2021: Are we ready for hybrid working?

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Hybrid working is a popular new concept. But how are firms going to make it a success?

First it was the shift to home working for non-essential workers. Now hybrid working, which means employees spending some time in the office and the rest remotely or in a home workspace, is having its time in the sun.

At least 1.1 million workers have adopted hybrid, says the BBC, which found that 43 out of the 50 big companies it surveyed said they would embrace a mix of home and office working.

The motivations for employees include better quality of life and less time commuting. This spring, KPMG announced that staff will work in offices for up to four days spread over a fortnight, with the rest of their working days at home and at client sites.

Canary Wharf looks emptier as firms like KPMG embrace hybrid working. Photograph: Flickr / Håkan DahlströmCanary Wharf looks emptier as firms like KPMG embrace hybrid working. Photograph: Flickr / Håkan Dahlström

The new strategy was designed after a staff survey found 87 per cent of its 16,000 employees said they liked not having to commute and 65 per cent felt they have a better work/life balance thanks to home working.

There is also the argument that hybrid working can increase productivity. Some 41 per cent of employees who responded to a McKinsey survey in May 2020 said they were more productive working remotely than in the office.

As Frederic, a 41-year-old insurance software consultant, puts it: “We are proving every day our ability to work remotely, and we’re showing our customers ways they benefit from this. Then you can also add to that the reduced stress drives us to increased productivity, like a cherry on a cake.”

A principle, not a model

The question for employers is, will hybrid work for them and what do they need to consider? First, the type of business. According to Gallup, from October 2020 to April 2021, eight in 10 workers in just four occupation categories have been working remotely in the US, 86 per cent of which were computer-oriented jobs and scientific roles. Just 36 per cent of those working remotely worked in sales and 33 per cent in healthcare.

Hyrbid may not work for all firms, agrees Chris Moriarty, director of insight & engagement at the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management. One retailer he spoke to says 70 per cent of staff can’t work from home, because their work is customer facing. The rest of the staff want to come in anyway: “They’re missing the buzzy environment.”

Chris advises employers not to get too bogged down in the details: “Rather than think of hybrid as a model, think about it as a principle.” He thinks this is where some organisations may fall down: “They might say ‘we’re going to open the office four days a week’ – why? Why not all days and have it free flow? I think there’s a danger of people following the herd and trying to take the template. Everyone’s trying to put a different label on it.”

The social factor

The loss of the office has not been good for our social connections, according to research. A recent poll conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health found that two-thirds (67 per cent) of remote workers felt less connected to their colleagues. An Institute for Employment Studies paper issued in February found that eight out of 10 workers (82 per cent) miss the informal contact with their colleagues.

Video calling hasn't replaced social interaction in offices entirely with polls showing workers feel 'less connected' to colleagues than previously. Photograph: iStockVideo calling hasn't replaced social interaction in offices entirely with polls showing workers feel 'less connected' to colleagues than previously. Photograph: iStock

Workshop trainer and international speaker, Michael Kerr, says that socialising isn’t just important for wellbeing. “We know social connections are fundamentally important when it comes to building trust at work, improving collaboration, improving morale and maintaining a sense of belonging,” he writes.

Kerr recommends building in the social aspect of hybrid working with ideas such as assigning people to random coffee dates – connecting virtually with someone you wouldn’t normally. Other companies are considering hosting more ‘team away days’, or scheduling office time so that different teams get to work alongside and socialise with each other.

Furthermore, research suggests that hybrid work requires more input from employers to build trust, motivation, and inclusion. An Aviva report issued in August 2020 (Embracing the Age of Ambiguity), found that, while 54 per cent of employees said their employer has tried to create ‘togetherness’, only 15 per cent agree that their employer understands what motivates them.

Less than half (42 per cent) believe their objectives are clear. Professor Cary Cooper, writing in the report’s foreword, says remote working has triggered “a shift in the relationship between employers and their employees”. “A new partnership is required. One that recognises the immense challenges to employee wellbeing, as well as the need for a more personalised approach.”

DSE: A disaster for home working?

To make hybrid work, employers also need to ensure they look after their employees’ musculoskeletal health, across both home and office settings. Yet the pandemic has not been a good test run, according to Jo Blood, co-founder of Posture People, which advises companies on ergonomics. “The pandemic has been a bit of a disaster for healthy working,” she says.

She thinks that when people were based in offices there was a lot more care and attention on posture: “Companies were really waking up to the fact that workstation assessments needed to be done and had a real benefit to being done. Whereas,” she continues, “we’ve had this situation where everyone’s been thrown into working from home very quickly – companies were so focused on being able to keep functioning that all the health and safety aspects went out the window. Employers forgot their duty of care.”

Indeed, according to the Institute for Employment Studies Working at Home Wellbeing Survey, more than half of home workers reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58 per cent) and back (55 per cent) in the flight from offices. In a follow up report published in January 2021, only 40 per cent said their employer had conducted a risk assessment for their home working arrangement.

Blood says employers need to be prepared to offer hybrid workers whatever support is needed: “If the employer finds an employee’s home set up is not complying with DSE standards then that person has to be managed back into the office.”

In the office, it’s about ensuring furniture adapts to a range of people: “The more things like seat sliders and height adjustable arms and width adjustable chairs will mean you cope with more people. You don’t want to be buying a very basic chair and find the six-foot-four guy can’t sit as it’s the wrong height.”

Pandemic-proof offices

Covid-secure guidelines for offices were drawn up in May 2020, and at the time of writing, 19 July 2021 looked like the date when the working from home advice would be lifted. However, Mark Littlejohns, head of safety, health, environment and fire at Capital People Consultants, says that we’re not, as workers, going ‘back to normal’ any time soon.

“Anything an organisation does, any investment made or assessment completed has to be done with the right mindset and be future proofed. We aren’t out of woods, and there could be another wave or strain of the virus. Covid is with us for the future, and if not Covid-19 it may be a Covid-22. It’s just something that we’ll learn to live with and change our approach to working within that.”

Employers should restrict numbers in enclosed areas, such as meeting rooms, ensure they have windows that can let in fresh air, air conditioning that works effectively and more importantly be prepared to assess the work environment to ensure that it’s suitable for purpose.

“In our own offices we had a request for someone to put on a training event, but the maximum number in the meeting room is 15 and the team wanting to book the space was 26,” explains Mark. “We said we can do it, but you’ll all have to wear face coverings and have a system in place for access and egress. The standards keep the majority of people safe, the majority of the time. There will be exceptions and we’ll deal with them as and when they occur.”

So, hybrid working offers huge benefits for productivity and work/life balance, but it’s also a complex area with no ‘off the shelf’ template. In the search for the best of both worlds, there are bound to be some losses. Yet, is it worth going full time back to the office versus keeping the benefits many of us home workers have experienced? Chris says: “I’ve realised what the cost of work is to family life, and to life generally and we’ve got a lot of that back. In difficult circumstances, but societally there’s a lot to be said for a better life/work balance as opposed to work/life balance.”

Structuring our time in the new hybrid world may mean we miss out on conversations that just happened naturally and spontaneously – that five-minute debrief on the stairs after a meeting, or the few minutes before a Monday morning started in earnest. “I think a lot of people would like to think that’s important, building social capital and there’s something in that, but also I think there’s quite a romantic view of workplaces,” says Chris. In offices, many people emailed the person next to them. It wasn’t always a paradise of collaboration.

So, are we ready for hybrid working? The best companies will most likely thrive in it, others will have to up their game.


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