Hybrid working: getting it right

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At Acas we see the future of work framed by three challenges: the need to ‘reopen’ workplaces safely; the need to ‘rebuild’ the economy using sustainable business models that focus on job quality as well as quantity; and the need to ‘re-imagine’ work by reflecting on our changed values and the lessons the pandemic has taught us.

Arguably, hybrid working helps with all these challenges. It allows for a more phased return to the workplace for many. It allows us to finally accept that people can be just as productive, if not more so, when working more flexibly. And hybrid working also shows, perhaps, that personal choice and job autonomy matter more than they once did.

Hybrid working may be the current trend – traffic to our new guidance demonstrates its popularity, with more than 40,000 hits to date – but flexible working is hardly new. How can we make it succeed where other attempts to reshape the workplace have failed?

Adrian Wakeling: "Hybrid working should engender a more ‘adult–adult’ dynamic between managers and their teams."

Lessons from the past

We have just completed an analysis of customer views on flexible working, based on analysis of 50 calls to our helpline on the subject. A couple of key learning points emerge:

  • Flexible working should no longer be seen purely as a way of accommodating women with caring responsibilities. Hybrid working can be a key driver for gender equality, but the take-up needs to be equal, regardless of gender or job role
  • The same old problems exist around making a success of flexible working – notably around lack of awareness and confusion about the process. A common issue to emerge on the helpline is a misunderstanding, for example, between an informal and a formal request.

The pandemic has created what many have referred to as a ‘forced experiment’ in home working for large sectors of the economy. It’s worth remembering that the essence of flexible working is that it introduces choice in where, when and how work is carried out. Not many of us volunteered for this experiment but it has provided us with many valuable lessons, especially about how we bridge the gap between employee preferences and employer expectations.

Recent surveys have shown that as many as seven in 10 employees want to adopt a hybrid working arrangement. Photograph: iStock

I sense that some of the changes that have happened may be long-lasting, with recent surveys, showing as many as seven in 10 employees want to adopt a hybrid working arrangement. And our recent YouGov-commissioned poll shows that more than half (55 per cent) of employers in Great Britain are expecting an increase in staff working remotely or from home part of the week.

Agree some basic ground rules

As Acas chief executive, Susan Clews, said in a recent blog: it doesn’t matter what you call a working pattern (flexible or otherwise); it won’t work without:

  • Effective communication and consultation. It’s best to involve staff and unions or employee representatives in drawing up a hybrid working policy. Remember that the spirit of flexible working is ‘agility’, so a policy may have to be regularly reviewed
  • Planning. Have you thought through issues like cyber security; carrying out safety assessment checks for home workers; or how you will respond to requests for ‘reasonable adjustments’?
  • Clarity. Introducing hybrid working may not mean changing an employee’s contract of employment but if it does – for example, to change what it says about where or when someone works – then agree this with staff and put it in writing.

Let trust overcome fear

There is plenty to be worried about in the months ahead – notably concerns over our health and wellbeing and future job security – but there is also a lot that should make us hopeful.

Managers and staff have been incredibly adaptable to change. In Acas, our staff moved to home working within a couple of weeks of the lockdown, with helpline staff taking hugely increased numbers of calls. I also sense there is a healthy appetite to do things differently and not re-impose the old templates that have framed working life for so many decades. As our guidance highlights, we all need to think carefully about hybrid working and:

  • Wellbeing. During the pandemic we realised that our line managers were struggling to manage staff wellbeing in a virtual setting. We responded by providing special training, for example, in how to spot the signs of distress. We have some tips on our website here
  • Performance management. The nub of this issue can often be expressed as a tension between how much you trust and how much you monitor staff. Hybrid working should engender a more ‘adult–adult’ dynamic between managers and their teams, so trust usually works better.
  • The ‘how’ of work. All forms of flexible working are basically about changes to where and when you work, but far less attention is given to ‘how’. This isn’t just about the technology you use (though this is important), but the degree of discretion you give staff about how they do their jobs. Many organisations place more emphasis on doing the tasks rather than managing the time.

The British Safety Council’s vision is that “no one should be injured or made ill through their work”. As many of us begin a gradual return to workplaces, health and safety is still paramount and will continue to be for some time. But let’s make sure that the same standards apply to remote workstations; and that your people are equally safe and well after walking from the kitchen to the living room or from the study to the hallway.

Acas hybrid working guidance: acas.org.uk/hybrid-working

Adrian Wakeling is senior policy advisor at Acas


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