The challenge of “upskilling” teams in a future of hybrid working

November 20, 2023

Despite recent pushes from some of the leaders of the world’s biggest corporations and institutions to “get people back into the office”, there still seems to be firm resistance to a complete return.  And this is not just a “generational” issue.

Many senior individuals, who have had years of working in offices and know the benefits of doing so, are pointing to the increased productivity that comes from working out of the office.  Similarly, for those with families or who are thinking of starting them soon, the opportunity to make the combination of childcare and career development a more likely reality has the potential to create a more equal society.

So why is there a push for people to return to work if there are micro and macro benefits available?  Two of the most cited reasons are (1) the ability for people to develop their “soft skills” – be this something like how to negotiate or to have role models around so they can better understand what it means to be a “professional” (we might call this “social learning”) and (2) the need to create a closer connection between team members as this is a crucial aspect of developing high performing teams.

We are in full agreement as to the importance and need to develop both these areas within a successful business.  However, we would also question whether the way in which people are being asked to come back to the office will really deliver what is hoped.

Many offices ask for people to attend a minimum number of days – but with no co-ordination of which days they are.  This can lead to people being in when others are not, negating the planned benefits.

Alternatively, when the days to be in the office are mandated, many firms are reducing the actual space available for people – typically through the use of “open” hot desks.  Again, the lack of co-ordination means that teams often are not sitting together, reducing the effectiveness.

Even when people do have the opportunity for being together in sufficient space and in a coordinated way, the reduced amount of time available often means that time is spent on “work matters”, rather than soft skills – again negating the core reasons for returning to the office.  In addition, the squeezing of time to be focused on work matters does not allow for (in our opinion) the main factor in social learning – unstructured “down time”.  In our experience, it is in this space between focused work that the greatest learning happens.

Those businesses that can solve this problem quickly will likely have a competitive advantage on their peers.  Solutions may include suitable supervision, a reassessment of how people are developed and a better use of technology.

MM&K are currently developing an approach to look at the effectiveness of return to work programmes for our clients (amongst other people dynamics within their business).  Should you want someone to help you explore your thinking on this issue, please contact Stuart James in the first instance.

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