How HR can resolve employer-employee conflicts in hybrid working

As some employers seek to impose a full-time return to the office, disgruntled workers are starting to vote with their feet. What can HR do to balance their conflicting interests?
The return to the office can turn into a tug of war between employers and employees who enjoy the flexibility of hybrid

With the difference between what employers and employees want from the experience seemingly widening, the hybrid working model is has arrived at something of a crossroads.

Most organisations have come to accept that a hybrid approach is the way to go and have been experimenting with various methods. But a growing number of firms have hit the headlines recently by rejecting the concept entirely. 

For instance, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, urged all staff to return to the office on a full-time basis as soon as the firm was able to open its US premises after an omicron-enforced closure at the start of 2022. The fact that only half of the 10,000-strong workforce at its Manhattan HQ turned up on reopening day spoke volumes about their thoughts on the matter.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, similarly caused controversy a few weeks later when he left notes on civil servants’ empty desks with the message: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.” 

He also warned that he would consider selling off government buildings if officials failed to make enough use of them. 

Where do people prefer to work?

Rees-Mogg’s rhetoric aroused a strong response from the Public and Commercial Services Union. “Evidence shows that hybrid working improves workers’ wellbeing and boosts productivity,” it said in a letter to the minister, accusing him of “deliberately prioritising your ideological approach to Covid safety over civil servants’ welfare and the quality of public service they deliver”.

An October 2021 research report entitled The Great Executive-Employee Disconnect highlighted numerous other cases in which employers had ignored workers’ preferences and tried to impose higher levels of office working. Although this was published by a prominent provider of remote communications tools – Slack Technologies – it was based on an independently administered international survey of more than 10,000 executives and employees.

The survey revealed that 68% of executives wanted to work in the office for all or most of the time – and 59% of that group expected their staff to follow suit. By contrast, 76% of employees wanted flexibility in where they worked and 93% wanted flexibility in when they worked.

Such findings indicate that “we’re at a delicate moment”, according to Alexia Cambon, director of research in Gartner’s HR practice. 

Now that it’s possible to plan a full-time return to the office, “employers must decide how strongly they want to mandate this”, she explains. “Asking people: ‘What is your time worth?’ is a very personal question. This is also about who should get to answer that question – is it the person living with the consequences or those who believe they know what’s best for other people? It’s hitting a nerve.” 

Much of the drive by leaders to get employees back to the workplace is based on a fear of not being in control

While productivity used to be the key reason for advocating a return to the office, the debate has come to centre on the damage that remote working could have on organisational culture. The received wisdom is that high performance is easier to achieve when everyone is located in the same place, as this makes it easier for them to collaborate and innovate.

“Much of the drive by leaders to get employees back to the workplace is based on a fear of not being in control and of people taking the mickey,” says Mike Thackray, principal consultant for organisational development consultancy OE Cam.

The problem is that many people are reluctant to give up the enhanced work/life balance they gained when they were obliged to work remotely at the start of the pandemic. They also consider themselves more productive at home and resent the implied lack of trust, he says. Such factors could become corrosive in the longer term.

As Dr Janet Ahn, chief behavioural science officer at MindGym, warns: “Distrust and resentment can quickly become toxic, creating an environment where employees don’t want to be, productivity and performance sink, and morale and wellbeing hit rock bottom.”

Moreover, in industries where labour shortages are widespread, the danger for employers is that workers, with the balance of power shifting in their favour, simply vote with their feet should the desired flexibility not be forthcoming. 

A March 2022 research report by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) called Work After Lockdown: no going back has indicated the most popular hybrid working models among UK employees. Unsurprisingly, complete flexibility tops the list. In second place is attending the office only when specific tasks necessitate their presence, as opposed to going in for an arbitrary number of days each week. 

Claire Campbell, director of HR research and consulting at the IES, says of the findings: “Although some workers, especially younger people, have been desperate to return to the office, many employers feel that they’ve had to push quite hard to get employees back there, even for part of the week.”

How should HR navigate hybrid?

Given all these factors, how can HR chiefs ensure that both business leaders and employees are as happy as they can if compromises are needed?

Cambon believes that it’s important for all parties to end their “obsession” with location-based flexibility. Instead, she argues, the focus should be on deciding how, when and where people work based on the tasks at hand and the needs of teams and their members. Success has to be measured by outcomes rather than inputs. 

“The most important question we can ask ourselves here is how we can get the work done in the best way based on teams’ and individuals’ circumstances,” Cambon advises. “So you need to ask teams to look at the work they’re doing and where they are in a project’s lifecycle to see the days on which it makes sense for them to be together. Think of the office as just one possible tool in the toolbox.”

Campbell agrees that it’s crucial to get employees involved in this decision-making process rather than subjecting them to rigid policies. 

“HR has a role to play in developing some guiding principles here and also in encouraging teams and their managers to discuss what’s right for them. This will have a positive effect on their wellbeing and productivity,” she says. “It might not look the same across the board though, so people will have to learn to be comfortable with that.”

As part of this process, other key roles for HR will be to recruit more empathetic managers and help existing ones to develop better people skills. Such qualities are becoming increasingly important in a hybrid working world to create the trust and psychological safety required to get the best out of employees and ensure that teams work together effectively.

On the one hand, such work is “about ensuring that leaders develop a clear understanding of what outputs they’re seeking and also the confidence to handle ambiguity”, according to Thackray. 

On the other, says Cambon, this is about adopting a more tailored approach to people management. Doing so may take more effort than handling traditional, homogeneous ways of working, but the potential benefits will make it worthwhile. 

“Because employees can shape their own experience, they’ll be better adjusted in terms of health and wellbeing, which leads to higher performance,” she says.

There is a danger is that the complexities created by adopting this new model may fuel a further management backlash against hybrid working if they are deemed too hard to handle. Nonetheless, Cambon urges employers to hold their nerve and learn by trial and error.

“We are still very much in the experimental stage and will be for some time,” she says. “Things will need tweaking as the work continues, but the best starting point is to roll out an employee listening strategy, because companies will live or die based on their people.”