There’s nothing employers can do now to resist the overwhelming momentum behind the move to a different way of working. That brings risks, but also a unique opportunity for those who have a well thought out plan, to reshape their organisations for the better.
As the UK begins to return to work in a more recognisable way, there’s a widespread acknowledgement that working patterns will not go back to the way they were before. Many organisations have been able to substantially maintain productivity over the past year through remote working, which shifts the balance of the argument around the feasibility of flexible working. In the past many employers, particularly in the private sector, have resisted the pressure to agree to flexible working requests. Now, that dam has burst.
We’ve been engaging with our clients to help them understand new ways of working, to analyse what the implications and opportunities are for them, and to help them plan for a ‘return’ to the new world of work. In an effort to define this new world of work, the words on everyone’s lips are ‘hybrid working’. But what does that actually mean?
In the past, for many of us, our working lives were defined in terms of a framework of Where, When and How we worked. I work in the office. I work from 9 to 5. I work at my desk, take phone calls, and sometimes meet colleagues in a meeting room.
This was a framework that allowed employers, at least superficially, to control what employees were doing. And I would suggest that this framework also met certain deep-seated needs of the workers themselves – to have a structure or rhythm to their working lives, to allow them to feel connected to, and supported by, their immediate team and their employer, and to provide for basic human interaction. The office is where I work, it’s where I learn, I socialise and I belong.
In lockdown that framework was removed; but at least it was replaced by a new structure that everyone could understand. Some employees were furloughed and others worked from home. Where do I work? Home. When do I work? In theory, still 9 to 5. How do I work? At the kitchen table, communicating by email, telephone and video call.
Now, as we return, where are we returning to? It’s likely that ‘the workplace’ will be a mixture of office, home, shared workspace and café. Flexible working, rather than 9 to 5 will be the norm. Electronic communications will be increasingly prevalent, with face to face meetings reserved for particular purposes. In a nutshell:
‘Hybrid working is a way of working in which the expectation of what an employee should do day to day, can no longer be defined by where, when, and how they work. Therefore, expectations must inevitably be re-defined in terms of the outputs of their work.’
For the employee, the previous framework through which they understood their working life has disappeared, and it must be replaced in order for them to continue to enjoy the full benefits of structure, support, connection and interaction. For the employer, the control that the previous 9 to 5 framework gave them, whether spuriously or in reality, has also disappeared and likewise, must be replaced. Employers need a plan.
The good news is that hybrid working offers significant and sustainable opportunities for employers, beyond the well-publicised short-term opportunity to cut costs by reducing office space. However, there are also risks if the transition is not properly planned.
Flexible working has long been the holy grail of many an employee. It sounds good in principle. But the absence of the old framework has the potential to make individuals feel personally dis-located, unsupported, and isolated from their team. This can impact on individuals’ mental health, and damage team cohesion.
For managers, the move to a model in which employees are assessed on their outputs, rather than on the ‘inputs’ of sitting in an office 9 to 5, has obvious potential benefits. But only if performance and productivity can be effectively defined, assessed, and managed. For the longer term, if leadership and management styles don’t evolve, there is the risk that a ‘task based’ approach develops, which inevitably leads to silo working and an absence of collaboration, stifling creativity and innovation, and damaging organisational performance.
There are also risks around organisational culture, which is often defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. That’s easy when ‘here’ is the office, but how do I know ‘how we do things around here’ when there is no ‘here’. Without a plan, influencing the development of an organisation’s culture through the transition to hybrid working will be impossible. With a plan, this transition gives employers a once in a lifetime opportunity to evolve the organisation’s culture, accentuating the positive aspects of the pre-existing culture, and leaving negative aspects behind.
Drawing on the insights of our consulting team, as the transition to hybrid working evolves across our client base, we’ve put together a series of 5 webinars looking at hybrid working from the perspectives of People, Leadership & Management, and Culture. We identify what has changed, where the risks and opportunities lie, and how to formulate a plan to capture the full benefits that this new way of working has to offer.
Lynsey Stewart is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD with almost 20 years’ experience in Human Resources Management. She is a Director of HeadsTogether Consulting and heads up the specialist training division, TrainTogether.
Lynsey has extensive experience supporting organisations across the public, private and charitable sectors with organisational development. This has included planning and managing transformational change projects and working with senior leaders to define and embed desired organisational values and behaviours. Lynsey is passionate about placing people at the heart of organisational change.
As we move towards a hybrid working environment, Lynsey is working with a number of organisations to develop a clear plan for hybrid working, aligning the structural, cultural and strategic realities of this new way of working to respond to the needs of an ever-evolving business climate.