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Stop debating it, hybrid is here to stay

Kate Bishop, Chief HR Officer - IFS

Before the pandemic, there was a broad perception across many business sectors that the vast majority of employees would be office-based. The experience of COVID has, however, changed employer attitudes. It has proved to many organisations that remote and flexible working is viable, that they can trust employees and that productivity will not suffer. In fact, in multiple cases, it has accelerated productivity while bringing significant benefits to employees saving commuting time, enabling better family and outside interest balance.

We know that demand for flexible working has increased. Analyst, Gartner recently estimated that remote workers would represent 32% of all employees worldwide at the end of 2021, up from 17% in 2019. There is still work to do, however. Flexible work consultancy, Timewise, recently reported that three out of four jobs advertised in the UK, for example, still do not offer any sort of flexible work options. And that’s despite vacancies soaring to a 20-year high. It seems some companies are still slow to realise that there is a new, ‘new normal.’

A recent Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum among 12,500 employed people in 29 countries found strong support for flexible working from employees. According to the report, two-thirds of people around the world want to work flexibly when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, while almost a third said they were prepared to leave their job if they were made to return to the office full time. In the technology sector, remote working is such a hot topic that at the end of 2020 Glassdoor compiled a list of the best tech companies for remote working – a list that included the likes of Slack, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce.

The explosion of remote working has widened the talent pool
For most companies, the pandemic has opened up the talent pool, offering an array of options for businesses prepared to offer remote or flexible working in a hybrid model. Organisations are no longer restricted to selecting candidates within one hour’s journey of their office. This allows businesses to benefit from a ‘talent first, structure second’ approach to recruitment and retention.

Collaborative technology allows software businesses, for example, to offer flexible working to developers in other time zones and attract talent from any corner of the world. Work is moving to where the talent is more and more, and that is proving a more popular choice than moving talent to where the work is or only recruiting in particular geographic markets.

Remote working also supports diversity and inclusion within businesses, removing geographical barriers and increasing gender diversity as research shows women are more likely to apply for roles advertised with remote working options. Research has also shown that hybrid working can help create psychological safety for LGBTQ+ employees and is a ‘game changer’ for workplace inclusion for such individuals, who won’t have to choose between the location of their employer and that of the supportive community they’ve created.

Disabled workers that may have struggled to access key amenities within office buildings can often be more productive and efficient in work from home settings. And by removing the need for young people to relocate to find employment opportunities, the practice of remote working is now even helping to increase social mobility among the workforce while at the same time widening the talent pool available to employers.

In some global organisations, COVID has really acted as a catalyst of cultural change. Some countries, which had previously had previously strict hierarchical working environments – and therefore little to no history of remote working, have made a virtue out of necessity and embraced work from home models. Employees have reaped the rewards of greater flexibility around where and when they work, and employers have gained from higher levels of worker engagement.

Of course, remote working does not suit every sector. Many areas of manufacturing, transport and hospitality industries for example cannot operate with remote workforces. Some organisations may have blended workforces where workers in logistics or warehouse roles will not have the opportunity to work from home, while those performing administrative functions, for example, may do. Organisations should be cognisant of the tensions that may rise as a result but perhaps greater consultation with the workforce can enable paradigm shifts in these areas, as employees generate ideas that management may not have considered?

But across the majority of businesses, the new model of hybrid working has far-reaching benefits and should be here to stay. Businesses need to commit to this approach, stick with it, and avoid the temptation to revert to the unwieldy working models of the past.

Overcoming the challenges of hybrid working
The key to the hybrid model is flexibility. Using technology and the skills of HR professionals to build a sense of internal connection is important. Individuals do still value in-person interactivity and it’s an important part of human nature for extroverts and introverts. While the remote option must be widely available, so too should the option to connect face-to-face. As such, simple initiatives such as making the office available for meetings and informal catch-ups promotes positive collaboration, helps reduce social isolation and enhances wellbeing.

Workers at different stages in their careers may have different needs and preferences. Those accustomed to working alone in well-established roles are likely to be suited to high levels of remote working. Graduate employees, who are new to the business world, have few business contacts and require regular help and guidance. They are likely to benefit from spending more time in the office and having the opportunity to interact with peers socially.

Again, choice is key. It is important to engage with employees, using pulse surveys, for example, and regularly assess whether their working preferences have changed. That helps build employee loyalty and increase levels of retention. Managers need to learn to navigate this environment and balance their preferences with those of their team and organisation to find the ‘right’ approach.

Beyond this, organisations should work hard at using conferencing technology and collaborative tools to ensure remote working colleagues can fully participate and do not feel they are missing out. Companies need to ensure every member of staff has (as close to possible), the same experience and opportunity in terms of the technology they use at home, whether they have a dedicated work area, or are working from a noisy shared space.

They also need to guard against the scenario highlighted by Bank of England economist, Catherine Mann, where a two-track system is created: a physical track and a virtual one, and women working mostly from home (many with childcare responsibilities) and on the latter track, missed out on career opportunities.

At the same time, employees need to be guarded against suffering from ‘permavailability,’ a sense that they have to respond to queries at any time. This is in part due to the lack of boundaries between home and work, with no clear end time for the working day and the increase in adoption of instant messenger tools, employees may feel the need to be ‘always on.’ It is the businesses responsibility to ensure staff wellbeing is monitored, and that leadership are regularly reminding their teams to take breaks, and not feel pressured to respond to emails outside normal working times, for example. It is the management’s responsibility to lead by example here and recognise the impact their actions have on the working culture. Employees need to have an opportunity to get away from work when they are not in the office.

Organisations also need to be cognisant of the cultural differences across their workforce. A team working in the Far East will be culturally very different from one in the UK or Brazil, and their experience of a hybrid model will too be different. With this in mind, one-size-fits all models should be avoided and regional teams should input on what hybrid working means for them.

Seizing the opportunity
If done right, the hybrid model helps promote employee engagement and positive workplace culture, as well as supporting enhanced productivity and business growth. Businesses should see it as an opportunity to build stronger and more diverse teams and attract and retain the best people. The new working model enables them to do both and ensure that location isn’t a barrier to talent.

With a focus on employee wellbeing, ensuring workers are not isolated or overburdened but have the right tools and opportunities to contribute positively to the organisation’s success, the hybrid working model combined with technology advancement has the potential to be an unquestioned success.

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