Office based workers have weathered some huge changes since March 2020. When the UK government gave the mandate to work from home, remote working suddenly became the norm overnight. Interestingly, the technology was already available to sustain a remote working model (video conferencing and other software) but, until that point, had not been fully embraced by employers.
This is backed up by a recent report from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development) which found that only 5% of us worked from home pre-Covid. We already know this figure increased dramatically during lockdown but, since the government announced we could all return to the office in July 2021, are pre-Covid working patterns now back in place.
Another important question is whether this period of enforced change created longer term expectations of more flexible working practices amongst employees?
When talking about flexible working, we often equate it to working from home. However, that’s just one element and flexible working practices actually include other arrangements such as:
Before shuddering at the thought of managing all those arrangements in the workplace, it’s worth considering the benefits which flexible working is known to bring:
There are also some legal requirements which need bearing in mind!
All employees with over 26 weeks continuous service are legally entitled to make a statutory request for flexible working. It could include any of the above and be a short-term request to meet a specific need, or a more long-term change.
Employers are then required by law to reasonably consider the request and only refuse it on specific grounds (for example, cost, the impact on quality or performance, or customer needs).
Despite the benefits and legal requirement to consider flexible working, many companies still prefer their employees to work together in an office, helping to bring structure and transparency to the working day.
Additionally, working in a centralised environment can help with collaboration and knowledge sharing, simply from casual conversations taking place as people pass in the corridor.
From an employee point of view, remote working could negatively impact their career through lack of visibility and reduced interaction with colleagues. The loss of social connection may also lead to isolation, a reduction in networking opportunities and less creativity.
Part of the reason why there was such a low percentage of remote working pre-pandemic came from the fundamental mistrust of employee productivity when away from the office. If the last 18 months has shown us anything it’s that employees are often more productive and engaged when in a remote environment.
With in-office and remote working both having clear advantages and disadvantages for companies and their employees, is a hybrid between the two the better solution?
Working remotely and spending one day a week in the office to connect with colleagues or attend team meetings can help reduce isolation and increase social interaction and collaboration. At the same time, it still gives employees the work-life balance they enjoyed during the pandemic.
Allowing employees more flexibility in choosing the hours they work and removing the dreaded commute can have a positive impact on workplace culture. In turn, employers can benefit from financial savings on office space.
Hybrid working means juggling two work locations and employees could experience difficulties when switching between them – especially when books or information sources are in their other space. It may also lead to feelings of invisibility during their time away from the office and impact on career progression through reduced opportunities to interact informally with senior management.
From a company point of view, technical security may be a concern with home networks being more vulnerable to cyber-attack and computers shared between family members. Managing team meetings also takes more thought when some members are in the office and others working remotely.
However, none of these issues are insurmountable and companies can address them by looking at ways of encouraging collaboration regardless of location, along with ongoing succession planning when there is lower employee visibility.
The way forward may lie in a management style which is effective regardless of working environment:
To get a feel for how a hybrid solution may work in practice, we spoke to Business Village tenant Phil Atkinson, Director of Target Information Systems Limited (Target).
The company has benefited from a 100% staff retention rate since starting in March 2010 and has always operated a ‘family first’ policy which meant that, in specific circumstances, employees could occasionally work from home. However, despite this flexibility, prior to March 2020 they still operated a traditional Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.30pm way of working.
Keeping an eye on the Covid-19 statistics, they adopted remote working for all staff a week before the government announcement was made in March 2020 and went much further than many companies.
“The day we decided to work from home, we bought lots of kit so everyone had the hardware they needed for a home office. We were keen to make sure people were not working from kitchen or living room tables and even bought a full office set up for one employee.”
During the period of remote working, the management team then connected with their employees every week via an online weekly brew meeting and quiz. They also sent small gifts to help everyone continue to feel valued and involved.
With the government announcement to end working from home in July 2021, the company moved to a hybrid working model.
“We now ask employees to spend two days a week in the office if possible and have given flexibility on which days they choose. The main reason is to reduce social isolation and improve team morale, but individuals can choose to continue working from home if they have specific circumstances or anxiety about coming into the office.”
Phil’s view is that Covid-19 moved on remote working and video conferencing by five years and that the reduction in business travel has had a positive impact on the environment.
“We proved in the first three months of lockdown that we don’t need to be sitting in the same office to deliver services. It’s essential to look for the positives and remember that we’ve survived a global pandemic. Importantly, the team is the business and communication, keeping morale high and ensuring a sense of belonging are crucial.”
Some employees love remote working, some hate it, and with so many variables around the advantages or disadvantages it can be difficult for employers to know the best way forward.
In terms of employee attraction and retention, flexible working practices rather than pure remote working may be the answer. In March 2021, a Harvard Business Review reported that 88% of workers now say they will be looking for flexibility in their jobs and this includes the flexibility to choose where and when they work.
With hybrid tools and processes already in place, it makes sense to empower people to work in a way that suits their wellbeing and productivity. This will be different for each of us with some preferring to work remotely and others craving the social connection which comes from being in the office.
Employers therefore need to consider how to engage their staff and provide the best environment for them to flourish, whether it be remote or in office. It’s clear, however, that incorporating some form of flexible working practices into the office of the future will be key to retaining and attracting talent.