As final coronavirus restrictions are lifted and we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, people are beginning to tentatively venture back to the office. But things are no longer the same, with employees now being given the opportunity to work more flexibly.
Many organisations are thinking about downsizing their premises to make way for a hybrid working model, meaning that employees may only need to be in the office for a couple of days a week, or when absolutely necessary.
Most employees are keen to make a success of hybrid working models.
A recent survey of more than 16,000 global employees conducted by EY revealed that 9 in 10 respondents want flexibility in where and when they work, and that more than half would quit their job if their current employer didn't offer flexible working options.
With this in mind, the pressure is on for companies to offer a hybrid working model or risk losing their best talent. However, caution prevails. While there are many benefits of hybrid working, there are also challenges to overcome.
Many issues stem from a lack of communication and a feeling of togetherness. Humans are social creatures, and after long periods of isolation, in-person and informal interactions are likely to be lacking with a reduced number of days in the office.
When the entire workforce is not in the same place at the same time, it can be difficult for employers to create an inclusive environment for employees where everybody feels included and heard.
There is also the issue of ‘presenteeism’ which could potentially mean employees who spend more time in the office are perceived as being given preferential treatment.
This problem becomes compounded when it comes to managing, training, and measuring employee performance.
Regular performance reviews, which used to be held periodically, have been far less likely to go ahead when staff are working remotely. This can lead to staff feeling overlooked, with hard working employees not being rewarded, issues with employee health and wellbeing not being recognised, skills gaps opening up, and a lack of career progression, leading to staff feeling overwhelmed and undervalued.
One of the more positive outcomes of the past 18 months is that there are a huge number of employees working together despite having never met face to face - meaning employees can be based wherever they choose and employers no longer need to recruit based on geography either. When everyone gets on and looks out for each other, productivity and wellbeing improves, but these meaningful working relationships are often more difficult to establish and maintain when physically separated for long periods.
Additionally, not everyone has enjoyed the experience of working from home. The home/work divide lines have been blurred, resulting in some staff working longer hours, or being unable to switch off.
There are also office logistics to consider. If the number of desks in an office has been reduced, there needs to be some kind of schedule in place to ensure that employees actually have somewhere to work when they commute in!
The expert view on hybrid working models
We asked some of our Guild members what they felt the biggest challenges were in adopting a hybrid working model.
Shalini Gupta, CIPR Inside committee member and Guild member, said:
"Some of the key challenges that I see with this ‘distributed working’ model for both employees and employers:
- It is still in a trial phase as there isn’t enough evidence to prove what will be effective so the success rate is yet to be seen
- Creating an inclusive environment so people don’t feel excluded will be the biggest challenge - because if you’re not in the room, how do you make sure that everyone has opportunities to contribute so it’s a level playing field?
- Managing a distributed team where everyone feels they are supported in the same way by their line manager and are motivated through regular informal catch ups and development conversations
- Potential long term burnout given the blurred home-office lines and longer working longer hours are creeping in while working from home
- Communication can get lost in translation when people are largely having relationships based on Teams chats and Zoom calls
- Collaboration and innovation on Teams/Zoom calls don’t lend themselves to the impromptu conversations around the coffee machine with potential for new ideas popping up
- While a physical building does not make a company culture, it can become more challenging to embed one culture for a dispersed group. What aspects of the company culture will be kept and what will be newly created to embed a hybrid environment will be key in this new model.
"Hybrid working means different things to different people. There isn’t a one size fits all approach but as it’s becoming more and more the norm, it is not only a necessity but a preference by individuals and organisations both."
Hybrid working needs flexibility and collaboration
Natasha Plowman, Independent Consultant, Spinning Red, shared her insights on why a flexible working model may not be as easy to implement as some may think:
"Key for me in the debate about hybrid and flexible working is that it must be truly flexible. The challenges stem from being too simplistic and binary in how we think people deliver. We make rules with little flexibility, or we entrench ways of working to what has always been done."
"Ultimately flexibility goes both ways and needs an adult to adult conversation about what, how and when work gets delivered."
"The challenges are also if we individualise this too much. So much of work is about teams, collaboration and working collectively and for creative industries, in particular - that is about being human with human responses that can too easily get lost behind a screen."
Marc Duke, Community Manager, Tech London Advocates, highlights the shift to hybrid working is likely to be a steep learning curve:
"Challenges for both are the management, feedback, being included in a team, being a true brand ambassador."
“In short everyone needs to have both the right mindset (and appreciate that there will be a lot of trial and error) and the ability to use soft skills, knowledge and technology effectively.”
Hybrid working is still experimental - there's no ready-to-go rulebook
“In a tightening job market, you may find that some of the very best talent will demand some level of hybrid arrangements. There's a balance to be struck between the benefits of in-person interaction and the freedom that some remote work affords, including the reclaiming of time/money spent travelling."
"Sometimes remote is just better, sometimes physical presence just trumps it. If we can bring ourselves to trust our people to make the right decisions, we can genuinely enjoy the best of both worlds."
"However managing remote and present teams together raises a whole new level of leadership complexity - it requires a reimagination of how we run our organisations."
"There's no ready-to-go rulebook for this yet: it's a mixture of responsiveness, flexibility and a culture of trust within the organisation."
"Leaders are going to have to learn new skills, including how to relax the instinct to control, replacing it with a talent of facilitation and inclusion."
"It's going to be fun to take part in the next stage of our next experiment in the future of work - and those who get it right stand to reap the benefits of the best, most engaged, most productive and innovative teams."
More on the Future of Work on Guild
The future of work is flexible, and hybrid work has advantages for both employees and employers.
Find out more about how digital transformation is affecting the workplace in this Q&A with Mike Weston, leader of our Future of Work community.
Support with the future of work, and adopting flexible hybrid working models
Want to find out more about the future of work?
Why not join the Guild group ‘Future of Work: Reimagining business’ for free? The group encourages its members to collectively define what we want our future to look like by sharing our visions of it, with a focus on addressing the challenges of finding the right work/life balance, improving wellbeing, and managing a remote workforce.