Is a hybrid model an answer for British businesses?

May 18, 2010

Dave Coplin is national technology officer at Microsoft. Any opinions expressed are his own.-

The British economy may technically be out of recession, but it is still not creating the jobs and growth needed to turn back the clock to the upbeat days of the past. And with a looming fiscal crisis, it’s not hard to see why some commentators are predicting the terminal decline of the British economy. I don’t think the situation for Britain is dire — yet. But if businesses want to regenerate economic engines in the future they do need to change.

Astute business leaders know that dramatic social, economic and political changes — in addition to changing workforce demographics, globalisation and rapid developments in social and business technologies — are now fusing together. Ultimately, they will affect every aspect of UK private enterprise – and competitiveness.

Having spoken to prominent industry figures and the Institute of Directors, I am more convinced than ever that the solution to this change is a move to a “hybrid” business model. That means UK businesses need to change their thinking, structures and operations and adopt a more flexible approach or lose out to more nimble competitors in the future.

A looser hybrid model has many benefits, although it isn’t without challenges. In the hybrid business, fixed office space is rejected in favour of giving staff access to shared space in bureaus. Such structural changes have huge benefits, including increased profitability (reduced rental overheads), greater responsiveness to shifting demand and more intense collaboration between workers – not to mention improved agility as businesses quickly spot and exploit market opportunities.

It’s not all sweetness and light though: less fixed office space can put off employees and create a sense of insecurity. But it’s become clear over the last few years that the notion of the office is changing and employees want a flexible approach to work. There is a noticeable move towards sharing in cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham where office space — as well as coffee, light and power — are shared.

A hybrid approach to business is far more employee orientated. In my view, it recognises the blurring demarcation between work and home life. That involves recognition from businesses that as part of expecting staff to be on call 24/7, they must also be able to access modern communication tools — such as social networks and online shopping tools — in the office at all times.

This is liberating for workers, and it makes easier for employers to retain them amid a highly competitive global pool of talent. Company loyalty — not to mention control over the various workers operating from multiple locations — will remain an important aspect of business. There is a danger that an overemphasis on flexibility could actually lead to chaos, lack of creativity, miscommunication and ultimately poor service.

An overemphasis on flexibility is a real danger – one that all companies seeking to implement a hybrid model should be keenly aware off. But it is a risk worth taking because the harsh reality is that whether you like it or not, our foreign competitors are already implementing aspects of the hybrid model. From Shanghai to Seattle, workers are increasingly diffused, IT systems are being accessed via the cloud for a fraction of the cost, and businesses are moving quicker than ever before to exploit new opportunities.

In short, determined foreign competition means that unless we change with the world, the overall competitiveness and agility of UK plc will suffer. I don’t want to see Britain relegated to global economic irrelevance, which is why I passionately believe a move in this direction is a good move for our businesses, economy and society.

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