Ensuring Hybrid Working Really Works
Thomas Helliwell, Regional Principal, Strategy at workplace creation consultancy Unispace, explains why new expectations of work are driving development of hybrid working models post-Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw businesses of all shapes and sizes plunged into uncharted territory as lockdown restrictions forced millions of employees to work from home on a permanent basis. This intensified a fundamental shift to our ways of working already in motion in many countries.
Recently, Big Four accountancy Deloitte became one of the latest City firms to announce its move to a hybrid working model, blending remote and office working as and when employees see fit throughout the working week. It follows similar announcements from EY, PwC, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group.
The notion of remote working is not a new one, but Covid-19 drove widespread adoption and most importantly, wider acceptance amongst business leaders that remote working could form part of their overall mix of working practices. In fact, a recent survey of some of the world’s largest employers found that more than half of employees (52 per cent) expect their teams to return to the office by Q3 2021, but critically, not full time.
As we look forward to returning to the workplace, hybrid working offers some clear benefits. For employees, this includes reducing or indeed eliminating commuting times, an enhanced work/life balance and giving teams more freedom over their time. For businesses, working remotely makes it easier to tap into a wider talent pool, whilst reducing the operational costs associated with running an office.
But there are risks as well. Employees have cited concerns around burnout and potentially being overlooked in favour of office-based colleagues. Our recent research found that over a third (35 per cent) of businesses say that devising a hybrid working strategy would be their biggest barrier to returning to physical, collaborative working, as employers seek to overcome the challenges in building, managing, and developing blended teams. As such, the hybrid model’s success relies heavily upon businesses delivering workspaces that allow employees to maximise their potential and contribution, regardless of where they are physically located.
Moving towards a hybrid model will require careful thought to space and design configurations, as well as a host of health and safety considerations including touchless entry systems, sanitation stations, temperature checks, physical distancing protocols, staggered arrival/departure times, bike racks, and enhanced cleaning, to name a few, So offices will need to be redesigned with more open spaces and designated meeting areas.
Gathering information and data on what individuals expect and value from the workplace, how many intend to use the workspace on any given day, and how often they plan to come in will help businesses make informed decisions about space based on the best interests of their people. But it’s not just the physical logistics which need considering, it’s the internal ones too.
Senior leadership needs to set the tone from the top, with clear policies in place for hybrid working, as well as for colleagues who wish to work from home – or the office – on a more permanent basis. Once the policy is set out, management teams will need to be trained or upskilled on how to deliver it, with programme roll-outs and fundamental change management required to make sure everyone understands the firm’s position.
A Destination Workplace
Once the practicalities have been established and the data gathered, businesses need to make their workplaces a destination – a social hub where employees can gather to connect, brainstorm, share knowledge and collaborate. This is about making the workplace somewhere that employees actually want to be. But it’s vital that individuals working remotely are not at risk of losing the rapport and emotional connection that comes with physically being around colleagues. This is arguably even more important for those employees in the early stages of their career who rely heavily upon the mentorship, experience and social interaction that comes from sharing a workspace.
The emphasis, therefore, should be on enhancing the employee experience, creating individual spaces for teams to gravitate towards and feel a connection to, while retaining fluidity around how that works for all colleagues.
At Unispace, we designed our ‘Propeller’ framework to help businesses shift the focus away from individual desk space and concentrate instead on social experiences that reinforce brand, culture, innovation and problem-solving. For some businesses, this may centre around team-building days, for others it might mean a variety of brainstorming sessions.
The importance of tech
Critical to underpinning company culture and ensuring employees stay physically and emotionally connected – wherever they are – is technology.
A recent Unispace survey showed that 40 per cent of European employers expect to see growth in technology as businesses transition to hybrid working. This is driving innovation in meeting and collaboration technology such as Agora that offers a 3-D virtual space that people can explore, mingle in, and attend more formal events such as meetings and presentations.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, decisions about technology in the workplace must be centred around how employees will use and benefit from it. Again, information gathering is key here – asking for employee feedback on the business’ technology and analysing this data will allow businesses to provide the infrastructure that best supports employees both at home and in the workplace.
Making hybrid working work
The most successful hybrid working models will see full or part-time remote workers fully integrated with the team no matter where they are, and ensuring that employee concerns about performance not being recognised do not bear out.
Organisations choosing a hybrid working model must strive to give both in-office and remote workers the same experience and level of interaction. It’s not just the technology that will help with this integration; regular one-to-ones and open communication from managers and other senior team members will help employees continue to feel listened to and valued, too.
A final factor to consider when devising a hybrid working strategy is the number of locations the business operates in. Whether a business is a multinational operating across several countries globally, or a domestic organisation with a few regional offices, a holistic approach is critical.
Too often, businesses think about hybrid working in terms of real estate – indeed, nearly 75 per cent of the world’s largest employers we surveyed anticipate launching new workplace projects by the end of 2021. In reality, it’s about setting out a framework that can be deployed across all sites, which sets out the vision, culture and direction of the overall business.
Putting together a framework for all offices to follow not only means they share the same starting point and end goal but gives them the freedom and flexibility to adapt it to their own needs, nuances and if needed, any future restrictions at a local or national level.
Covid-19 has challenged businesses in a way that would have been almost unimaginable a few years ago, but it has given employees and management the opportunity to reimagine and redesign the way they work.
Employees have come to expect a different experience, and organisations must respond to those changing needs by designing a workplace that is fit for purpose based on individual data and insights from the people working there. Organisations that embrace a holistic, people-first approach to hybrid working will be the biggest winners, realising the benefits in retention of existing colleagues, attraction of new ones and higher employee engagement in the new world of work.