Our collective experiences throughout the pandemic period have shaped not just how we live our lives, but our daily working patterns, and how we behave towards each other. In addition, this recent period of reflection has empowered current and prospective employees to consider whether employers have values which resonate with their own, and whether the actions they see day-to-day reflect those values.
The recent press coverage of the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, and the fact that there were over 1 million job vacancies in the UK in the latter end of 2021, have heightened the discussion around retaining and engaging workforces, and ensuring that their experience in the workplace is fulfilling. This has led to organisations taking a hard look at how best to position their businesses for the future and key to that has been the move towards ‘hybrid working’.
However, is it really as simple as the ability to either work from home, your employer’s workplace, or wherever you want?
What’s in a name?
As the world started to open up in the Summer of 2021, I attended several in-person conferences, and spoke to many clients on this topic. In some of their organisations, the word ‘hybrid’ had been used with a degree of disparagement by some colleagues perceiving those who work flexibly as having an easy life. If the term is becoming divisive, then perhaps it’s time to look at this way of working in a different light as we enter 2022 and a period where many see a return to pre-pandemic work and home lifestyle.
Let’s be clear: the need to work in this way was thrust upon many of the working population during the lockdown periods over the last 2 years, and those newly working from home, by choice or requirement, have done so effectively in most cases. Key to the current working patterns many companies observe, is the fact that employees say they are more productive and have a greater sense of wellbeing when working in their home environment. Additionally, for some organisations, there are cost benefits associated with reduced office space.
For many of us, the new arrangements are no different to what we have experienced for much of our working lives. As somebody who has always worked in agencies or consultancies, my workplace can be in the office, at home, on a train, at an airport, on-site with a client, or, in one memorable episode, aboard a helicopter. So, what might the future look like, and what will work look like, for those who work in a flexible or ‘hybrid’ way?
Right job, right place
The choice of location for current and future work will largely be driven by the task in hand. For example, if you need solitude to do some analysis or write a report, the optimal work location might be at home, or in a secluded part of the office. If you need to collaborate with others, the work location will most likely be the office, to get that interaction and generate that creative spark with others, which so many of us missed over the last two years.
This also means that the location of the work isn’t the governing factor. Rather, it’s about being effective, driven and comfortable in whichever space you’ve chosen to work. Of course, this might be home, the office or something completely different.
I’ve encountered several organisations who seemed to get it right (and several who didn’t) from the very start of the first return to work in mid-May 2020. As an example, the Nationwide told their 13,000 strong workforce to “work from anywhere”.
“The last year has taught many of us that ‘how’ we do our jobs is much more important than ‘where’ we do them from. We are putting our employees in control of where they work from, inviting them to ‘locate for their day’ depending on what they need to achieve.”
Joe Garner, Nationwide
However, the challenges of working in this way should not be underestimated:
- It’s critical that consistent support is provided to all colleagues, wherever they are based. That includes in management style, communications and recognition.
- A consistent culture that motivates and engages all colleagues must be present.
- Split teams must be managed effectively so nobody feels excluded. This will be top of mind for many employees.
Everyone more mindful
Of course, there is an elephant in the room in the fact that many organisations have operational and customer-facing colleagues who simply cannot work flexibly or in a ‘hybrid’ manner. Speaking to several clients who have operational employees, it is clear that there is a sense of resentment, to different degrees, amongst some operational staff towards colleagues who work in an office environment, and who are hence able to work more flexibly. One sentiment appears to be that ‘hybrid’ workers aren’t present at key times when they’re needed, and there has been the occasional finger-pointing question of “what do they do all day at home?”
It is, of course, important for organisations to be transparent about how colleagues work, and for office-based employees to be available when required. This may take more planning and mindfulness, but it needs to work. The biggest worry is that organisations start to create a series of mini cultures, not just between operational colleagues and those that work in the office, but also between those that choose to work in the office and those who choose to work at home.
Talking about an evolution
The upshot is that it isn’t particularly helpful to refer to the new world of work as being a ‘hybrid’ way of working, nor indeed a ‘flexible’ way of working. It is simply an evolution of working life for some, and a different way of working for others. And always driven by the task at hand, not the need to be tied to a particular location. However, it does require that colleagues, wherever they work in an organisation, be more aware of others and how they work. Interactions and meetings need to be more formally planned, as there is less chance of simply bumping into somebody for the ‘watercooler chat’ or a quick catch-up.
I believe that ‘hybrid’ is a poor description for a way of working that around 10% of the working population were doing in any case before the pandemic, which has now become increasingly the norm. So, let’s stop calling it ‘hybrid’ working, indeed let’s not call it anything. It is just the continuing evolution of how we all work and interact with each other.
To discuss how your organisation can meet current and prospective employee needs in the evolving world of work, drop me a line: Ian.Barrow@corporateculture.co.uk