Hybrid working: how to apply the lessons learned

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Hybrid working can support worker health and wellbeing, increase staff engagement and help attract a more diverse workforce, but getting it right requires genuine collaboration and trust between employers and their teams.

Who among us would have predicted the events of the past decade? We have had to learn to roll with the punches, from the fallout of the financial crisis, to conflict of differing severity first within Europe and then on its doorstep, to a devastating and continuing pandemic, and now the cost of living crisis.

If there’s one silver lining, it’s that the pandemic has proved a catalyst for more flexible approaches to work which many employers had historically been reluctant or resistant to embrace. According to Acas, three in five UK employers (60 per cent) have seen an increase in hybrid working for staff compared to before the pandemic.

If there’s one silver lining, it’s that the pandemic has proved a catalyst for more flexible approaches to work. Photograph: iStock

We are at a delicate tipping point: hybrid working looks here to stay, but we have a number of long-standing tensions to work through.

The myth about productivity

Home workers have long had to prove that they are more responsive and committed than their office counterparts. But despite ongoing evidence showing either no change or an increase to productivity over the course of the pandemic, historic views that we are most productive when in the traditional workplace are still proving difficult to shift.

A recent CIPD survey revealed the following conflicting figures:

  • 59 per cent of senior decision-makers reported that following their experiences of the pandemic their managers were more likely to trust people to work productively and effectively from home
  • Slightly more (42 per cent vs 41 per cent) of those same senior decision-makers, however, believed that ‘the memory of the pandemic will fade quite quickly and it won’t be long before we revert to the way we worked before Covid-19’.

Questions have also arisen about the extent to which it is either reasonable or appropriate to monitor employees and workers performing their roles elsewhere. People managers had to learn to do so at a distance, while themselves adapting to working more flexibly.

There is no denying that face-to-face time brings its benefits. Many workers report experiencing loneliness while working remotely, sorely missing the social interaction previously associated with their workplaces. Dedicated time spent in traditional workplaces can therefore help keep colleagues connected and strengthen working relationships.

Used strategically, the physical workspace can also encourage better collaboration and help new recruits to better absorb the collective knowledge of colleagues and become familiar with the organisational culture.

Ben Goodall: "Managed effectively, hybrid working can support health and wellbeing, increase engagement and boost productivity."

Achieving the right balance between use of the workplace and the home will involve trial and error. It will require employers and managers, in collaboration with their workers and representatives, to carefully consider and plan how and when their workforce can work best. Clarity of purpose and shared values ensure greater synergy between organisations and their workforces.

Mind the gap between home and work

For many, work and home life became less clearly demarcated as we exchanged commutes for quasi-office spaces in our homes. The transition to home working has brought particular challenges for certain groups; for example, “parents and carers in particular may work longer hours to make up for interrupted time, causing blurred boundaries between their work and home lives, and negatively affecting their wellbeing”. Other evidence suggests that those working flexibly are more satisfied with their work–life balance, their manager and their job compared to those who do not.

The value of switching off from work and concentrating on something else entirely is not to be underestimated, with 88 per cent of us admitting to thinking about work outside our working hours. Employers and employees alike must beware the creep of work life into home lives, respecting the sanctity of being able to ignore out-of-hours emails, genuinely switch off and recharge our batteries.

The inclusion factor

We know that the pandemic had a greater detrimental impact on certain demographics, and stubbornly ‘traditional’ views of workplaces risk exacerbating pre-existing divides between people of different ages, ethnicities, genders, socio-economic groups, and disabled and non-disabled people.

Evidence suggests that those working flexibly are more satisfied with their work–life balance, their manager and their job compared to those who do not. Photograph: iStock

Failure to address stereotypes can come at a heavy cost both to individuals and business, including missed opportunities for career progression and a widening of the gender pay gap. It could also see employers lose out on valuable talent in a tough recruiting environment, impacting their ability to future-proof their organisation. Take these figures for instance:

  • Greater workplace flexibility could help open up new employment opportunities for 1.3 million people in the UK with disabilities, caring responsibilities, and those in rural locations. This could add a potential £40 billion to the economy (Centre for Economics and Business Research)
  • Eighty per cent of disabled people agree that remote working would either be essential or very important when looking for a new job (Work Foundation)

Sixty-three per cent of 18-24-year-olds are minded to consider working elsewhere if their employer were to be intent on their returning to the workplace full-time (ADP).

Employers’ practices and social responsibility are under more intense spotlight than ever before. Commitment towards equality, diversity and inclusion is no longer enough; it needs to be backed up with tangible action.

In the case of flexible working, this means taking proactive steps to encourage and embed all types of working arrangements for the current and future workforce, and not just hybrid.

Collective versus individual solutions

There is clearly no one universal experience of home working or any flexible working arrangement. Yet employers can be quick to make assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. On the Acas helpline, for example, we are hearing reports that some businesses are implementing blanket return-to-work policies which fail to take account of individual needs, including disabilities.

Experts in the realm of employment disputes, Acas knows the added value that giving employees a voice can bring. Involving your workforce in early discussions about flexible work and job design helps forge a collective sense of endeavour. Trade unions and workforce representative groups can help flag emerging issues, including any operational implications or difficulties around maintaining work–life balance, and work together with leaders to identify agreeable solutions.

Survival of the fairest

Feeling squeezed by their own rising costs, struggling to plug known people and skills gaps, and amid recent social media reports of ‘quiet quitting’, how can employers move forward with confidence?

Although it may be tempting to revert to the familiarity of business as usual, the pandemic has presented a golden opportunity to reimagine working life for the better. Managed effectively, hybrid working can support health and wellbeing, increase engagement and boost productivity.

Success will be as unique as each organisation, but fundamentals will include:

  • Tackling old assumptions about productivity, and balanced with appropriate behaviours, managing by output, not input
  • Recognising the dangers of hyperconnectivity and promoting the need to both mentally and physically disconnect from work
  • Ensuring fair and equal access to flexible working opportunities for everyone, as well as equality of experience
  • Maintaining meaningful dialogue with employees, workers and their representatives, acting on conversations to enable informed, swift but inclusive responses to changing circumstances.

Change can be scary, but the implications of failing to evolve in a rapidly changing world are surely far more terrifying.

Acas’s guidance on working from home and hybrid working delves further into the health, safety and wellbeing considerations for employers.

Acas also offers nationwide and digital training events in this area.

Ben Goodall is conciliator and subject matter expert at Acas.


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