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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 3
Saturday 6 July 11.00pm-12.15 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP13

Overcoming the discontents of hybrid working

Presenters: Cath McKinney, Sally Mussared, Thomas Mitchell, Helen McKelvie, and Brigid Nossal
Moderator: Thibault de Swarte

Informed and empowered by the COVID pandemic’s forced switch to working online, many organisations and individuals now choose to work in a hybrid fashion, part in the office, part online. Hybrid working has become an expectation for most knowledge workers with negotiation being around the optimal proportion of days in the office and working remotely. Studies of hybrid working report the benefits of the practice and comment on the likelihood that the hybrid workplace is here to stay (Bloom, n.d.). While it offers benefits - increased flexibility and employee control have been shown to contribute significantly to performance and retention - (Davis et al. 2022) there are also risks associated with this new way of working. A recent group relations conference, the first ever conducted in hybrid format, offered an opportunity to explore how the different modes of onsite and online participation, and the technology that both enabled and inhibited it, contributed to the dynamics of the conference as a temporary learning organisation.

The majority of conference members (32) joined onsite for a group relations conference. Ten more participated online, alongside onsite (7) and online (1) staff members for small and large study groups, intergroup and institutional events as well as a conference dream matrix each morning. Our paper will draw on experiential data generated during the conference to explore working hypotheses relevant to the discontents of the hybrid workplace. For example we will consider how initial technical difficulties hindered connectivity and task focus, which worked to undermine GRC staff authority and increase opportunities for shared member responsibility in managing technology. Additionally, the perceived inequity of access between online and on-site members led to a preoccupation with the contrast in the mode of participation. This preoccupation potentially overshadowed (or defended against) other important differences and issues which became more difficult to work with openly and meaningfully in the conference spaces.

The hybrid conference highlighted the significance of navigating the liminal space. The use of technology, while facilitating some visibility and communication, fell short in conveying the richness of the physical venue's layout, boundaries, and natural surroundings, all of which support the development of strong working relationships. Conference staff noted members working in the liminal space throughout the conference, some ‘lubricating’ the liminal space and thus supporting greater online member entry and participation by virtual tours of the venue, for example. Some other online members, caught perhaps in a thicker, less lubricated liminal space, struggled to fully enter the conference and take up a role. The COVID pandemic forced organisations around the world to face the question ‘can we ‘go online’ and still effectively work towards achieving our primary task?’ For those that said yes, radically new ways of working were instituted virtually overnight. The insights generated through this hybrid group relations conference can be extrapolated and applied to help leaders and managers navigate the myriad discontents of this new working world, and to consultants and researchers as we work with organisations.

Biographical Summaries

Cath McKinney
Cath McKinney is the director of the Professional Supervision program at the University of Divinity and works with a delightful team of dedicated wonderers. Cath graduated with her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Divinity in 2019. Her thesis, entitled Leading Saturday Lives is centred around the experience of disappointment as central to an authentic understanding of a life as it is ... from Mary as bereaved mother to the presence of the absence of the Divine in the disappointment of Holy Saturday. Her research is inspired by her work as a prison chaplain and as a minister in an inner-city community church for many years. A motivating enquiry for Cath is: what gets in the way of people being good to and with one another? Cath specialises in teaching Professional Supervision, Feminist Theology, Leadership and Group Relations.

Sally Mussared
Sally Mussared is the CEO and Administration Lead at NIODA. Sally’s small business development background includes ecological agriculture, handmade silk wedding gown design and NFP board member. She has completed the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) degree and has worked as Administration and Technical Director in onsite and online group relations conferences.

Thomas Mitchell
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.

Helen McKelvie
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.


Bloom, N., n.d. Hybrid is the future of work | Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 1.7.24).
Davis, M.C., et al (2022) Where is your office today? New insights on employee behaviour and social networks. Leeds, UK: University of Leeds