Hybrid working: the new evil or the new norm?
Over the course of successive lockdowns, employee expectations have been permanently transformed, as the viability of remote employment became a demonstrable reality. Preliminary research suggested that 20% of all US workdays would be conducted remotely after the pandemic, and leading businesses across various sectors, such as Google, Microsoft, JPMorgan and Amazon, have updated their post-pandemic work-from-home policies in response to the changing landscape.
In other words, the pandemic-driven technological innovations, as well as the benefits reaped by employees, promise to make the WFH trend, not a mere flash in the pan, but an enduring legacy of the Covid-19 era. What, then, are the purported advantages and drawbacks of WFH and hybrid-working? And how is a careful balance between employees’ responsibilities and duties to their employer, and the employer’s responsibilities to their employees, to be achieved?
Owl Labs, in collaboration with Global Workplace Analytics, conducted a survey of 2050 full-time workers in the United States in September 2021. The survey discovered the following:
- 84% of those who either changed jobs during the pandemic or who are actively seeking a new opportunity are looking for more flexibility in where they work.
- 55% of surveyed employees said that they work more hours on average than if they were in the office.
- 67% claimed to be more productive whilst working at home, and 90% said that their productivity levels are either the same or higher when working from home as compared to the office.
A cross-sectional survey of 30,000 Americans conducted by Stanford professor, Nicholas Bloom et al., found similar reports of higher productivity: “Using our survey data on self-assessed productivity effects of WFH, employer plans about who will work from home in the post-pandemic economy, commuting times and more, we estimate that the re-optimization over working arrangements in the post-pandemic economy will boost productivity by 4.6% relative to the pre-pandemic situation.”
Indeed, the vast majority of employees in the Owl Labs survey claimed that working from home brought a host of benefits, not only for themselves, but also for their employer:
- Better able to support and be present with family.
- Better able to manage work-life conflict.
- Better for their mental health.
- Feel more trusted/feel like their employer cares.
- More likely to recommend their company.
- Less likely to leave their employer.
However, in the same survey, one third of employees reported that they always or often experience difficulties on video calls, and 78% said that they feel more included when at the office.
Meanwhile, a study, published in April 2022 and entitled ‘Video communication curbs creative idea generation’, found that the shift away from in-person interaction negatively affects innovation and idea generation. More specifically, the study found that “videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus.” Apple CEO Tim Cook reinforced that view when he expressed a preference for the “serendipity” of in-person interaction and called the shift to remote work the “mother of all experiments”.
There are also more general anxieties about social isolation, mental and physical health, and the blurring of work-life boundaries. However, a literature review of all available studies on the interactions between WFH and mental and physical health found that the impacts of WFH on individuals’ health vary considerably. However, despite the dearth of available studies, some consistent principles did emerge which might be used to inform businesses’ WFH policies: (1) the importance of creating opportunities for regular communication between managers and their team; and (2) consideration of the financial impacts of being at home on a full-time basis (e.g. heating and telecommunication costs).
The future of work is hybrid
In light of the clear limitations of WFH, CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, offers several research-based recommendations for employers:
- Develop the culture needed for open conversations about well-being. The digital-sized chasm separating employer and employee makes the need for a well-being- focussed culture all the more urgent. CIPD urges businesses to upskill their managers in broaching the sensitive topic of well-being and to make employee welfare an organisational focus.
- Encourage boundary-setting to improve wellbeing. Compartmentalisation is an important psychological concept that enables people to carry on in spite of hardships. The fluid boundaries between homespace and workspace makes this significantly more challenging.
- Ensure effective coordination of tasks and task-related communication. It has emerged from both anecdotal evidence and surveys that there is a greater need for structured communication when the team is remote.
- Pay careful attention to creativity, brainstorming and problem-solving tasks. According to CIPD’s research, these were the skills most likely to suffer from a remote-working policy, as the free unstructured exchange of ideas becomes stunted by the ping-pong of emails. Identifying which tasks are better conducted face-to-face and determining the best in-office days might form part of the solution.
- Build in face-to-face time for team cohesion and organisational belonging. In-person interaction is vital for maintaining a strong organisational culture and for building inter-team relationships.
- Organise a wider support network to compensate for the loss of informal learning. CIPD recommends that employers organise more structured development opportunities to compensate for the loss of informal learning – whether that be technical learning about the job or learning about the organisation – that takes place more frequently in-person.
Case-study: Fideres Partners, London
Fideres is an economic consulting firm whose aim is to identify corporate and financial wrongdoing through economic analysis and to bring that to the attention of international law firms and regulators.
Director Russell De Souza told CIPD that, “In terms of our client needs, there isn’t any specific need to be in the office or producing from very set hours. A lot of the work that we do is quite internally focussed.”
However, Head of People and Culture Kate Bicknell told CIPD that, “There is no substitute for that soft social interaction that happens by default when you are in the office together. It’s not impacting on their work, the deadlines still get met, the quality of work is there, but there’s a sort of energy around it, an excitement, a feeling, when you’re in the office. There was also an impact on brainstorming.”
Both De Souza and Bicknell agreed that managers need to organize more structured communication when the team was remote. De Souza said, “We’ve had to make an active effort to speak more regularly than maybe we need to sometimes.”
Overall, Remote working has been so overwhelmingly successful at Fideres that the company has downsized their office and designed a new workspace intended primarily for social interaction and group meetings.
Credit: CIPD, Flexible Working: Lessons from the Pandemic.