Challenging times can bring about the perfect opportunity to do something different, and with many employers struggling to establish their own version of hybrid working practices – and find the right balance between home and office – we are seeing new innovative approaches emerging. Many of these are tools to smooth the transition between locations, and to keep people connected regardless of distance, but we have also seen businesses adopting new or hitherto less common approaches such as gemba and flexible hours.
Food and drinks manufacturer Suntory has recently adopted the practice of gemba as part of its hybrid working approach, reflecting the business’s desire to improve cultural cohesion and bring all workers back to the core purpose of the organisation. The Japanese concept of gemba – ‘the true scene’ or ‘the actual place’ in rough translation – refers, in a work context, to the location where real value is created. This evolves from the practice of kaizen (’change for the better’) which is better known as the genus of the lean manufacturing: continuous improvement and the removal of superfluous process that adds no value. Lean manufacturing was popularised by car manufacturer Toyota and evolved into the much-utilised approach of ‘Lean Thinking’.
As part of their lean manufacturing practice, senior executives at Toyota are encouraged to take frequent ‘gemba walks’, where they tour the factory floor to get a new perspective on the challenges facing assembly line workers and identify opportunities for improvement. Far from being a practice that isolates workers and keep them away from social contact, gemba is specifically focused on bringing workers closer to the action which could mean, as with the Suntory initiative, workers going into the factory or on to the shop floor, to interact with line workers, store assistants and even customers.
Suntory has embedded gemba into day to day working practice with all employees, not just the senior executives, encouraged – as part of their new hybrid working practice – to work one of their 2 days a week from home in gemba. With customer behaviour having radically changed over the pandemic, this – believes COO Carol Robert – is an excellent way for employers to get closer to shoppers.
The end of core working hours?
In addition to introducing gemba, Suntory has been looking at several ways they can empower their workforce to find the right balance. As part of this they have scrapped core working hours and there is no longer a period of the working week where everyone needs to be on the premises. Robert says this has been “liberating” for everyone in the organisation and helps with their goal of encouraging people “to be less busy and more effective”. A UK parliamentary research paper, published in November 2021, examines flexible working practices during and post pandemic and talks to how ‘Flexible working can be particularly valuable for those who need to balance their personal lives with their working lives… [and can] bring benefits to employers – attracting more applicants and increasing productivity and motivation levels among staff.’
Unilever, too, have devised their ‘U-Work’ policy, which allows employees to set their own personalised work model to fit in with their lives. In this new structure workers earn a monthly retainer that they can top up by taking on assignments. Whether they take these assignments or not, however, they remain employees and maintain access to their healthcare, pension, training and all other benefits. This quid pro quo model aligns itself beautifully with hybrid working and means that both the workforce and the business can choose to ebb and flow as circumstances dictate.
Third space working
As well as when we work, hybrid working impacts where we work. Most models dictate an element of the week working from the office and the remainder at home, with a 3:2 ratio being the most common split. Working from home doesn’t suit everyone, not all the time. With hybrid working here to stay, and in-person client meetings on the rise, many workers want a solution that cuts a more professional impression than a local coffee shop or the kitchen table. This is where ‘third space’ locations are booming. From the more traditional flexible office solutions – such as Regus and WeWork – to more relaxed and quirkier independent coworking spaces, these solutions are on the rise, with over 6,000 across the UK accounting for 85 million square feet of space as of August last year. Joining clubs is another option with private member clubs offering large business lounges and meeting rooms with WiFi and, often, overnight stay facilities. In these paid-for facilities workers can grab a hot desk, access free tea and coffee, and even – in some of the more boho establishments – enjoy on premises yoga or meditation classes and even at desk massages. For individuals struggling with the emerging issue of loneliness associated with remote working, these spaces can provide opportunities to make connections and build up a network of pseudo colleagues.
Work from anywhere
Breaking the mindset that working remotely requires the employee to remain relatively close to home or the office, is Blueground – an international short and long-term rental business – who introduced their Nomads programme last year. This allowed their employees to choose work wherever in the world they want, without restriction. They do however offer two weeks’ free rent every year for employees choosing to work from one of the company’s apartments, encouraging them to spend some of their time in one of the 15 cities Blueground is located. Providing this freedom to combine work and travel has, says CEO Alex Chatzieleftheriou, opened the door “to opportunities and new life experiences for our employees. From an organisational perspective, we believe that a flexible programme like this will lead to improved employee wellbeing and motivation.”
According to a survey by MBO Partners, the number of digital nomads grew between 2019 and 2020 by 50% to a staggering 11 million and is no longer limited to tech-savvy freelancers: full-time employees now make up the majority. It is springing up in the UK, too, with digital bank Revolut introducing a work-from-abroad (WFA) policy in 2021. This practice was born from the desire to allow employees – who hail from over 80 countries – to spend more time with family members. “We wanted to enable employees to spend extended quality time overseas … and allow people to spend more time with family and friends”, says VP of People Jim MacDougall.
For Blueground the practice has been deemed a success – although they have had to make other changes to working practice to accommodate, for example, different national working weeks. Because in countries such as Dubai and Israel the week runs from Sunday to Thursday they run a practice where full, cross country team meetings always take place on common working days, and there is an expectation that those working on different time zones will adapt to fit with other locations.
Redesigned office spaces
Innovation has not been limited to how people work remotely, and the office environment has also been reimagined. From a Silicon Valley garage to a vast campus in Mountain View and Manhattan with free commuter buses, Google has come a long way in 24 years. But hybrid working has triggered another shift in environmental aesthetics with the tech giant redesigning the way they structure their office spaces. Open space workplaces have been transformed with Google Team Pods, smaller spaces with furniture on wheels that allow teams to change their space to fit whoever is in the office that day, and the way they like to work. Not only do these pods provide flexibility and a practical approach to working in fluid teams, this ‘ownership’ of their own environment gives workers a feeling more akin to working from home, where they chose their working space. They can even log in to a workstation that automatically adjusts to their personal preferences, even bringing up their photos.
Microsoft has also responded to new ways of working with redesigned conference rooms targeted at enabling hybrid teams to work better together and Dropbox have focused on the experiential, having designed new spaces in their offices across international locations. Understanding that they need to make the office an appealing and rewarding environment, they have created cafes, large welcoming meeting rooms, and ‘soft spaces’ to encourage teams to come together to meet, connect and collaborate in person.
It is still early days in the new normal of hybrid working, so there is no telling what innovations will emerge as we settle into moving between office and home, café and club, or even between countries. What is certain is that more and more businesses are weaving a heightened consideration for employees’ work-life balance into their working practices, that finding ways to maintain connections between colleagues is a priority, and that hybrid working has the potential to bring work happy to more people than ever before.