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How to make hybrid work, work

Legal workplaces must be sure to optimise the “new world” hybrid model in a dynamic environment, write Professor Karin Sanders and Dr Andrew Dhaenens in collaboration with UniSearch.

user iconProfessor Karin Sanders and Dr Andrew Dhaenens 01 June 2023 SME Law
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The post-COVID-19 “new normal” has morphed into a seismic movement of “new world” behaviours, attitudes, priorities and expectations. And the workplace is at the epicentre of robust debate about what’s acceptable, realistic, and, importantly, what will optimise both culture and performance.

The logical place to start is how the “standard office” has changed. The incumbent notions of a “nine-to-five” office have gradually been shifting, though changed drastically and universally in the epidemic. As such, the “era” of “flexible working” has flourished. Though, what was intended by many organisations to be confined to a specific period has morphed into a mainstream expectation — particularly in professional services.

Despite initial challenges and resistance, the work-from-home (WFH) model was surprisingly well-received by many people due to its flexibility, ability to combine work and family life, and greater productivity (aided by often avoiding long commute times). Though subliminally, it’s also spearheaded the rise of individual choice, which directly opposes the traditional notion of organisational mandate.


While “flexibility” is the magic word, it’s a difficult term as it means something different for everyone. However, universally, hybrid work is viewed as an employee’s right more than before, and employee needs and wants are more ranging than ever.

However, it presents the reality to your firm; it’s clear the hybrid model is here to stay.

This challenge is compounded in that there’s no one way that hybrid work evolves nor a clear “textbook solution” of the measures to put into place to ensure its success. As such, hybrid work has become the bane of contention for employers versus employees in many industries, particularly the law, which historically has relied on the structure, hierarchy and personal interface that the hybrid model directly challenges.

This leads to the million-dollar question: why is it important to balance what employers versus employees want?

In a nutshell: to create (and sustain) a high-performance culture that equally values satisfaction and wellbeing, which promotes retention.

Our work at Hybrid Work Leadership (HWL) clearly demonstrates that the organisation’s response is directly aligned with performance and is a core element of retention and hiring new candidates: the number one challenge for many businesses. On this note, firms that do not offer hybrid work are increasingly at a disadvantage for talent.

Another core insight from HWL research lab is that employers should focus on managing activities and outcomes instead of measuring “desk time” and promote environments that prioritise learning and mentoring. In addition, the HWL encourages organisations to recognise that the situation is different for every organisation, and there’s no “one-size-that-fits-all” solution. Similarly, “new world” is dynamic and needs to be continuously monitored and assessed.

A practical response

While hybrid work allows employees to separate their independent and collaborative activities, it can be difficult to manage — particularly in professions deeply entrenched with the culture of in-person engagement. Here are some initial guidelines to help make “hybrid work, work”:

  • Seek honest feedback. Survey staff about how they would like to work and what they need to be supported. This should include some commitment to better understanding employee needs (in terms of work arrangements), with a regular schedule to obtain insights about preferences and challenges. Be mindful that it’s imperative that employees feel psychologically safe to provide feedback and are not penalised for doing so (either directly or subliminally).
  • Let the work drive when and where employees are. Everyone understands that there is a time in court and time to meet clients. These are necessary conditions. Most employees are smart, and they know that performance matters. Let this drive the conversation. Most employees will move and adapt as needed.
  • Listen to employee needs and act where possible. The reality is that drivers outside of the firm’s control may influence employee behaviours. Clients are likely to be equally worried. For example, HWL research shows that transportation time and costs have started (and persisted) as big drivers of preferences to work from home. Research has also indicated that the workplace at work needs to be better than the workplace at home (if that is the behaviour the firm seeks). In addition, perks can only go so far. Collectively, leadership research work shows that the best managers know their employees. Importantly, employees stay when they feel supported. From an HR standpoint, that means surveying employees to learn and signal that the firm cares and is willing to adapt to support their employees outside of work.
  • Understand that socialisation is the key driver of workplaces. HWL research work clearly shows that the majority of people (more than 75 per cent) come to the office because they enjoy social interactions, whereas managing family commitments and focusing on quiet work are key motivations to work at home. Employee retention is fundamentally driven by being embedded in the workplace. The more employees benefit from their work relationships, the less likely they will want to work elsewhere.
  • Remember that a hybrid and flexible work model is smart. Learning activities and creating meaningful activities to interact with are key. Forcing individuals to work in the office full-time without flexibility does not resolve a learning problem. Instead, dedicating time to learning and exploring issues together is a more sustainable solution.
Karin Sanders is a professor of HRM and organisational psychology in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Sydney. Dr Andrew Dhaenens is a lecturer in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Sydney. Together, Professor Sanders and Dr Dhaenens lead UNSW Business School’s Hybrid Work Leadership (HWL) research lab.

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