Digital workplace

Smart working, Agile working or… Hybrid working? Not all that glitters is gold

In this article dedicated to the nuances of the smart working world, we will outline the boundaries within which smart working modes are truly effective for employees and companies.

Indeed, the risk is that misinterpreting the very concept of ‘smart working’ can damage the work-life balance and render it useless.

To get to the bottom of this issue, we will help ourselves with the words of David Bevilacqua, CEO of Ammagramma and one of the leading experts on the subject. We had the honor of having him as one of the speakers at our last H.U.G. event organized in our ‘anti-office’ HUB55 on 10/12/21.

↓ If you want to read more, you can find the full video of the convention here ↓

How technology embraces change” H.U.G. 2021

When is work truly smart and when does it become just another source of stress for employees?

In the next few lines we will look at what to do, and especially NOT to do, to really take advantage of the opportunities of remote working and be happy and productive.

The previous article ended with the promise that we would go into more detail on the characteristics and nuances that make the new ways of working truly smart.

Particularly useful in this sense are the words of David Bevilacqua, who has very precisely identified the ways in which remote working can become even toxic.

In the next few lines we will see what the main points of his speech are, so that we can approach the world of smart working in a healthier and more conscious manner.

Hybrid working and the betrayed promise of Digital

The main point of David’s presentation was to emphasise the difference between what real smart work should be and what it has become, also and above all because of the pandemic.

In fact, the problem is that people’s work and private lives have become chaotically mixed, home environments have been violated and our life itself has turned into a hybrid flow, where it is very difficult to trace and recognise the limits of one sphere and the other. He even adds: ‘Hybrid makes me think of two heterogeneous elements held together by force’.

Just as in the image on his slide where an evil and a pear are sewn together, the hybrid work that is so much celebrated today by companies using it as a substitute for the simple concept of smart working, is instead a big step backwards.

The dream of hybrid working spaces is a half-truth, which we tell ourselves in order to feel innovative at all costs even when there is no innovation.

Sure, there are companies that have developed a nice relaxation area complete with table football, but we are unlikely to see a real spread of truly hybrid spaces that include a real kitchen, and the only place that really lends itself to becoming hybrid is our own home.
According to David – and we fully agree – the image above is a regression of the concept of remote working, because contaminating private spaces is a very toxic habit in the long run.

Adapting for a day or two is not a problem, theoretically you could work anywhere with a PC and a reliable connection, but in practice if there isn’t the right concentration and a comfortable and isolated workstation from the chaos of the home, it becomes unsustainable, stressful and alienating. The only valid alternative, to truly make the smart work approach effective, would be to have a dedicated study room available, but how many families have such spaces?

What’s advanced about a hybrid situation like this, where you have breakfast, study, work and then have lunch always on the same table?

This is the first promise that is often betrayed and the second is related to how we use tools, because theoretically video conferences have been and will remain the tool that allows us to connect quickly, effectively, economically, and instantly.

Online meetings bring together people from great distances but also people who are in the same city but in different offices and residences, but how can we make them a truly effective tool and not a pointless waste of time?

We need to separate theory from practice, because if calls were always set up with real criteria, they would have much more value, while they often become non-places where people gather in a confused and unproductive way.

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting and wondered: “Could this call have been an email?” Or: “What am I doing here when I have 1000 things to do?”

If the answer is yes, probably your manager or whoever requested the call did not fully understand how to exploit the tools and optimize everyone’s time, but fortunately, it doesn’t take much to adjust.

Video conferences would be a valid tool if everyone had a suitable, well-lit, and quiet workstation, if everyone had the right connection, if everyone managed to get their camera and microphone to work without the usual “can you hear me? Can you see me?” and all the small and large inconveniences that can occur and slow down operations before you get to the heart of the matter.

According to David, however, the new hybrid working methods throw the work-life balance out the window, because the real advantage should be giving back time to people, but what quality of time are we talking about?

What is being hybridized is not the job, but our entire life and our time, because we often can’t separate work from private life and the time we recover by not having to go to the office must be quality time.

A vivid example? If working “smart” allows me to pick up the kids from school, but then I’m isolated on a call with headphones and they’re sitting behind doing their own thing, this recovered time is actually an illusion.

The solution is to clearly separate the time dedicated to work from private time, in order to make both moments more productive. The reason is that you shouldn’t break the rhythm and the flow of what we are doing.

If we’re on a call and someone knocks on the door, getting up to answer and coming back in 2 minutes isn’t a big problem, but it takes away from the meeting’s rhythm. Similarly, if you’re having an off moment, maybe at dinner with someone, and a work message or even worse, a work call comes in, the problem isn’t so much the 3-minute interruption, but the fact that you’ve mixed that private moment with different thoughts, you’ve diverted attention from the moment, and this lowers the perception of the quality of our life.

After this enlightening introduction, David continued by sharing his practical solutions, let’s look at them together.

1. Give up the Busy Bragging rhetoric

When we ask “How are you?” and we get a reply like: “A disaster, I fell out of bed and from that moment I’ve jumped from one meeting to another, I had a quick lunch in front of the pc and I still have a thousand things to do“, this is a huge red flag. If it’s a sporadic situation no problem, who among us doesn’t have their bad days?

However, if this is the business model on which the entire company is based and this is the worker’s typical day, then you have to be very careful, because it’s something unsustainable in the long run and you need to fix it as soon as possible.

Of course, there’s also option B, that many people like to portray themselves as super busy because it’s a status. It almost seems that if you’re not always rushing you’re not good enough, but the truth is that with Hybrid working it becomes extremely difficult to manage one’s personal agenda.

2. Be disciplined with yourselves and respectful of others’ time

Calls, appointments, updates, and even simple email exchanges should be made at the “right” times, without interfering with employees’ private lives and without abusing their availability and leadership position.

If a call can be replaced by a message on the company chat or a simple email, do it! It will save you the time of having to request the call, coordinate availability, schedule the meeting, start the meeting with all the usual pleasantries (nobody starts directly with the agenda), make the call, draw conclusions, then maybe send a follow-up email with a summary of what was said and agreed upon.

All this takes much more time than you think. If, on the other hand, a call is really necessary, organize it in advance and communicate clearly the topics to be discussed, in order to optimize the time and make it truly effective.

3. Instill a habit in others

Being a good manager also means knowing how to respect other people’s time and your own, teaching what the right rules of engagement are for everyone.

Don’t answer the phone after hours, don’t be anxious about having to respond to that email even on the weekend, don’t mix your free time with what you should dedicate to work and vice versa.

The reason is that there is a misperception that remote working is a kind concession from the employer for which we must compensate with our constant presence and availability.

None of this! If the company has decided to work smart it is because it has carried out its cost-benefit analysis and therefore there is no need to do anything different from what it would do in person.

So if we receive contacts from colleagues, responding politely with a simple: “Is it urgent?“, will put everything in the right perspective and 99% of the time the answer will be: “Nothing serious, we’ll talk tomorrow”.

4. Only attend meetings where there is a clearly defined agenda

How many times are there meetings of 10 people or even more, but only 2 or 3 speak and interact?

Meetings where there are people connected without an active camera or microphone, who are just “marking the card” of their virtual presence in that meeting where they probably have no reason to be?

The solution to not abusing other people’s time, not taking hours of work away from company resources and optimizing communication flows is to involve only those who are truly interested in each meeting, with a clear agenda that is able to give meaning to everyone’s presence.

5. Replace one-hour meetings with 45-minute meetings

From the employees’ point of view, it is more difficult to say no because they have other things to do, but it is in everyone’s interest to invest every second of their time dedicated to the company in productive activities that allow projects to progress.

The fifth and final point in this list of truly valuable “best practices” that can be implemented immediately in any context is to shorten meetings, to give time to debrief and prepare for the next one.

When the day passes in a confused flow of 4-5-6 calls in a row, where you move from one topic to another without time to settle, productivity and attention drop to historic lows. How many times do we find ourselves in meetings about which we know nothing and at the end of which there is no report that takes stock of the situation, the progress achieved and the next activities to be implemented?

A meeting that doesn’t have a clear agenda is a complete waste of time for most participants.

Did you leave no written record of what was said in the call and delegate everything to the memory and resourcefulness of the participants? It may work but it is not a healthy and correct way of managing work, because especially when you have meetings in series, you need to prepare beforehand and set the boundaries at the end of the meeting to clearly understand what has been resolved and how to proceed. Without this type of scheme you navigate by sight and it is a waste of time that no company can sustain for a long time and which damages the lives of employees.

In a somewhat provocative but very astute manner, David analyzes the etymology of the word “hybrid” and underlines how in reality the positive meaning with which it is proposed today contrasts with its true meaning:

  • “Hybrid”(from Latin “hybrida”, ‘bastard’, of uncertain origin)
  • “Harmonious”, harmonic, well-proportioned in its parts

The conclusion of David Bevilacqua’s reflections is that we need to deviate as soon as possible from the current route that leads us towards a world where we are hyperconnected, hyper present and always with an eye on the PC.

The direction he proposes, as anticipated in the slide, would be a “harmonious” way of working, where we all manage to maintain the right work-life balance and performance is optimal, without the new operating method weighing on of stress more than normal office life would.

How do we try to take advantage of this advice at Hermes?

Our philosophy aligns perfectly with the indications of David’s speech and we believe that quality is much more important than quantity.

In Hermes’ business idea we work towards objectives, with intermediate control steps and regular follow-ups that allow us to adjust the aim in the most effective way possible, during the development of the project and not beforehand.

More than remote working or simple smart working, we embrace the concept of agile working, which we will explore in detail in the next articles here on our blog.

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