Hybrid working –
the devil is in the detail
Helen McKelvie & Thomas Mitchell
An unconventional organisation, NIODA has operated across online and onsite modalities its whole life. Initially, the learning opportunities were always onsite as the experience of working together in a room is where the study of organisation dynamics began. By contrast, ‘running’ the organisation, forging a new direction for the study of organisation dynamics in Australia, leading a not-for-profit education institute, devising and managing a master’s degree, and establishing a workplace training and consulting practice, began with the founders and staff working virtually. Working from home wasn’t as accepted, or as easily achieved for a small start-up, in the ‘naughties’ as it is today, but NIODA found a way to make it work.
‘The work’, for NIODA staff revolves around developing high-quality experiences that support participants across academic and workplace activities, to develop practical skills and knowledge. Our work is differentiated by its attention to the experience participants have and the resultant insights gained. Going online as a mode of choice was out of mind for NIODA before COVID pushed much of our working lives into the digital universe. The unspoken assumption may have been something like, as a student, academic, coach, group or organisational participant, interacting online will not provide us with the depth or quality of experience we expect when it comes to working with organisation dynamics.
When COVID rapidly took hold, we went from ‘this is not what we do’, to the realisation and acceptance that, not only was it possible to do this work online but that this possibility represents a significant opportunity for the organisation. NIODA leveraged existing staff skills and capabilities and successfully went live interactive online. As COVID restrictions have wound back and organisations have begun inviting, demanding in some cases, staff return to the office, NIODA has plunged whole-heartedly into the hybrid space. We now teach a portion of our academic classes in a hybrid fashion, we offer workplace training experiences as hybrid events. We routinely work with consulting clients who have dispersed workforces and therefore request to work online or in a hybrid format.
The societal scale switch to working online was driven by a global health crisis. Informed and empowered by the forced switch to working online, many organisations and individuals now choose to work in a hybrid fashion part in the office, part online. Studies of hybrid working often survey various industries and report the risks and benefits of the practice and comment on the likelihood that the hybrid workplace is here to stay.
From our experiences running hybrid events, we have a few observations that are starting points for further consideration:
The energetic paradox of online participation
Not having to commute, maintaining more integration with day-to-day lives, and overall being less taxed, are reasons those who have flexible arrangements often choose to work from home. These were the reasons for two students who lived locally but opted to be live interactive online for a week-long NIODA hybrid experiential learning event. By the end of the week, the students were identifying just how exhausting it was to be online and asserting it was more taxing than being onsite. Energetically, we also noted an end-of-event ‘high’ was evident for many of the onsite participants, much less so, for those online. These observations lead us to wonder about how the stresses of both onsite and online work are being monitored and managed in organisations – what are the longer-term impacts of these stresses for engagement and productivity?
Being online may be deauthorising
In our hybrid events, we often have an online tech support staff member who intervenes as needed to suggest adjustments that will improve the experience of those online. For example: could those in the room wave and identify yourself before speaking because it’s hard to make out who is who? Exercising this authority is welcomed and expected. When there is no designated tech support role we notice that online participants can struggle to speak up about fixable issues that might be bothering them and are more likely to ‘suffer in silence’ even when specifically invited to identify issues. At the same hybrid event noted above, an academic staff member who was online for the first day said he felt disempowered and disconnected from his role as one of the holders of the space, “I felt like a portrait on a wall…sometimes I would be looked at directly and spoken to, otherwise I felt very passive”. … as if being together in the room was the ‘real’ experience and being online was ‘not real’. Paying attention to how authorised participants feel becomes important for anyone facilitating hybrid events or managing hybrid work, lest unhelpful power or other dysfunctional dynamics develop. From the perspective of feeling and being authorised to take up leadership, is this more difficult from an online position when hybrid working?
Fluid authority relations around work location
In the hybrid experiential learning event, self-authorisation around moving between onsite and online became a feature of the experience. As staff, we noted that on the second morning, a number of students did not arrive onsite for the first check-in session of the day, but they appeared onscreen. We had not articulated ‘rules’ around attendance, after the initial onsite/online choice had been made, but noted the students clearly felt they could make this decision for themselves. Such self-authorisation could have felt like undermining the authority of the staff group. Still, we felt it was in line with the expectations that the student groups would undertake the assigned task in a self-directed manner. We had no compelling reason to require onsite attendance for the purposes of the task, as the spaces and technology available were not impacted, so we decided to make no comment. Monitoring the effect of the waxing and waning of onsite attendance became important for our sense of being able to adequately manage the boundaries of the system created for the purposes of the event. The continual attendance of staff onsite and adherence to the set time boundaries for each of the sessions in the timetable felt especially important. This experience seems to have a strong resonance with the ‘real-life’ workplace boundary management and maintenance of containing work environments – we wondered about how workers feel when there is no management presence onsite or availability is uncertain. Another implication of self-authorised fluctuating attendance is where the use of space and other resources are impacted. Downsizing of office space and hot-desking is a feature of the modern office environment, with the longer-term impacts on team dynamics and productivity yet to be fully understood.
In many ways, these observations could seem mundane and yet, as Paul Kelly sings, ‘from little things big things grow’. Small frustrations may soon grow into larger, and more problematic, issues. NIODA’s 2023 Group Relations Conference identifies that this move to hybrid working arrangements has, for many of us, occurred so quickly that we have not taken the time to consider the nuanced impacts, both positive and negative. The conference is offering participants an opportunity to work with the experience of hybrid working and its impacts on ourselves and our roles, on leadership, authority and on our work relations. Created as a temporary learning organisation, the conference will operate onsite and live interactive online and offer members and staff the space to explore the hybrid experience in-depth and to learn from experience about ourselves, groups and organisational dynamics.
Helen McKelvie & Thomas Mitchell
Hybrid working – the devil is in the detail
Hybrid working – the devil is in the detail
NIODA Director of Leadership Development and Consulting
Helen McKelvie is an alumni of the NIODA Master’s program and is now a member of the academic staff and holds the role of Director, Leadership Development and Consulting. She has previously worked in organisations as an internal planning consultant, policy and project manager, and lawyer in workplaces in both the public and private sectors. Helen has been a staff member on the 2018 group relations conference hosted by Group Relations Australia and is excited to be staff on the 2023 conference learning about Authority, Role, and Distributed Leadership in the Hybrid Workplace.
NIODA Master’s Course Lead
Thomas Mitchell is personally driven by a primary philosophy of strengthening the humanity of organisations and teams by building their capacities to work together. He identifies his dedication to working with organisations, teams, and individuals to think about, explore, and enhance organisation dynamics by, in part, connecting with, and striving to make sense of reality, and think about next steps. Thomas has a Master of Leadership and Management (Organisational Dynamics) from NIODA, a Master of History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Melbourne and is a current PhD candidate at NIODA. Thomas holds a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Academic Practice, a Diploma of Leadership Coaching and Mentoring, and is an accredited Analytic Network Coach. He is a member of the ISPSO, OPUS, and Group Relations Australia.
The National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) offers internationally renowned post-graduate education and research in organisation dynamics, and decades of experience consulting with Australian organisations.
The study of organisation dynamics brings together socio-technical and psychoanalytic disciplines to explore the unconscious dynamics that exist in every group, team or organisation. Learning more about these theories, and reflecting on the experience of them, can support leaders and managers to unlock great potential in their organisations, tackling issues through a whole new light.
NIODA acknowledges the Kulin Nations, and respective Traditional Custodians of the lands we work on.
We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and recognise their enduring sovereignty which has, and continues to, care for Country.
NIODA welcomes the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s invitation to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a collective movement for a better future.