At the beginning of 2020 I was once again discussing how work was changing.
It was a conversation I’d had many times over the years. Employers would have to change to meet the needs of employees, I would say. And employees were telling us over and over again that they wanted more flexibility in how, when and where they worked.
The response was predictable – we can’t. Policies and procedures. IT says no. How can we trust people to work when we can’t see them? (Why you would hire someone who you believe will shirk off as soon as their supervisor is out of site is a different matter!)
Just three months later, everything changed.
SUDDENLY WE CAN
It turns out all that’s needed to remove the organisational logjam of the office-based 9-5 is a global pandemic. Who knew?
This in no way demeans the efforts of the people who made this happen – especially those working in organisations where there was no remote working at all prior to the pandemic.
But it does make me wonder what other things that we’re told “can’t be changed”, actually can be.
THE NEW NORMAL
It’s time to enter the realm of speculation, as we consider the workplace of the (near) future.
Even before the pandemic hit we saw the emergence of organisations like WeWork, who saw that work was becoming a thing we did, not a place we went.
Many roles will be flexible by default, a stark contrast to the way we were at the beginning of last year. Not only is there no justification for 100% office, there’s also no point in undoing the technical and procedural changes that have been implemented at great cost over the past year.
That means the future for office roles is hybrid; where employees combine remote and office based time in a way that means they are as productive as possible.
A CIPD poll (April 2021) found only 14% of organisations were expecting to return to pre-pandemic levels of business travel.
YOU CAN’T UNDO PROGRESS
Hybrid working has huge benefits for parents. It’s a huge win for mothers, who have persistently listed inflexible working hours as the number one obstacle to their careers. And for fathers, who are able to increase the time they spend with their children despite the social and societal pressures.
My view is that hybrid working is here to stay. We’ve seen that 100% homeworking has been a challenge for many, especially younger people who are sharing accomodation with others or don’t have room for a dedicated working space.
And there’s less tangible considerations, like transfer of organisational lore, that simply can’t be resolved without good old-fashioned face-to-face, real life same-place working.
Because our offices and warehouses, call centers and factories, sites and shops aren’t just for the delivery of work. They’re places where relationships form and grow. They’re the birthplaces of connections that last for years, across jobs and employers. And we can’t yet replicate that through a screen.
Over 50% of employees are looking to move jobs due to lack of recognition, appreciation and support with home workers feeling less connected to the company.
MAKING HYBRID WORKING A SUCCESS
From my own experience of introducing hybrid working into organisations I’ve identified a few hazards for the HR professional to be aware of.
The first is managerial skills. Whilst the common impression is that managers of a hybrid workforce struggle with not being able to see remote workers, this isn’t the main issue I’ve come across.
Instead, I’ve found that managers need more support managing internal relationships between members of their team. Whilst the manager is able to keep track of each of their team member’s work, other team members fall out of the loop without the informal conversations that happen in the workplace.
An example is a team member (A) who is reallocated to an emergency project. Their old work is handed to a colleague (B), but as far as B can tell, they are just picking up A’s slack, causing resentment.
That leads nicely into hazard number two, which is relevant to all managers: information transfer.
We all joke about pointless meetings, but often the reason they’re pointless is because all the information they’re designed to share has already been delivered through informal networks. Without 100% workplace attendance, 100% of the time, these informal networks become less efficient.
As leaders, we’ve got used to other people delivering our messages. With hybrid working, we can’t rely on this being the case. So things like notice boards (both physical and online), newsletters and regular catch-ups become much more important. If knowledge only exists halfway up a Slack thread, it may as well not exist at all.
The third hazard of hybrid working is forcing it. The benefit of hybrid working is that it allows people to work in a way that’s most productive for them. If employee A lives with their parents and young siblings, working from home isn’t an attractive option. However, they may benefit from access to a local WeWork style co-working environment a few days each week rather than a full commute to their main workplace.
Conversely, as B is a working parent being able to work from home or at irregular times is crucial to keeping them and their skills in your workforce. Finally, C, who simply doesn’t want to commute every day, but still wants to connect with their colleagues, would probably benefit from a fixed days in/days out agreement.
As everyone’s personal circumstances are different, so are their feelings toward hybrid working.
10 TOP TIPS
Download my 10 top tips for formalising your ‘pandemic panic’ hybrid working policies. It includes advice for returning employees to the office, recruitment and strategy.
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