The world of work has changed radically. Hybrid working, a mix of working between the office and working from home is now an accepted norm for many. But is it here to stay and is it best for everyone? In this article we look at what hybrid working means and its benefits and challenges.
Time to read: 5 minutes
The world of work has changed
As I’m sure many of you are finding, one of the few positives we are seeing from the pandemic is the fundamental shift in people’s relationship to the office and a more flexible attitude to how, when and where we work. This is something I have been agitating for, and recommending to, my clients for the past twenty years!
We’ve called it many things over the years: “new ways of working”, “flexible working”, “smart working”, ”agile working”, “better ways of working” and now “hybrid working”. Whatever the label, enforced home working during the pandemic for many has accelerated the adoption of a more flexible approach and put it front and centre in corporate decision making.
Lately we’ve been running workshops looking at the #futureofwork #postpandemic with senior leaders and team managers in organisations from a variety of sectors both public and private. The vast majority view hybrid working / home working (or more flexible remote working) as a significant benefit to their people. The top benefits they are reporting are a better work-life balance, no commute and cost savings. In fact, from our surveys we see roughly 95% of staff wanting some form of home working going forward. My colleague Toby Godman published some interesting data we gathered – see Toby’s blog in our website here.
A number of leaders also see benefits of hybrid working to their organisations of similar (or increased) levels of productivity, better staff morale, improved staff retention and attraction and potential reductions in real estate cost. Encouragingly, many also recognise the challenges to mental health and team cohesion that isolation may bring and the need to get teams to collaborate and socialise together regularly.
The vast majority of the business leaders are keen to lock in these benefits. Even those that still have trepidations understand that although they may not like it, they should continue post-pandemic. Their staff are overwhelmingly in favour (from our surveys only 10% would be happy to go back to how they worked pre-pandemic!).
Until recently that is...
I’ve started to pick up a small yet worrying undercurrent of opinion at senior leadership level that it’s time to come back and stop ‘all this working from home.’ I really do hope this is a minority view. We must try as a society to at least take this one positive after what’s been an awful global tragedy. This paradigm shift in our relationship with the office has finally happened – something I have been championing for the last twenty years.
We are seeing a few large players (if the newspapers are correct) such as Goldman Sachs insisting all their staff return. However, most seem to accept that some form of hybrid working is now the way forward.
I think the genie is out of the bottle, the forbidden fruit has been tasted! Now people have experienced working from home and adapted to make it work for them, their organisations and their customers, it will be hard, even detrimental, to backtrack. Can we really force unwilling workers to commute 5 days a week (unless you have the salaries and bonuses of Goldman Sachs!)?
In fact, many people have fully embraced it, leaving the cities, changing their lifestyles and enjoying the increase in family time and improved work / life balance. And let’s not forget, they’re also enjoying the extra money in their pockets afforded by less commuting! A step backwards will definitely affect morale.
We need a balance
I do understand the concerns, however. Hybrid working, whether working from home or working remotely from the office (and from your colleagues) does have many benefits but it also has its downsides. We need to find a balance, a happy medium that works for our customers, our companies and our people. No matter how adept we become at Zoom and Teams, it will never be better than face-to-face collaboration (well at least until virtual reality and the metaverse becomes mainstream).
You may well be finding that the enforced home working has been detrimental to staff training, both for developing younger staff and inducting new staff. You can do initial inductions, structured training and development easily over Zoom for many job roles, however, it’s hard to replace the causal learning we do by overhearing our colleagues, asking quick questions and having conversations around the coffee machine. This is often called “learning by osmosis” – absorbing and learning from what’s going on around us. It is particularly important in jobs such as social work and the legal profession.
Long periods of home or remote working can lead to staff becoming isolated and disengaging from the organisation. It can result in a diluted culture and a weakening of the team bonds. This is especially marked in certainty personality types. Some introverts can enjoy the lack of interaction and withdraw even further, but like all like all things, we can have too much of a good thing!
Not everyone can work from home. Many people, especially younger members of staff live in houses of multiple occupancy where they may not have the space to work or to make confidential calls. Working from your kitchen table is less than ideal from an ergonomic perspective and can lead to many distractions if the kids are home!
Hybrid working obviously doesn’t suit all job roles, especially those requiring frequent colleague or customer interaction, or all personality types. Extroverts thrive on the interaction, the hustle and bustle of the office. We’ll cover the impact of personality on remote working and how to manage different personality types in a future blog.
Every one of our clients is either planning to or has already adopted some form of hybrid working. This is only to be expected as helping clients develop hybrid polices and hybrid workplaces has become a mainstay of what we do.
The approach taken varies from client to client, depending upon their business, the activities of their people, and how bold they wish to be. We’ve found on our projects that they fall into four categories:
1. Remote by default
This approach takes the radical view that nearly all tasks are best performed elsewhere and that one should only come into the office when no better option exists. Staff are encouraged to work from home, coffee shops, co-working spaces and each other’s houses. We should go to the customer for meetings and face to face interaction, making it easier for our customer. We will only visit the office (do we still call it an office or us it now a collaboration hub?) infrequently for internal activities or client meetings that can’t be held virtually or elsewhere. There are obvious benefits but also significant challenges with this approach (notably inter / intra team communication, isolation, maintaining culture / team identity and mental health), and they require careful management and even formal policies to counteract them.
2. People’s choice
More common is what I call the “people’s choice” approach; the organisation trusts its people to work when and where is most appropriate, provided it maintains the outcomes and experiences for your customers and colleagues. You will find that your people feel empowered and welcome the trust placed in them. As with “remote by default” there are some significant challenges to prevent isolation and the office will need to work much harder to attract people in to collaborate and socialise with colleagues.
3. Tariff or guidelines
In the third model (and arguably the most common), people are still given the flexibility to work remotely (and often “flex” their hours) however a tariff or guideline is set such as “a minimum of two days per week must be spent in the office”. It is often twinned with the policy of “core hours” whereby employees must work and be available for meetings (either online or face-to-face) between set hours but can otherwise work the hours that suit their personal situation.
In some cases, it’s left to the staff themselves to decide on which days and hours to do and in other cases it’s left to line managers to decide / authorise through discussion with their teams. This is a much easier “sell” to senor management than the two options above and from experience most people like to have boundaries and expectations set, but does “three days a week” suit all job roles and people – could it be a little constraining for some? Do we need to be a bit more flexible?
Not as common as the tariff approach and probably most restrictive of all is the approach whereby you set rotas by team or by individual either to ensure cover is maintained throughout the week or to ensure a team is always in on the same day. There are significant downsides with this approach, but it can be the most appropriate for certain job roles.
Hybrid Working: There is no silver bullet
To conclude, my advice would be that there is no right answer. I’m often asked by clients to define the ‘right approach’ to hybrid working. The right approach for your organisation will be different from others, even those doing similar things. Careful consideration is needed on the approach and policies you adopt. Learn from what others are doing, gather your data, ask your managers and people what they want (our PeopleLOOK survey and / or TeamLOOK workshops are two methods) and GET ADVICE.
Each approach to hybrid working has pros and cons and no solution is perfect. Don’t be afraid to change tack
if things aren’t working out. Run some trials if you can. Monitor how things are going (we can help with workplace analytics here) and be prepared to adapt and evolve your approach continuously.
I would also suggest that the policies and approach you adopt should not be too dictatorial (again we can help with this). Even within one organisation, ‘one size does not fit all’. What is right for a sales executive or social worker is not right for facilities staff or refuse operatives. Don’t be afraid to have different policies if needed but try to ensure all people benefit in some way from the new approach.
We will be delving into more detail about the different approaches to hybrid working, their benefits and possible pitfalls and how to determine the best approach for you in future blogs. Stay tuned!