Has the pandemic kickstarted the rise of the hybrid workplace, where more of us will split our time between the office and our homes? HR Director Gemma Dale is here to investigate...
The survey results are most definitely in. We’ve all seen the headlines: post COVID-19, most of those employees who have been working from home since March 2020 do not want to go back to the office – at least not all the time.
Prior to the global pandemic, the speed of the adoption of flexible working in the UK had been described as glacial. Many employers remained committed to the default working model: five days a week, eight hours a day, 9-5ish – with the majority of that work taking place in a traditional office environment.
There was no real reason for this: the eight-hour day is a hangover from the industrial revolution, a time when technology did not connect us and employees needed to be in the same place at the same time to get the work done. Even when workplace technologies updated, our ways of working did not. It is now being suggested by many future gazers that this recent period of enforced homeworking will lead to permanent change to how and where we work.
Related article: How is work set to change after coronavirus?
The homeworking revolution
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has significantly escalated home and flexible working. Not everyone likes working remotely; some employees long for the days when there was separation between work and home. But for many, their remote working experiences have been a revelation. Employees have realised that they did not need to do that long and expensive commute after all, and a large amount of their work can be done just as effectively from home.
Even whilst working and living through the complexity of a global pandemic, employees have still felt very real and tangible benefits of working from home. Some feel more productive. Others have found more time for exercise, family, or self. Survey after survey has found that employees don’t want to go back to the office full time, and are instead seeking a more blended, hybrid approach, where some activities take place in the workplace and the rest at home.
The potential for hybridity
In the recent past, when employees asked if they could work from home, they often requested a single day here and there. Maybe working from home each Friday. Now, employees want to work from home on a much more regular basis – potentially even for most of their time.
Meeting this demand may be critical: businesses who cannot, or will not, may risk losing their key talent – and fail to attract new people. However, it is unlikely that the office will disappear entirely. Even those employees who do not want to return to the office full time still see the benefits of getting together with colleagues, especially in relation to collaboration and relationship building. The challenge for businesses in the future will be to enable those social and collaborative elements of work in the workplace whilst supporting employees to work more independently too.
The challenges of hybrid working
Teams and individuals can work very successfully in a hybrid and blended way, but there are also potential risks and challenges to overcome, including…
Even when everyone works in the office or works from home it can be difficult to ensure teams communicate effectively and everyone receives key messages. This can become even more pronounced when some employees are at home and some are in the office. Ensuring all meetings are held online regardless of location can help to ensure those who aren’t in the office are not excluded. Online meetings can lack social aspects of connection such as chatting before and after the meeting. It can be harder to read body language. This makes it more important in a hybrid environment to enable whole teams to come together on a regular basis to boost the sense of team spirit and interpersonal relationships.
Related article: How employees can stay connected while working from home
Hybrid working also demands managers re-think how they manage performance. All too often we default to assessing performance through what we observe. We see people in the office and we assume they are being productive. When teams are working in a blended way, managers will need to focus much more on productivity and contribution than how long employees spend at their desk. HR will need to consider systems for recognition, reward and promotion and ensure that there is no inherent bias towards those more regularly in the office.
Making hybrid work
The global pandemic has not only progressed the remote working agenda, but has also introduced many to new technologies to our daily lives too. Prior to March 2020, many employees had never Zoomed, chatted in Microsoft Teams, or attended training online. How things have changed!
Technology doesn’t only support remote working, but asynchronous working too. We have realised work can be undertaken effectively through online collaboration – and this doesn’t have necessarily have to take place at the same time. This opens up not only location flexibility but schedule flexibility too. Technology is at the heart of hybrid working and it is key that businesses don’t assume everyone is now fully competent. Organisations should ensure that employees can not only use remote working technology, but can appreciate and use its full potential.
Before the pandemic, many managers will not have managed a remote team and recent months have required them to adapt quickly and upskill. Managing a hybrid team will bring new challenges again: organisations will need to continue to support managers in developing these new skills and abilities.
Related article: How to manage employees working from home
Finally, managers and individual teams should be empowered to establish their own ways of working, tailored to their context and needs. There’s no one single way of making hybrid working work. Organisations can set principles and guidelines, and then help teams make it work for themselves.
Is hybrid working the future of the workplace? It is perhaps still too early to say. However, the longer so many employees work successfully from home, the harder it is to see a future in which we return to full time office life. Only time will truly tell…
Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced HR Director and CIPD Chartered Fellow. She is a regular speaker and writer on HR topics like employee engagement and social media.