A year ago, Microsoft in the UK launched a white paper on what it called the hybrid organisation. It is the company’s attempt to educate IT departments on the possible influences 21st Century communications technology could have on the way businesses are run.

Much of the thinking is around staff not being tied to the work-place, for businesses to work around their lives more so that they can be more productive.

The initiative is one of a number of responses to an internal call for the company to react to changing practices in the workplace.

Microsoft has assembled an advisory board to help build a practical approach to hybrid working which includes experts from the Institute of Directors, UnWork.com, Volterra Consulting, BDO and Gallup Consulting.

The fruits of their labour is a report entitled Making it work – the hybrid organisation in practice, which seeks to offer practical advice on how to marry up the three main elements of work life - people, the workplace and technology – for the benefit of the business. It outlines five business models to achieve this:

1 Follow me – an organisation that signals change from boardroom action
2 Bump – an organisation that focuses on workplace design to stimulate collaboration
3 Untraditional – organisations with rigid structures that rely heavily on IT to make them more agile
4 People first – organisations that first and foremost support the needs of the workforce
5 Holistic – organisations that approach people, workplace and technology in equal measures

CIO UK spoke to Graeme Leach, chief economist and head of policy at the IoD about the concept and asked him what the panel meant by hybrid. He said it wasn’t so much about combining different elements to make a business, which is what many conventional companies do. A hybrid organisation is more about the mind-set that shapes work processes and the way the corporate culture is allowed to develop.

“Hybrid combines individual elements with joined-up group elements. That is, individual balanced with a corporate view,” said Leach. “In many senses we divide companies up into small medium and large. This model combines the best elements of a small business within a larger organisation.”

So, why now? What is so special about the present that Microsoft and its collaborators in this project feel makes it the right time to start redesigning the way people work? Leach explained that in many ways technological developments in the workplace have allowed businesses to rethink processes in ways which wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.

he economic environment has also made businesses more open to change, as many of them have had to become lean and mean to weather the recession.

“Businesses are less resistant to change because they’ve had to survive in such testing environments,” he said. So, this is the right time to shift attitudes on what constitutes professional working behaviours.

Leach belongs to an organisation that represents the most senior layers of management in UK organisations and so he has some insights into how they are likely to react to proposals of moving to hybrid working. He said anecdotally, directors think their organisations already practice some of the elements in the hybrid working report, but Leach cautions there is no piecemeal adoption.

“It’s not a hybrid organisation unless you bring all of the elements together. That’s still quite a big learning curve,” he said.

Every board member needs to champion this initiative for it to be properly adopted, explained Leach, but the real driver has to be the CEO, who is the only executive with the scope to see that the whole organisation changes and draw all of the elements of the initiative together.

Given that the culture the report advocates is essentially consultative and democratic, wouldn’t directors seek to reserve some of their power? Leach says no.

“These people are all so busy anyway, it’s probably no bad thing that some control is fed down through the hierarchy,” he said.

Still, it’s not going to be an easy sell to people whose positions are dependent on demonstrating business performance. Setting up areas so that staff can meet by chance and break down siloes is going to seem a bit touchy-feely to them. Leach is adamant that any business has got to invest in its staff to succeed.

“This is the number-one element,” he said. “ if you want to get high value from the business, you must maximise on human capital.”

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