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Hybrid and flexible working: are employees and employers seeing eye to eye?

Danny Hicks, who co-ordinates our Thought Leadership Programmes at Virgin Media O2, assesses current thinking in the on-going ‘return to the office’ debate.

Back in March 2021, we published Creating a dynamic workforce, a major study that revealed how the needs and expectations of employees have changed since the start of the pandemic. We identified three broad types of employee, with seven distinct personas, each with their own preferences about where, how and when they prefer to work, as well as their expectations for their work and career.

We heard from the Office Cravers, those who enjoy life in the office and want to be back there again – especially those just starting their careers wanting to absorb knowledge more easily, or those that prefer to manage people in person. Then there are the Mixers, who miss certain aspects of office life, like socialising with colleagues, but want the freedom to work remotely. They’re keen to be able to work in the office as well as at home –  and everywhere in-between as they engage people whenever and wherever works best for them, whether it’s the coffee shop, restaurant, pub, their kids’ sporting events and so on. Lastly, there were the Home Dwellers, who say they want to work at home on a permanent basis. In fact, 32% of employees questioned during our research said that, given the chance, they would never step foot in the office again.

As we near the end of the 2021 calendar year, I have been considering what has changed since our report in March. Where are we now in the debate about returning to the office? What are organisations putting in place to accommodate the competing preferences of their employees?

I think it’s fair to say that for many organisations, implementing remote working was a smoother and more effective process than they imagined. Businesses of all sizes had debated ‘work from home’ policies for a decade or more and many had been trialling or providing it as a perk to a few. But when it was necessary – when remote working became the only viable option for the business to stay operating – many discovered that not only did the technology exist but that the majority of staff were able to be continue doing what was needed of them – collaborating, communicating, coordinating and completing their job roles.  The tech worked, and so did the staff when given the right tools. Our recent Cebr report found an average of three years acceleration for deployment of digital solutions across industries, with some like health accelerating by five years.

As we head into the new year, there’s a sense, at least, that the worst may be behind us, and business leaders and employees alike are already asking What now?

In my opinion, much of the debate has focused on a handful of beliefs that may or may not be relevant for your desk-based employees. Questions posed in the debate include:

Are people only productive in the office?

From my own experience, I’m achieving more in a working day working from home than an office. Our dynamic working report found that people are putting in as much as two additional hours work each day by some accounts. I find meetings are shorter, decisions are made more quickly and there are fewer interruptions. With the commute removed, and opportunities to work dynamically (at hours that work best for each individual) I’ve also improved my quality of life.

The novelty of the various online meeting platforms may have passed (“I am not a cat”), but it’s important not to underestimate the value of those ten, five-minute Teams calls that can be fitted into your working day. Even the more scheduled structure of my working day seems to have sped up business processes.

Do we need those ‘water cooler’ moments for spontaneous creativity?

Does creativity and innovation happen only through serendipitous interactions with our colleagues face to face? Although those spontaneous moments when “bumping” in to a person can help ignite ideas, I don’t think we should ever  leave innovation to happen just by chance meetings. Instead we should encourage environments and time for sharing thoughts and concepts. Planning specific sessions where people can focus on innovation will enable you to create a much better process for innovation management – identifying, choosing and then building plans to deliver those ideas.

In person workshops can encourage that creative energy, but so too can accommodating those personas who aren’t always comfortable raising their voice. Personally, I’ve found that the number of people who used to be silent during in-person meetings now have an outlet by using chat within collaboration tools, and feel more enabled to follow-up by email, giving them more of a voice. It goes back to personas and how they perform at their best – so hybrid meetings , with some in person and others remote, could be the answer – although more structured sessions that bring people together will be the better option.

Do we collaborate more effectively when we are together?

Engagement is critical for an organisation to be successful. It keeps individuals and teams aligned and focused on core objectives. But you’d have to say something is culturally wrong if collaboration only can happen in the office. If there’s an issue with how effectively people collaborate then that’s something that needs to be addressed, outside of the return to work discussion. In a hybrid model, there is scope to include discovery or innovation meetings as part of the working week, without the need for people to be office based all the time.

In determining the appropriate way forward, the debate needs to be open and inclusive. Many headline and industry analysts are focussed on a perceived divide between what employees want and what employers think their employees want. “The great resignation” is a common term that refers broadly to the impact this is having across industries.

Gartner has found that that implementing a full-scale return to the office with no flexibility could result in losing up to 39% of their knowledge workers, according to their report Redesigning Work for the Hybrid World. Consider the exit of so much knowledge and experience in such a small time to your own organisation. Others have chosen a partial return to the office approach –  two or three days each week being suggested for employees to be of the office. This can  work, and is in line with supporting the personas we defined earlier.

How do you ensure your employees are feeling valued – especially after how much has been asked of them during the periods of lockdown and continuing pandemic concerns.

Some managers have said they want to return to a traditional way of office working because it’s the way they know best to manage.  They’re more familiar and comfortable with managing people in person. And so we have a conflict between employees wanting choice of where they complete the work needed of them – and how willing managers are to rethink the way they manage people remotely on a long-term basis.

The more I speak with our customers, market analysts and partners, the more I think there is a simple question we could ask that would help determine an organisation’s most effective working model. The answer will be different for every organisation, but the common question is: What is the need for my employees to be in the office?

If we debate this question alone, we should arrive at a working model that focuses on what the business really needs.

Consider this: when the pandemic swept across the nation, there was a need for people to remain separated – working from home wherever possible. It allowed the organisation to remain operational, as long as people were given the right tools. In many cases people have been able to continue delivering the work needed of them.

It is known that presenteeism is a poor method for evaluating the performance of desk based workers. So, the question again: What is the need to have people back in the office? Taking into account employee preferences is crucial to ensure they feel valued. An audit of what the business genuinely needs to achieve its objectives can help determine not just deliverables from each person, but more significantly to define a whole new metric of measurement related to business impact. That is an objective that might not easily be calculated immediately, but could become the best metric of performance, and ultimately help provide guidance on the best way for each individual to work. Management needs to understand the ways individuals in their teams are best managed to perform at their best.

Inevitably, the answer to the question of “what is the need?” will lead on to further discussions – How do you schedule which individuals/teams need to be in the office on particular days? What will they be doing on those days to validate the need to be in the office? How can performance metrics change to one of quality of work, or business impact? How much office space will actually be needed, and what needs to be done with the existing leases/real estate/ownership? How will we ensure that we treat office-based and remote workers equally when it comes to promotions and recognition? How can meetings be managed to ensure participation by in-person and remote employees, customers and partners? How do we enable people managers to move into a remote management role to ensure their organisation can be successful? How do we ensure we introduce sessions for knowledge transfer, mentoring and career progression?

We will doubtless need new thinking, and management styles to address these questions – but that’s where I believe we should focus our attention, rather than on turning back the clock.

Remember, you can read our report ‘Creating a dynamic workforce’, that considers how the needs and expectations of employees have changed.

And whilst much of the discussion has been on knowledge-based or desk-based workers, we also consider field-based workers as well in Episode 26 of the Blue Door Podcast considers ‘What next for field based workers?’.






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