How can you manage employees' requests for hybrid working smoothly and effectively for the business? HR consultant and author Gemma Dale gives her tips.
Since the early days of the pandemic, employees who formerly worked from traditional offices have been clear about their desire to retain an element of homeworking in the future. The idea of hybrid working was born.
Unlike the homeworking of old, where people often worked just an occasional day from home, hybrid working is a much more blended approach, allowing employees to spend time between home and office. Employers will therefore need to consider how they will manage requests for hybrid working.
Hybridity and flexibility
Hybrid working is essentially a form of flexible working. It therefore falls under UK legislation that allows employees to make a formal request for flexible working arrangements and have that request given reasonable consideration. This legislation was, however, designed for a different time; it supports a very individual idea of flexible working, and this may not be appropriate for the introduction of hybrid working.
When flexible working requests are accepted, this typically leads to a change in terms and conditions of employment for the employee. As hybrid working is a largely untested concept, this may not be the time to alter contracts of employment and a more cautious approach may be preferable.
Employers have two broad options for managing hybrid working requests – formal and informal.
Formal hybrid working requests
Here, the employer asks employees to make a formal request for hybrid working under their flexible working policies. Unless their policy says otherwise, these requests must be responded to fully within three months, including an appeal where offered. A trial period can be agreed to test how the proposed arrangement works in practice.
The legislation provides a list of statutory reasons that can be used to turn down a request, which includes operational reasons, costs and planned future business changes. The employee must be notified in writing of the decision and, if flexible working cannot be agreed, the relevant reason must be stated.
The challenges of formal requests
There is a challenge in using this approach to review requests for hybrid working. Firstly, this may generate a significant number of requests, which all require a response at the same time. The very nature of hybrid working means that, in many cases, its potential needs to be considered at a holistic, team level – and so might its practicalities. For example, some teams may need to co-ordinate office staffing levels.
Finally, it may simply be too early to confirm whether hybrid working can be a permanent change, as there is much still to learn collectively about its challenges and benefits. Where the formal route is taken, employers should remember their ability to undertake a trial period – a serious consideration for such a new form of flexible working.
Informal hybrid working requests
The second option open to employers is to introduce hybrid working in an informal way. Instead of placing the onus on employees to ask for hybrid working, the organisation itself can take the initiative and determine an official approach to hybrid.
Some employers, for example, have stated that their employees will only be required to attend the office two or three days a week. Some have been prescriptive about which days employees must attend in person, whereas others are leaving this to the discretion of the individual or team. Other organisations have set overarching principles for hybrid working but have chosen to let local managers or teams to determine the best approach for them, considering the work that they do.
There are a number of benefits to this informal approach to handling request for hybrid working. Firstly, it avoids a potentially significant volume of individual requests and the associated administration burden (which you can tackle more easily overall with HR software). It also avoids permanent changes to terms and conditions of employment, allowing the organisation and its employees to learn together about what is possible in the longer term, where such formal changes may be easier to agree. Finally, it allows hybrid working to be considered at a team level, rather than an individual one.
Key steps to managing hybrid working requests
Whether an organisation decides to take a formal or informal approach, the following steps are key:
1. Decide an overall approach at an organisation level
Consider aims, objectives and desired outcomes. What does success look like, given the particular context?
2. Communicate the decision promptly
As thoughts turn to a return to the workplace for those employees who have been working from home, there will be an increasing demand for people to know more about how they will work in the future. Silence may lead them to conclude that they will not be able to retain flexibility, leading to a talent retention risk.
3. Train people managers
Whether they need to consider formal hybrid working requests or reflect informally on how to introduce hybrid working at a team level, managers will need to know exactly what is expected of them. In particular, they need to understand any relevant policies and legislation, as well as their decision-making responsibilities.
Hybrid working requests: key takeaways
When considering hybrid working requests, there are several factors to consider before deciding. The role itself should be a key driver. How much of the work can be undertaken at home, and how much needs to be done in the workplace? Other considerations include the needs of the team, colleagues, stakeholders, and the organisation itself.
This will be a careful balancing act in every case. Hybrid working provides very real potential benefits to both organisations and their employees. Managing the associated processes and effectively handling hybrid working requests is key to its overall success.
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Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.