For a large portion of our workforce, the key question during the pandemic has been simple: can I work from home, or am I stuck at my workplace? Lockdowns, isolation and quarantines have forced millions of people to take part in a remote working experiment that has revolutionised how, where and when we work.
But as we move into the post-vaccination, lockdown-easing part of the pandemic, organisations are beginning to think about what the future of work looks like. Some, such as Twitter and Deloitte, have opted to offer employees the opportunity to continue working fully remotely if they choose.
However, for most organisations the future of work will be hybrid, with some time spent in an office and some working remotely. A recent BBC poll suggested 43 or the UK’s biggest 50 companies, covering more than 1 million employees, are taking this route.
It’s been widely documented that greater flexibility leads to more productivity and balance. Recent Salesforce research found employees are 16% more likely to agree they are more productive at home, with 13% more likely to agree their teams are more productive. For many, home working offers improved balance, with 20% of employees at home being more likely to integrate wellbeing breaks into their day than employees in the office.
The problem with hybrid working
At its best, hybrid working provides employees with extra flexibility to design their own working patterns, increasing productivity and engagement. However, there is also a downside to hybrid working that leaders must consider.
“The biggest concern with hybrid working is that employees’ needs can get sidelined. Flexible work is not just about working preferences, it is about recognising that people don’t have comparable circumstances and enabling them to work differently in recognition of this,” says Dr Jane Parry, lecturer and director of research for HRM and organisational behaviour at Southampton Business School.
Parry leads the cross-institutional Work After Lockdown project, which examines how pandemic-driven remote working will change the way we work. Its research has focused on roles in local authorities and law firms, positions that were previously largely office-based.
The project has found that improving diversity management has been essential for organisational wellbeing. This means the key to surviving – and thriving – in remote working is understanding that different employees have different requirements and building individual flexibility into working arrangements. Continuing to factor these individual needs into hybrid working models is vital to making them work.
Secondly, Parry believes that hybrid working models need to take into account potential inequities that could come to the fore, from both remote and physical office perspectives. These include heightened discrimination against those with physical disabilities in office settings, and ongoing digital exclusion for employees who struggle with digital skills when working remotely.
“There is emerging evidence that remote working is enabling some people who have struggled with expectations around office presence to continue working in more sustainable ways,” Parry says, pointing to video teleconferencing services like Zoom, which have had an equalising effect around inclusion.
“Organisations will have to develop robust strategies to ensure these gains aren’t lost if meetings become more hybrid,” Parry says. “We heard a lot from managers in our research about concerns that office-based employees could benefit from creeping expectations around presenteeism.”
Driving a new culture
Another hybrid working concern for leaders is a potential loss of organisational culture. A Gallup survey in the US found that employees who do not work in the same location as their manager are 10 percentage points less likely to say someone cares about them at work and 10 percentage points less likely to feel recognised for their efforts.
With some employees remote and some in the office, how can workers build connections and develop trust when they’re rarely face-to-face?
“How much organisational culture depends on being co-located really comes down to what people actually do,” says Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management. “Often, I visit workplaces with big central desks and everyone is working away with their headphones on.”
Kelliher notes that many people who worked in offices spent much of their time visiting clients or taking part in smaller meetings. “ Also, let’s not forget that people who went to offices spent much of their time out seeing clients or in smaller meetings. We need to get away from this idea that we were all together in one environment, when we weren’t,” she says.
While she agrees that it is easier for colleagues to build relationships and culture when in the same physical space, Kelliher believes this can still be achieved with hybrid working. Instead, think about the things your organisation did to reinforce culture. If they were around awards or celebratory events, plan these for when people are in the office. If it was more around values and beliefs, ensure they are maintained, whether face-to-face or remotely.
Successful hybrid working models must consider more than just where you work. It’s also about when you work.
Historically, remote workers have been more flexible with time, says Kelliher. This has been true during the pandemic in areas like childcare and homeschooling. But organisations moving to hybrid working need to think about working time, she says. Will they expect 9-5 hours, or are they happy to be more flexible?
“I think the answer depends on the job role, but organisations need to set clear expectations to avoid communication breakdowns,” says Kelliher.
Ultimately - like enforced remote working during the pandemic - hybrid working is going to be an experiment. It’s important that organisations build in flexibility, consultations and iterations as they progress, rather than enforcing a strict policy. It’s about individual needs, rather than blanket policies.
“Remember, we haven’t done this before. Managers need to experiment and reappraise what works and what doesn’t, and individual employees need to reappraise what they want and don’t want. It’s going to take many months to play around with hybrid working before we get it right,” says Kelliher.
Why there’s more to a happy workforce than flexibility
It’s important to remember that working from home isn’t a silver bullet for employee engagement. While Covid-19 lockdowns have allowed some employees to experience working life beyond the office, that hasn’t been the case for a vast number of workers who have continued to commute to factories, offices and workplaces.
Consequently, leaders need to ask themselves what it is that makes some employees want to work from home. Is it truly flexibility and the end of the commute, or is there something deeper about their role, office environment or even culture that keeps people away?
If so, it’s time to address it. The pandemic has provided employees with plenty of time to think about how they view their careers and jobs. Bringing people back into the office and expecting them to pick up where they left off pre-pandemic is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, focus on a collaborative approach, asking employees what elements of flexibility they require and how they want the return to office to look. Go slow, with partial office reintegration and extra flexibility at the beginning. Most importantly, keep up the wellbeing and engagement programmes that ran during the pandemic, expanding them to include support on returning to the office.
It’s going to be a long road until employees feel emotionally and psychologically prepared for post-pandemic work. So remember, there’s much more to a happy workforce than just flexible working.
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