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How to make a success of hybrid working

As working practices continue to evolve, hybrid working is the phrase on everyone’s lips. What is it, how will it benefit your business and what’s the best way to implement it? Here’s what you need to know.

If there’s one phrase I’m hearing more than any other right now (apart from “You’re on mute”), it’s ‘hybrid working’. In meetings, in articles, in podcasts, everyone is talking about it; it seems it’s one of the main strategic priorities of 2021.

But despite all the discussion, not everyone seems to agree on exactly what it means – or understand how to do it well. So, here’s the Timewise lowdown on what it is, why it matters and how to make it work.

What hybrid working involves

Hybrid working has always existed, but its prevalence has been turbocharged by the pandemic and subsequent remote working experiment. There isn’t yet a definitive definition, but at its core, it’s an arrangement in which an individual, team or organisation work part of their time at the workplace and part remotely.

In the brief periods in 2020 when office workers were allowed back into the workplace, the need for social distancing meant that most only went in for part of their working week. As a result, many employees experienced a hybrid pattern for the first time – and the evidence suggests they’re keen to stick with it.

At its best, hybrid working is about matching the task to the location, and doing the right work in the right place; there are numerous examples of people saying they work more productively on certain tasks from home. And from an employer’s perspective, there are many positives too.

The business benefits of hybrid working

Hybrid working, like flexible working in general, offers huge benefits for employers who take it seriously and deliver it well. These benefits are well-established by now, but here’s a recap of the main ones:

  • Employees want it – so offering it will help you attract and keep a more diverse pool of good ones. And doing so publicly will boost your corporate image, clearly signalling that you have a flexible culture built on trust.
  • The reasons why they want it are beneficial to you too – if a hybrid pattern makes employees feel happier, healthier, more productive, less stressed and more in control of their lives, they’re more likely to deliver.
  • Fewer people in the office at once means less space is needed – cutting down on real estate, utility bills and other associated costs. It’s a chance to rethink how you use the space you have and get the best from it.

Thanks to the leaps that have been made in technology, it’s possible to be present in, and contribute to, most meetings, even when you’re elsewhere. And for those of us who have long been interested in flexible working, it’s worth noting that the focus on hybrid working, and the changes as a result, are hugely beneficial for part-time employees, as well as full-time hybrid ones.

Issues to watch out for

However, while the benefits are clear, hybrid working isn’t risk-free. Here are some of the issues you need to consider:

  • Fairness: Will you be able to offer a hybrid arrangement to everyone in your team or organisation? If you don’t think you can, what will the impact be?
  • Inclusivity: Unevenly implemented hybrid working and behavioural bias can lead to an influence gap between an office-based ‘in-crowd’, and their more remote-based peers. This could have a knock-on effect on diversity and inclusion with more women, or carers, or people with health issues, or introverts, opting to work from home. How will you make sure their voices are heard?
  • Collaboration and innovation: Zoom calls aren’t the best forum for creativity and there are some tasks that work better when people are sharing a desk, rather than a screen. And sometimes new ideas pop up from an impromptu conversation around the coffee machine. How will you facilitate formal and informal collaboration if people aren’t in the office together?
  • Inequality: Not everyone has space for a home office or super-fast broadband; for employees living in flatshares, for example, homeworking might not be productive at all. How will you support these teammates to do their best work if you expect them to be homebased for part of the week?

How to get it right

What these issues clearly show is that this isn’t something you can leave to chance. Just telling your people they can split their week between home and the office and then crossing your fingers and hoping it will work itself out won’t wash.

Instead, you need to work to develop a hybrid culture, in which:

  • Leaders, managers and HR understand the risks related to a two-tier workforce, split into those who come in and those who stay out, and take steps to avoid it.
  • Leaders set the tone from the top that wherever you are working, your input is valued, and commit to role-modelling hybrid working themselves.
  • HR teams and managers skill up on hybrid job design, and take a team-based approach to deciding which parts of roles should be done where, when and by whom.
  • Managers are trained to support and communicate with people they don’t see on a daily basis, to trust their team to deliver out of sight, and to create and agree opportunities for collaboration.
  • Key elements of the employee lifecycle, such as recruitment, onboarding, training and performance management, are reworked and reframed to match a hybrid model.
  • Employees are given the support (financial, technological, manager access) they need to work well remotely, and are valued for their outputs, not their inputs.
  • And there is a company-wide understanding of the different dynamics that exist within teams and the need to avoid gaps being increased by structural inequalities.

Already, different organisations are finding new ways to tackle this; for example, in some workplaces all meetings take place digitally, so that those at home have equal representation to those in the office. And some leaders are taking this as an opportunity to completely rethink what their HQ is used for, such as remodelling the office as a place for relationship building and collaboration rather than producing work.

There’s a lot to think about, certainly – but if, as seems likely, hybrid working is the future, it’s worth investing the time and training to get it right. We can help; as well as running a series of workshops on all elements of flexible and hybrid working, we have also created a new Flex Positive Programme, to help employers design and develop future-fit workplaces. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch.

Published June 2021

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