Magnus Schoeman, Visiting Fellow and Dr Abdelkader Aoufi, Lecturer in Operations Management discuss the effects of hybrid working.

It's almost two years since the pandemic begun and ensuing lockdowns around the world have forced upon us the largest scale ‘experiment’ in remote working ever.  To varying degrees, organisations had moved to flexible working models (including structured or ad hoc working from home days, bring-your-own device and hotdesking) but few firms have effectively prepared for the scale of transformation in terms of culture, capabilities, and ways of working. 

In fact, true remote working was a practice perceived as a taboo in many organisations before COVID-19.  Hybrid working (the combining of work patterns and locations in a mix of remote working and co-locating with colleagues in an office) looks here to stay and with-it, significant management implications which raises many questions such as:

  • How is this ‘enforced experiment’ going?
  • What is the reaction from employees?
  • What “best practices” are emerging?
  • What is the overall net impact on organisations (net beneficial or net detrimental)?
  • How are employees balancing presenteeism in the office and working from home?
  • How will an increased demand for flexibility affect out-dated taboos and constraints around working location?

Impact on employees

Employee attitudes to hybrid working vary greatly depending on job role, level of seniority, age, tenure, personal circumstances, industry, etc.  Some employees can only dream of being able to work from home being tied to a physical location due to the nature of their role (e.g. in healthcare) or security constraints (as is the case for some frontline employees in financial services).  Yet one issue that does seem to be emerging is a disconnect between the top team and the frontline.  As recently highlighted by several studies, whilst CEOs and their executive teams expect employees to return to the office, the employee base seems to have a different working model in mind, with the continued flexibility they have become accustomed to - and only occasional days in a physical office.

In terms of ‘best practice’ that’s emerging in hybrid working, again its very sector specific (for the reasons already given).  However, a key lesson that is evident is deliberately engaging teams in the debate and explicitly designing new working models e.g., clear communication to employees that they are expected to be on-site 2 days per week, and then only for meetings that require co-location or for team cohesion.

Another helpful approach that we are seeing is for organisations to keep the principle of inclusivity front of mind to ensure that employees that have to work remotely are not disadvantaged.  GitHub have even gone so far as to mandate that employees should join virtual meetings individually and online even if they are co-located in the office, to ensure that all participants have the same opportunities to contribute and participate.

Impact on the Organisation and Career development

The organisational benefits associated with the shift to remote working are often lauded.  Some studies suggest significant improvements in productivity (13% to 24% gains).  In addition, reduced business travel, less commuting and a lighter usage of offices has improved the carbon footprint of some organisations. 

However, it’s probably too early to celebrate hybrid working models as wholly beneficial to organisations.  The impact of social isolation and the blurring of home/work boundaries associated with home-working all seem to be contributing to a strain on the mental health of employees.  In addition, there is the on-going challenge of employees feeling excluded and disadvantaged in terms of career advancement compared to employees who can return to the office and be more visible to senior management, and ‘front of mind’ for promotion opportunities.  This includes a move away from outdated practices of micromanaging employees based on presenteeism KPIs, rather than measures based on business and team outcomes.

To summarise, there is the real prospect for the ‘new normal’ to be something better in terms of employee experience rather than returning to the old models of being in the office 9-5, five days per week.   If we act now, business leaders can grasp the chance to engage their teams and adopt new ways of working ‘by design’ emerging from the pandemic stronger, more resilient and more adaptable.  This will require culture change and a willingness to challenge ‘taboos’, pre-existing norms and beliefs around employee engagement. 

Interested in taking part?

We are undertaking research into the attitudes of senior leaders to hybrid working.  If you are interested participating in this study, or would like to share your experience, please do get in touch.