New thinking

Hello hybrid!

A mix of home and office working is on the increase.
How can you make it work for you?

It’s billed as the future of work; a super-flexible, post-pandemic approach where employees work partly at home and partly in a communal office.

The hybrid model removes the boundaries between home working and office working, providing more choice and greater fluidity in how and where we work.

A big advantage of hybrid working is it can be adapted to suit the lifestyle of individual employees and the culture of the company. It means employees can work several days a week in a central hub or just pop in for important meetings, presentations and social functions depending on the individual, their job and their organisation.

As well as offering more flexibility, there is an argument hybrid working can reduce capital costs for employers long-term. It may also lead to a happier workforce and, as a result, better performance.

However, this utopian vision of the future of work, accelerated by the mass enforced experiment in home working during the pandemic, doesn’t work for everyone and isn’t easy to get right.

Indeed, without careful planning, the hybrid model can come unstuck, especially if employees don’t feel supported or trusted out of the office, if it’s not clear how much time should be spent in the office and what tasks should be done there, or if individuals end up working longer and more unsocial hours.

Benefits and drawbacks

In an article published in HR Magazine in January 2021, Gemma Dale, a senior HR professional, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University Business School and wellbeing and engagement manager at The University of Manchester, warns the hybrid model presents new challenges for managers and staff alike.

She says: “When some people in the office and some are not, there is a risk of a two-tier workforce developing. Communication problems may result too, and there is the potential for challenges around inclusion, engagement and collaboration. All of these challenges are surmountable – but they will take focus and effort.”

For some people, working from home for even just one or two days per week is not only preferable but can offer significant benefits including greater freedom to mould working hours around lifestyle and family commitments.

Workspace specialist Envoy, which helps companies transform workspaces for hybrid work, lists the key benefits of hybrid working as:

  1. Employees can do work when and how they are most productive
  2. Better work-life balance
  3. Reduced exposure to illness
  4. Reduced cost of real estate with fewer people on site at any one time
  5. Access to a wider talent net when employees are predominantly home based

For others, the reality can be quite different. Many people lack the space, technology and emotional support they need to work effectively from home. Others find it too distracting, especially those with young children, or they simply are not suited to working in greater isolation with limited opportunities to interact other than via a laptop.

In certain cases, the work-life balance can actually be worse if employees end up having to participate in endless Zoom calls, especially when linking up with colleagues in different time zones, or if workloads increase and managers aren’t fully aware of the extra burden on individuals.

Key factors to consider

The hybrid model is only suited to some individuals and organisations. Moreover, its success depends on a large number of factors including the nature of the job, the commitment of the employee and the support offered by employers.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests it can and does work. Research from McKinsey indicates more than 20 percent of the workforce are able to work remotely three to five days a week just as effectively as they are working in an office. Jobs in finance and insurance, management and professional services are particularly conducive to a more flexible approach, with up to 76% of time spent working remotely without loss in productivity in the US.

Attitudes are changing, following the mass experiment in home working during the pandemic. In a survey of 800 corporate executives around the world across all sectors, McKinsey found 38 percent of respondents expect their remote employees to work two or more days a week away from the office after the pandemic, compared to 22 percent of respondents surveyed before the pandemic.

Interestingly, only 19 percent of respondents said they expected employees to work three or more days remotely. This indicates a hybrid model rather than full-time remote working is likely to be the preferred model going forward.

The big question is, can hybrid working improve productivity? Some 41 percent of respondents in the McKinsey study said they were more productive working remotely than in the office. Not exactly conclusive but perhaps higher than many people believed was possible before the pandemic.

The need to plan ahead

Maud Santamaria, Workplace Experience Director for Operate, is convinced companies and individuals can make the hybrid model work for them with careful planning. In an article published in May 2021 by global consultancy and construction firm Mace, she says companies need a clear strategy involving HR, IT, wellbeing, training and communications.

She outlines five ways to ensure hybrid working will increase both productivity and wellbeing:

  1. Making sure everyone has equal opportunities to contribute
  2. Encouraging collaboration through office-based meet-ups and creative sessions
  3. Effective support of split teams, with regular check-ins and informal catch-ups
  4. Transforming offices to encourage greater collaboration and greater socialisation
  5. Managing wellbeing and social events to create a consistent culture

One way to ensure better results is to develop, implement and manage a hybrid HR policy outlining how a more flexible approach to the workplace should work in practice. HR journal Personnel Today provides a useful guide to creating a hybrid policy in an article published in May 2021.

Written by employment law editor Stephen Simpson, the article urges organisations to start by explaining what hybrid working entails and the benefits it can bring, then make it clear who is eligible in terms of the roles best suited to the hybrid model.

The next step and perhaps the trickiest is to detail how many days a week are to be worked remotely as opposed to the office, and to describe what tasks are to be done in the office, for example important team meetings or training sessions.

Guidance should be given on the support available to work effectively and securely when out of the office, including the use of technology, how to protect personal and company data, and help with wellbeing and managing work-life balance.

It is also important to be clear about other options available such as total home working or a return to full-time office working, and what is expected of the employee in each scenario.

Supporting employees

In terms of support to help employees adjust to new ways of working, much can be learned from the changes introduced during the pandemic. The most agile and employee-focussed organisations developed extensive support packages for employees thrown in at the deep end by having to work at home for many months, with little or no opportunity to visit the office.

These packages may form the basis for support for hybrid workers in future as significant numbers of employees return to the office for at least part of the working week.

An example of the type of support on offer is the Work from Home Remedies Program introduced by US accounting firm Plante Moran, a member of Praxity Global Alliance.

Launched in September 2020, the program provides staff with “greater flexibility, balance, technology enhancements, and financial support to ease the stress of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Benefits include:

  • 50% reimbursement of up to $2,000 per household to help working parents defray the costs of day care, tutors, and virtual learning necessitated by the pandemic
  • Extra funds to upgrade home offices, as well as two external computer monitors, a keyboard, mouse, and docking station
  • Reimbursement of costs for in-home exercise equipment, such as treadmills and free weights
  • Greater flexibility in scheduling, including the ability to take off a few hours to support kids’ online learning or wholesale reduce weekly hours for one, two, or more months
  • A three-day weekend in mid-October to encourage a “battery recharge” for all
  • Encouraging employees to shorten all virtual meetings by 25%

While such generous support may not be sustainable post-Covid, it demonstrates how employee-focussed businesses are investing more in staff wellbeing as flexible working options become the norm.

Putting staff needs first and being ultra-flexible and supportive certainly seems a step in the right direction if organisations are to fully embrace hybrid working – and reap the benefits.

I originally wrote this article for Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms. I have updated it for my website.