Over one year on, has hybrid working been successful and will it be retained as people begin to migrate to the office more often? We look at what business leaders across a number of industries have implemented and learned in the last two years. One thing is certain, staff and culture need to be at the core of any model in order to succeed and for talent retention.
The tech sector by its very nature has remained relatively stable, as so many of its systems were already online and therefore staff were well used to splitting their time between a traditional office space and their home. But for everyone else, the remote-working boom, necessitated by the pandemic, was a revelation: it showed we too could have a flexible work and home life.
While many companies floundered with the sudden pivot from working onsite to online, some were expanding. Founder of Deviance, an AI trend-spotting tech company headquartered in the UK, Richard Wilson, now has 12 full-time team members and six part-time across the globe, all grown during these challenging months.
“I founded Deviance just before Christmas 2019, impeccably timed just before the pandemic hit. Quite selfishly I implemented a hybrid working model from the start so I could spend more time with my family while building the business. It turned out to be a genius move.”
Tsedal Neeley, Professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of the recently published Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, states “Commute times have disappeared, astronomical real estate no longer seems important. The numbers are staggering when we look at how many people want to retain some sort of remote work in their professional arrangements. Employees granted more flexibility have been shown to more than repay their employer with increased loyalty and higher engagement with their work.”
FLEXIBILITY IS YOUR FRIEND, NOT FOE
It’s up to individual businesses which hybrid model is the most appropriate, such as implementing a rotation system of two days in an office, three days working from home – vice versa, or taking an even more individual approach. But adapt they must: a recent survey for Prudential found that 42% of current remote workers said if their employer doesn’t continue to offer remote-work options, they’ll look for an employer that does.
Says Jonny Combe, UK CEO of the global paid-parking app PayByPhone which already had a hybrid infrastructure in place before the pandemic (and recently opened an outpost in Cavan): “The pandemic has given employees the chance to prove that working from home does not negatively impact their productivity (and in many cases increases it!).”
But pivoting to a long-term flexible model comes with its challenges: what suits Employee A may not suit Employee B, so how can an employer even begin to please everyone in the company while still maintaining workflow?
“I think this is going to be one of the greatest challenges that companies will face,” acknowledges Amy Connaughton, COO of Iconic Offices, “and I also think this will be very industry specific. A one-size-fits-all approach might work in some industries, whether that is full-time workplace-based or a hybrid model. But for a lot of industries, it will be very difficult to please everyone.”
Fundamentally, she believes listening and learning from one another will help alleviate these pain points. “Open communication with staff will be one of the most important factors in working out the best policy for each company so as to avoid any resentment from those who may not have the same opportunities to work remotely – and also to ensure those who are working remotely aren’t forgotten about and are treated as fairly as those in the office.”
LOCATION, ENJOYABLE SPACE, AND MULTI-FUNCTIONS ALL MATTER
And with long-term rental contracts no longer a necessity, companies also have the choice of where, as well as how, they want to conduct their business.
“Pre-pandemic I split my time equally between a members club, The House of St Barnabas, in London and my home office,” says Wilson. “Now, I tend to time visits there for when I need to meet a bunch of people and will work there for a couple of hours beforehand. I’ll usually bump into a few friends there, so it’s good to get that social-networking time in too.”
“Too often have I found myself in unrelentingly sterile offices, with workers rammed into massive open-plan floors in glass-fronted developments of despair. I struggle to understand how people can be happy in that kind of environment. Find somewhere with character and cheerful people that make you smile when you walk in. It makes a huge difference,” he advises. Space you can relax… a space you want to be in rather than somewhere that functionally ticks the box….It makes a massive difference to everyone’s wellbeing, and I find that clients increasingly want to come to you too.
Any co-working space worth its salt will have mixture of communal, private, and semi-private spaces, putting an end to lingering preconceptions of hot-desking drones. “There can be a perception that co-working spaces are too open and don’t provide you with enough privacy,” agrees Connaughton. “In contrast, a mixture of private booths, breakout spaces and meeting rooms will offer you plenty of options should you wish to take a call or hold a meeting with your team.
“Iconic has also introduced private co-working hubs that are essentially your own private office for your team and where you can introduce a rotation system to accommodate a hybrid model – which we can also help put in place and offer support along the way.”
TRUST YOUR STAFF – YOU HIRED THEM FOR A REASON
Pivot may have been the lockdown buzzword but as offices look to reopen, presenteeism is the latest P-word, referring to the often-needless obligation to be “seen” by the boss in a physical office space. But only the autocratic leader will view their remote-working employees with suspicion; pandemic studies have shown that the time formerly spent on the commute has since been replaced with more work, with people averaging nearly seven extra hours per week than pre-Covid – which is not ideal, either.
“We need to completely rethink how we measure performance predicated on outcomes and not process,” says Neeley, who warns against tech exhaustion among remote workers. “Leaders need to really put those guard rails up because people are getting stressed.”
Wilson champions the individual approach for avoiding burnout. “Some staff like structure, others like more flexibility. I lean towards trusting the individual to make that choice and implement their structures and workflow themselves. As long as people are getting stuff done and making themselves available for calls, I’m happy.”
“Professional adult-to-adult relationships work best in a culture of mutual trust and respect,” agrees Combe. “Trust is vital for results-focused hybrid working – setting realistic goals, outcomes and commercial targets, and, crucially letting individuals work out how they get there.”
CLARITY IS KEY
Similarly, being clear with instructions was always important in business but none more so than when teams are working remotely. Slapdash emails or voice messages can be counterproductive, and nuance gets lost in translation, so managers must be unambiguous in their messaging.
“Setting OKRs – objectives and key results – bring clarity and facilitates autonomy,” says Combe. “When team members don’t need constant supervision because of clear OKRs, leaders can focus on developing the business rather than micromanaging.”
“When communication collapses, chaos comes,” adds Wilson. “I’ve had bad experiences in other businesses when a team member’s communications have slowly dropped off. It’s a sign there’s a problem so I set things up at Deviance with communication at the core. It’s a combination of great tools like Slack and Google Office combined with regular group video calls and ad-hoc one-to-ones.”
KINDNESS IS THE NEW CURRENCY
The open flow of formal communications is vital within hybrid models but don’t forget to give credit where credit’s due either. Did you think your colleague knocked their presentation out of the park? Tell them! Did your new hire resolve a problem that the team had been sweating over for weeks? Tell them!
Giving praise in an office environment is often reactive and impulsive – say, after a meeting, or reading a report – and therefore often falls off the radar of a virtual environment. But even the shortest email or DM of appreciation reaps rewards.
“Employees put more energy into their work if they are recognised for what they do,” says Combe. “Time invested in nurturing this culture pays dividends in staff motivation and output. But it’s not just about formal policies. An organic, company-wide attitude of recognition is equally powerful.
And kudos shouldn’t only be top-down; it should go up, down, sideways. Employees should feel able to let colleagues know when a job has been done well regardless of company hierarchy. This is an excellent way to reinforce the positive behaviours that make hybrid working effective in the long term.”
Employers can also benefit to revisit their company culture, not least creating opportunities for onsite social interactions, away from our screens and whiteboards, says Connaughton: “Most companies have spent years building up their company culture and a lot of this is typically built on being together physically. After a year of remote working, people are suffering from Zoom fatigue and keeping that sense of connection becomes a great challenge. One way we’re aiming to combat this is to hold regular virtual events open to all staff and members at Iconic – but we’re particularly looking forward to reintroducing in-person events once it’s safe to do so.”
Finding a flexible approach so all staff are included, trusted and respected seems to be core to the success of any business as hybrid and flexible working continues to evolve. And for employers, it will likely keep adapting as we emerge from this pandemic and into the next phase of working life. Without a one-size-fits-all solution, there is no one “right way” to do things. Employers can lean on resources like HR advisors, flexible workspace providers and software services to offer solutions and flexible changes they seek. Maintaining a mentality of continuous change and improvement is certainly the best way, if not the “right way”, to keep moving forward.
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