote work popular, hybrid working has become almost a need for many employees. Hybrid working is a work model that allows a blend of working at home and working in the office. Employees what to have the flexibility and the option to work at home. Hybrid working can bring benefits for employees along with some negatives. Many employees become more productive when given the option to pick where they work and also allows businesses and individuals to reduce travel costs. This can also have an environmental impact by reducing CO2 emissions. The negatives of this model arise when working at home. When working at home there can be a disconnect with other employees within the organization and communication can be challenging. When in the office, face-to-face interactions are common and communication can occur naturally. This can also lead employees to burnout and could significantly affect the company culture. These are important results to consider when implementing a hybrid work model.

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Sharon Varney


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