Hybrid working is here to stay. Last December, the government released their plans to make flexible working the default, giving millions of employees the ability to request flexible or hybrid working models from day one.
The global pandemic has reshaped the way that people work, changing the workplace. The plans put forward by the government last year have merely ratified these changes, but businesses across the UK and beyond have seen their priorities shift, investing in technologies that allow people to stay connected, whether they are on-site or working remotely. Hybrid arrangements have become increasingly normal, but that does not mean they are universally popular – especially with employers.
These plans for increased flexibility have not escaped criticism, with Sir James Dyson – a man most famously associated with hot air – calling the government’s approach “staggeringly self-defeating” in a piece for The Times, warning that the plans will cause “increased friction” between employers and employees. And he’s not alone in his concerns. Earlier in 2022, controversial businessman Alan Sugar declared that people who work remotely are “lazy”, worrying that people at home would be watching television when they should be working. Last November, on the other side of the Atlantic, fellow billionaire and Twitter owner Elon Musk – no stranger to making headlines for his approach to employee experience – announced to Twitter staff via an email at 2.30am that they would no longer be allowed to work remotely.
For Musk, this decision was owing to the “arduous road” ahead for the social media giant, requiring that everyone would need to work as hard as possible to keep the company afloat. Of course, the implication here is that hard work and productivity are not compatible with remote working. But is this true? This is a topic we have covered before in length, but its worth revisiting some of the most striking statistics: studies have shown that remote working has led to a rise in employee performance by 13% and an increase in productivity by up to 77%.
Concerns that remote workers are not working as hard as their in-person office counterparts are – for the most part – simply unfounded. According to Forbes, the flexibility offered by remote and hybrid workplaces has increased employee happiness by more than 20%. Hybrid work models are making employees more content, seeing them enjoy a better work-life balance, be more productive, and generally happier to stay in their roles.
And this is the most significant truth in the debate around remote and hybrid working: whether opposed to these models or not, the simple fact is, organisations can ill-afford to try and enforce a return to the office. In amongst the deluge of articles on the great resignation last year, one thing was made startlingly clear: many workers would rather resign than return to full-time in-person office roles.
So, for now, let’s put aside the criticisms from certain quarters, because flexible working is the new norm. With the new year now upon us, organisations must focus on how to get their approach to remote and hybrid work right. So how can businesses become ‘remote-first’ employers and create hybrid workplaces that work for everyone? Let’s look at some ways businesses can approach the future of work.
Prioritise Flexibility, Fluidity, and Autonomy
For many business owners and bosses, it may be fair to say that one of the reasons to oppose remote and hybrid working is that it leaves office spaces – often one of the bigger overheads for organisations – dormant for some or most of the work week. Finding a way to use that workspace presents a challenge to organisations, but it also presents new opportunities to rethink the when, where, and how people work.
Of course, the flipside of this for employees themselves is that, with working from home, the lines can blur between work and non-work time, leading to people feeling unable to switch off – and that could have the potential to lead to increased stress and even burnout.
This points to a need for flexibility in how organisations approach these working models, changing from rigid structures to something more fluid, reimagining how both the workday and the workspace can look, to give people more freedom and autonomy to work and collaborate effectively.
Use the Office for Collaboration
One way is to change the perception of the office space – where once it was the centre of all working activity, it may now be beneficial to view time in the office in the same way that off-site days were seen in the time before the pandemic: specifically for collaboration, creativity, and learning opportunities. This means that time in the office is reserved specifically for people working together rather than simply being a place for people to work alone in a communal space.
Creating an office that thrives as a centre for collaborative working also gives people specific reason to come in, one cleanly delineated from their business-as-usual daily activities. This centres the office as a place where people work together, rather than a space where they simply just work.
Streamline Remote Working Practices
The other side to this is finding ways to ensure that peoples’ time at home is spent productively within work hours and does not blur into their non-work time. It has been well documented that one of the major reasons employees feel fatigue when working remotely is the number of virtual meetings they attend. Video meetings require more concentration than in-person meetings. And while its natural that employers may want to find ways to keep their eyes on how their workers are spending their time remotely, the proliferation of these remote meetings is one of the main reasons remote workers are feeling burnout.
These meetings also can contribute to longer working hours, as people run out of time to balance the number of meetings with their day-to-day activities.
Our partners at Salesforce have been experimenting with working ‘asynchronously’ – in 2021, they began trialling weeks where sections of the business would go meeting-free for entire weeks, allowing workers to focus on ‘head-down’ working time. This allows employees time where they can concentrate solely on the tasks they need to complete, while moving activities like brainstorming that previously would have been done in meetings to digital channels like Miro.
Ultimately, it comes down to trusting your workers: where previous on-site working models made employers feel that they needed to keep tabs on employees at all times to ensure they were working, studies show that people tend perform better when they are allowed autonomy and trusted to fulfil their roles.
That trust is essential – not only for employee experience, but to ensure that hybrid work models can evolve to become more successful for organisations.
Focus on Equity
For many businesses, HR processes were not designed with a hybrid model in mind. Everything from recruitment to on-boarding, performance management, and career development were initially created for employees spending their entire work week in a shared office space. This means that there will likely be gaps in how organisations approach all these processes for hybrid vs remote workers.
If you oversee a team that consists of a mix of hybrid and remote workers, are you ensuring that they are all receiving the same opportunities? How can you manage the perception of people who come to the office everyday as opposed to those who spend much of their time working remotely? Are both sets of workers receiving the same opportunities, or are those who come in-person to the office every day receiving different treatment?
These are difficult questions to answer, and in many cases, they will depend on numerous factors including your workplace culture, your company values, your employer brand, and the individuals themselves. But businesses need to remember that questions around hybrid and remote working are questions around inclusivity and equity. Employees must be treated equally and have access to the same opportunities, no matter how they choose to work.
This requires examining every step of an employee journey to ensure that everything from the language you use in job descriptions to the way people are enabled to connect and collaborate is equal, no matter an employee’s work preferences.
Building the hybrid workplace of the future requires action today to make sure that everyone is treated fairly. This means finding ways to communicate and connect with those employees engaged with remote work and those in the office alike and listening to their feedback. Building a flexible and successful hybrid environment requires consistent lines for communication and a willingness to make the necessary changes to best accommodate everyone.
With HR leaders and organisations starting to put together new processes to accommodate both hybrid and remote workers, they must ensure that they are adapting to the realities of hybrid working models – aware of the potential challenges, and vigilant that their organisations are not unintentionally allowing a hierarchy where employees who choose to come in-person to a shared office space are treated differently to those who work from home.
Bridging the physical distance between those working remotely and those working in an office requires not just the right technology, but the right use of that technology. While many businesses are keenly aware of the need to digitally transform the way they work and invest in technology that improves both hybrid and remote working experiences, the way that this technology is utilised is still important.
Purchasing shiny new tech to enable remote participation for in-person meetings is only half the battle – the person working remotely may still find it frustrating and difficult to engage in that meeting when the physical space has not been designed or reconsidered to encourage their participation.
For example, many meeting rooms still consist of a singular long table surrounded by chairs with a screen at one end of the room. People in the meeting room can easily converse with each other, while the remote attendee exists in a tiny grid at the end of the room, vying for screen real estate with the meeting slides or whatever other content is being presented, easily forgotten, or overlooked.
In the year 2023, we have all been on at least one side of a meeting like this – if not both – and we can all understand the challenge this presents.
This is another example of the ways in which hybrid and remote workers can be treated inequitably, often unintentionally, by their employers and businesses. And it negatively impacts organisation’s ability to retain staff. We have covered before how poor workplace technology harms talent retention, but it is likely that good workplace technology, underutilised, will have a limited impact in solving this issue.
Adapting to hybrid working models requires a willingness to accommodate those who are not physically present in workplace. Digital transformation goes beyond simply investing in technology – it also requires utilising it in a way that benefits all employees.
At XCD, we are obviously firm advocates of using technology to improve processes and deliver better employee experience. We believe our platform can improve everything from on-boarding to performance management and employee experience. But how that technology is adopted and used will make a huge difference to creating a hybrid working environment that works for everyone and one that falls short of accommodating those who choose to work remotely.
Developing a remote-first business requires utilising technology to reimagine what the workplace looks like, not simply applying a digital layer of paint over an older way of doing business.
The workplace is changing. Today all the talk is focused on building a hybrid workplace, but tomorrow the conversation could just as easily be about the need for a four-day work week or a 32-hour work week. Organisations need to be building the right processes and ensuring their investments in technology will be able to accommodate the demands of their employees moving forward, or risk struggling to attract and retain the best talent. Getting the hybrid working model right in 2023 means laying the foundation for the future of work, whatever that may hold.