A balanced approach: making hybrid working work, and accepting it isn’t optional

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For most, there needs to be an acceptance that hybrid working is a long-term project – even if there is some short-term painHybrid working is back in the headlines – not that it ever really left. A recent report from the Centre for Cities warns hybrid working will result in an “unintended economic impact” and is calling on national government and the mayor of London to do more to remove barriers to getting people back into the office. It suggests a freeze on commuting costs and calls for better collaboration between the private and public sectors to make working in cities more appealing.

Office workers themselves had a lot to say about hybrid and remote working in response to our recent study, Work Remastered. Most notably, only 50 percent of employees feel it has had a positive impact on culture. Younger Gen Z workers aged 18-24 were most likely to see it as negative.

The preferences of those nearer the start of their careers might seem to add credence to a push for a return to the office, but is it really the right move for all employees? Looking beyond the headline figures, our findings suggest there is no ‘silver bullet’ that will make hybrid working appeal to everyone. It’s a far more deeply nuanced issue.

Although some organisations were using Zoom and Skype pre-Covid, many more are still in the teething phase. Adapting to an entirely new way of working, jump-started by the pandemic, is going to take longer than the two or three years we’ve had so far.

Lockdown gave us pause for thought. People had the time to think about what they really wanted and needed from life and from work. This is reflected in the results of our study, which tell us that work-life balance is the factor most valued by employees at work, with flexibility taking second place.

But at a time of rising inflation and economic uncertainty, it should come as no surprise that security is the third-highest ranked factor people value at work. It’s worth noting this comes ahead of career development, fulfilment, and recognition.

The preference not to work in the office full-time – and the aligned desire for work-life balance – vary according to life stage.

This puts the onus on organisations to listen to and understand how their people work at their best and define clearly what the business needs for it to achieve its goals. There is a balance to be found and if organisations haven’t yet reached this, how can they bring their people on that journey?

 

Is attendance mandated for a reason, or just presenteeism?

Many leaders want people back in the office. But a mandated return to pre-Covid norms will be limiting. The key benefit of offering hybrid – or indeed fully remote working – is to attract a far wider and more diverse talent pool, which isn’t bound by location.

Organisations will have to give people a good reason to come back – yes, face-to-face collaboration, training and innovation are important, and even a way to help stave off the ‘epidemic of loneliness’ highlighted by the US Surgeon General.

However, this can’t come entirely at the expense of flexibility and balance.

The truth is that the world has moved on. Expectations have changed. No business can now realistically expect its office-based employees to spend all their time on-site and hope to retain its people. Leaders who don’t take a pause will be likely perceived as not trusting their people.

 

Is hybrid for the privileged few?

Remember, hybrid working isn’t new. Many organisations have had global teams working together – though not face-to-face – for decades. Others are going to have to modernise their approach to avoid exacerbating the frontline/head office divide. That means developing ways to make flexibility a reality for shift workers, those in retail and in factories.

This in-person workforce, who physically cannot work remotely, are an underrepresented voice. They need the same amount of consideration over the hybrid challenge. Keep them engaged and give them some degree of autonomy over their role.

To get this right will require dialogue and piloting to find out what is best for employees and the business. We cannot lose sight of the fact that we’ve shifted how we work in a crisis. So how we have managed in the last three years doesn’t need to be the blueprint for the future.

Just as businesses test and iterate with new products, they need to do the same with hybrid working.

Embrace the change, the challenge, and the viewpoints of employees. If they need to be back in the office, they will need to know why. Don’t be afraid to try something new and be agile enough to adapt when it works – or when it doesn’t.

And to reiterate, this is still only the beginning of the hybrid working journey. Some organisations were doing it perfectly well before the lockdowns – and if it worked then, it should work now. But for most, there needs to be an acceptance that this is a long-term project – even if there is some short-term pain.