Putting employees first with a new blend of hybrid working

digital illustration showing a man wearing half a business suit and half a casual outfit, carrying a laptop. Representing hybrid working.

What is best practice when it comes to hybrid working or new ways of working?

I’ll begin by stating that I dislike the term hybrid working.

Hybrid suggests a simple split between workplace and home, but in reality, a new future means that employees can travel and work – why not choose to spend a week by the side of a Scottish Loch while working?

It means the opportunity to spend a day in a co-working space meeting new people. It means working in the library or a coffee shop. And yes, it does mean working in the office and at home.

Prepare for new way of working, for sure, but it might not be the massive shift to working from home that some are rashly shifting towards.

All employer brands are about to change massively.

Employees are watching for how the value proposition for them will take into account a blend of workspaces and workplaces.

Many have seen a different way of working, where outcomes matter more than the 9-5, and where flexibility can be built into the system.

It may not work for David Soloman’s Goldman Sachs which he describes as requiring an apprenticeship culture, but then again, he might miss out.

Over the past few weeks, a number of businesses have launched their viewpoints on the future of work.

Among them, Nationwide announced that 13,000 of its employees would be able to work from home permanently. In a survey they conducted, more than half (57%) wanted to work from home full-time, compared with six per cent who wanted to return to the office.

Nationwide commissioned IPSOS Mori to better understand how employees and employers were thinking about the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, to David Soloman’s point, younger workers need – and desire – more ‘in person’ time with colleagues so that they can learn on the job and make the business connections they need for their future work lives.

Of course, there is nothing to stop the shift to online networking not enabling some of this, as the explosion in Zoom, Teams and LinkedIn activity has demonstrated (active usage of LinkedIn has increased by 26% during the pandemic.)

The Team were recent guinea pigs for Aermid Consulting’s new Working From Home Index. It’s a tool that enables individuals and organisations to assess how well they are performing across six dimensions: boundaries, connections, organisation, flexibility, workspace and transition.

The survey tool allows participants to answer a series of questions which triggers a report to line managers and individuals on how they might better manage the blend of office working and home working.

For example, according to the report, I tend to be far more responsive when I have interaction with others and enjoy spontaneous interactions. For me, getting into the office for at least one day a week to be distracted and to connect will better my outputs. It allows me to assess how I want to plan my working weeks as the pandemic eases.

The pandemic has removed micro-management and asked employees to manage their own time. Retaining that culture will be critical.

For The Team as a whole, our results show that while we’ve been busy doing the pastoral care during lockdown, we need to get far better at the discipline of having regular conversations with our people on how they are feeling and how they are developing.

illustration of people thinking, concept of hybrid working

So, what are people thinking right now about the return to work?

Here are the 8 areas I think are top of mind for employees:

1. Residual Fear

There is still concern about safety when traveling into during, what is still, a pandemic. It’s estimated that two thirds of employees are still concerned – no matter what human bravado might suggest, if someone in a qualitative study insists that they just want to get back into the office. Admitting fear can be a very difficult thing for some people to do.

With this in mind, employers need to consider how staggered starts might help; how access to lateral flow tests and car sharing might work when local restrictions allow and how ensuring that space and capacity levels inside offices are communicated to people so they can plan their attendance.

There will also be a need for ‘Respect’ campaigns, to help people understand that other may think and feel differently about the pandemic.

2. Control & Autonomy

One of the benefits of the lockdown has been the reported increase in productivity. With ownership of time, space and outcomes employees have felt that they have more control and autonomy.

In his book ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink writes about three key factors in boosting employee morale: autonomy, mastery and purpose. The pandemic has removed micro-management and asked employees to manage their own time. Retaining that culture will be critical.

And so, working with line managers to understand how the best of what has been learned in lockdown and how it can be retained should be a priority. Consider that ‘Learned in Lockdown’ campaign and drive different line manager behaviours.

3. Collaboration & Connectivity

Teams want more intimacy when it comes to how they connect. They have missed the serendipity that working in the office brings and feel the processes that technology affords them today are not up to standard.

In the future, the question will be about how much of the office space is handed over to collaboration and connectivity and how this will change the design of the infrastructure in place. What need will there be for rows of desks when focused work can be done at home?

Will the office be set out more like a café with round tables in place so that small teams can book spaces to work together in short periods of time?

More importantly, how do you train employees who are used to a regimentation that has been drummed into all of us since the industrial revolution to work in a new way.

In Sweden, the education starts young. Some schools have already adopted the school without walls that enables pupils to wander and work where they need and for classes to be far more mobile. In these places, education happens where it needs to happen. Why can’t a biology lesson happen in the school gym – it would make sense if the lesson was on bone structure.

What lessons can we take into the workplaces and work practices of tomorrow.

illustration depicting train commuters.

4. The Need for Travel

Travel might be seen to be unpopular in the current environment and yet it would be wrong to assume that all employees are ready to stay at home. Allowing people to reconnect and encouraging international travel when it is permitted will be essential for certain employer brands.

For example, only 50% of employees in Poland want to travel less. Many still want to broaden employment horizons through travel; to connect with new people and to experience new work cultures. As diversity is seen to be a key driver for innovation, getting people back onto planes, trains and automobiles, when appropriate, is going to foster better long-term performance and development.

In the meantime, employers should be thinking about how they can create opportunities for more global knowledge sharing and networking events for their cadre of employees or how they might link up with other brands in similar sectors but in different markets.

Could employees from German and Irish banks share lessons in markets where they are not competing?

5. An Eagerness to Return

Much has rightly been made of a need to return to work to ease the mental health challenges faced by many, but as I have already mentioned, for some (especially those who have been shielding) a return to work can bring its own fears.

With a third of workers worried about their mental health while working at home, the opportunity to get back in the office will be welcomed by a significant number of people. But it brings with it a requirement to observe a set of simple rules so that the workplace can be enjoyed by everyone. Here are a simple set to guide behaviour based on experience of co-working spaces that have remained open and that I have used.

• Staggered start and finish times so that there is no rush hour
• Wear a mask when walking round the office
• When seated, you can take the mask off if you wish
• There is a strict 2m between desk seats
• Use hand sanitiser whenever you leave or return to a desk
• Clean any desk you arrive at or leave e.g. in a meeting room
• Have a concierge service to help people find their desk and cleans spaces that people have left
• Introduce a friendly policy of reminding people to put their mask on – rather like holding the handrail when going up and down stairs. It’s not barked – it’s jolly.

6. Speed & Agility

I’ve talked about autonomy already. One factor in the perceived increase in productivity – it has actually remained pretty stable – is that decision making has been happening faster.

In roundtables conducted by The Team, clients reported faster decisions made for customers as processes were simplified and authority to get things done was moved away from middle management and closer to the front line. If anything, this has increased morale at a critical time.

Ultimately, employees are motivated when they feel that they are doing a good job for an end customer. It’s the value of achievement at work. The philosopher Gwen Bradford talks about the importance of achievement in life extensively. Put simply, it is when a challenge with sufficient difficulty and required competence results in an end product.

Key here is ‘sufficient difficulty’ and ‘required competence’. Too much difficulty and working beyond competence, even if the end result is achieved can result in despair and fatigue.

In lockdown, many employees have simply enjoyed doing what they are paid to do and having been given the freedom to make decisions alone or in small teams. For the employer brand of tomorrow, maintaining that speed and agility in teams will be a major win.

ilustration showing the concept of technology

7. Technology Extensions

Employees want the tools that enable them to be at their best. Before the pandemic, the tech sector had the luxury to imagine a time when we would all be hyper-connected; when we would be undertaking international meetings with ease or when AI would second guess what we needed to serve a customer well. It was marketed to us all as if it was just around the corner and we simply had to change our ways and adopt it.

Well, change happened, and while the good news was that the systems we had stepped up and did not fall over, the bad news – for the tech sector and for organisations – is that employers are now ahead of the curve. They are demanding faster and better tools to connect.

At The Team, we have adopted www.miro.com as our preferred collaborative space alongside tools like frame.io and invisionapp. Other tools like Jamboard, Microsoft Whiteboard and Mural all work well enough, but the functionality needs to step up. Already, Zoom (which has been a big winner in lockdown) feels like it urgently needs a functionality update.

For employers, making people aware of all the tools they can use – and tearing down unnecessary firewalls to help them collaborate with suppliers and partners – will be an important step in helping foster collaboration.

8. Capability & Quality

Some roles need face-to-face contact, it is as simple as that, and many will require that contact to get face to face feedback on progress. People have been worried about progress and how line managers check in with direct reports on their performance is an age-old motivational driver.

Ensuring that regular check-in conversations between line managers and direct reports are happening as people return to the workplace or adopt new ways of working will make and transition (or transformation) easier.

Make this a priority, and help line managers themselves understand what good blended, hybrid working looks like. Remember, few of us have ever worked like this before, so for managers this is as much a journey of discovery as it is for anyone else.

As Ian MacRae identified in People Management, encourage managers to take a simple four step approach to keep the conversation of performance during change active:
• Recognise problems
• Explore causes
• Discuss alternatives
• Consolidate improvements

It’s about being outcome-led

Ultimately, we are entering a new adult-to-adult age when trust is going to be the cornerstone of the new deal forged with employees. Both employers and employees want to be judged on shared outcomes.

Trust will require both sides to understand what is required of each other. For the employee, it is to know what they are measured on and believe that they have the autonomy to get the right results. For the employer, it is to believe that they will get better results if they let people fulfil their potential and if they give them access to the right tools to do the job.

It’s an exciting time. An opportunity to change how we work.