Written by Amanda Glover and

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For thousands of companies and millions of office workers worldwide, 2020 and the global pandemic put paid to the premise that work must be a specific place and opened the door to extensive homeworking. There is no doubt that this emergency response has realised benefits for both companies and employees alike, but will it result in a sustained and seismic shift away from office working and what will companies need to do if they wish to embrace this trend successfully?

2020 – What happened?

2020 saw a tactical response by companies to the public health emergency. Those companies which had a developed digital infrastructure and had already started out along the road to some level of remote working were able to take this in their stride. Others had to scramble to try to get the technology in place and then experiment with how they could best handle the non-technology related issues associated with remote working.

For some companies, with next to no digital infrastructure and poor people practices, 2020 was a stressful and damaging year in terms of business continuity. These varied paths have meant that this experience has been dissimilar for different sub-sets of companies and employees alike. However, 2020 did prove that working remotely could work for the many, not just the few, and that it could bring benefits to organisations and employees alike.

Potential savings in expensive office space, the demise of photocopying and paper-heavy work practices, the end of expensive and time-consuming visits to customers, the suspension of expensive and tiring daily commutes, and the minimisation of the damaging environmental impacts caused by all of these activities were just some of the benefits realised. Does this mean the world is likely to experience an irreversible shift away from office working?

The death of the office?

It is highly unlikely that this will signal a ‘Big Bang’ away from office working. Instead, it is probable that there will be accelerated, incremental development towards sustained remote working. This is because the current arrangements are sub-optimal for some companies and employees alike. Those companies which still need to improve their digital infrastructure and people practices making remote working effective, will look to hold on to some level of office-based working.

For some employees, homeworking as the form of remote working they have experienced over the last year has not been good. Their home may not have been equipped to be their office, they might have had the added complication of home schooling and they may have experienced feelings of isolation, especially if people practices had not been adopted to accommodate this aspect of remote working.

It is very likely then, that because of the state of maturity of some organisations and some employees towards remote working, the new norm to emerge will be hybrid working; a greater level of remote working sitting alongside some office working. This might follow a fixed pattern, or it might be task or event driven: ‘these tasks require presence in the office, these do not. This event requires attendance, this does not’.

Tech companies such as Google, Facebook and a number of other large companies have already signalled their intention to move to this model and Spotify has gone beyond this, declaring that employees can work from anywhere.

Hybrid working- what to consider?

It will be very easy for companies to reject hybrid working or embrace it as primarily office working with a few days of remote working thrown in every now and again, to appease restless employees. This would be a mistake. Employers should reflect upon their whole approach to work and their people, and then consider how hybrid working or even full remote working might, or might not, fit in.

What are the sorts of things employers should consider as part of this process of reflection?  The first place to start is by considering carefully the nature of work being carried out, the ways of working and how employees add value. There is much activity conducted in traditional workplaces which is time-consuming, morale sapping and not value adding. In any move towards hybrid working, companies need to ensure that the work processes are in place to support value creation and that the right activities are conducted in the right locations – either the office or remotely.

The next thing to consider is resource planning. What talent does the organisation need to have access to in order to deliver on objectives? For some organisations there will be a match made in heaven, in that they will be very happy to support hybrid working and the talent they need will be demanding remote working as the price for joining or staying with them.

Other organisations may not be keen on hybrid working, but the reality of talent acquisition will be that if they do not offer it, they will not be able to access the best talent, who may demand it. Organisations must analyse what resources they need and what the disposition is of that type of resource to hybrid working. As part of this review, organisations will need to identify what their competitors in the labour market are doing.

This resource planning analysis merges into the talent attraction domain too. Will hybrid working add to the employer brand? Does it signal a progressive employer? Is it a benefit, which current and potential employees will value?

Organisations need to review their recruitment processes, particularly the competences that potential recruits are selected against. How can a company assess whether an individual will be effective at remote working? Perhaps new competences, such as digital capability, self-reliance and self-organisation need to be re-prioritised and assessment tools devised to measure likely comfort with remote working. Of course, care must be taken to safeguard against the use of selection criteria which may have an indirectly discriminatory effect.

Another challenge is talent development. How does an organisation find new ways to develop talent in a remote or hybrid working scenario? Perhaps providing more structured development experiences or appointing coaches or mentors is the way forward. There might even be a case for reverse mentoring in certain circumstances, for example where digital natives mentor non-digital natives through the transition.

A significant challenge will be around organisational culture and shared values. What can an organisation do to ensure that, in an environment where employees work remotely and do not meet as often as before, company culture and shared values are still projected? This also links into issues of team creation and development. There are, of course, solutions around these: meet the CEO sessions, podcasts from team leaders, Q&A sessions and virtual team events being just some. The point is though that these things need to be considered.

Other areas to consider will of course be health and safety, and employee well-being. Employers will need to ensure that each homeworking set up is safe and suitable, and that equipment is provided where necessary to ensure health and safety. For well-being, organisations will need to have an approach focussed on the challenges remote working throws up; isolation, work intensification in the home environment, reduced possibilities for employees to switch off, domestic pressures etc. Data protection will also need to be thought through, as will cyber security.

The remote working element of the hybrid model requires a different approach to Performance Management. Traditionally, individuals were paid largely due to them attending work between designated set times and producing the necessary outputs. Managers who were in close proximity could have many and repeated second thoughts about what they wanted their employees to work on.

With remote working, the emphasis must be less on presenteeism or being in a certain space, and more on outputs and results. For many organisations, their work is such that there is no need nor benefit to try to control remotely when an employee is working.

There is however a need to be clear about what employees should be working on, what the priorities are and what good results look like. Many progressive companies have been gravitating to a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) over several years now, but hybrid working will accelerate this trend. Whether an organisation has enough clarity and structure around performance should be a key consideration in this new environment.

Leadership in a virtual world requires another competence set to leadership in the real world. How organisations will equip their leaders to handle this should be reflected upon and steps taken to ensure effective leadership.

Finally, attendance at the office should not just be treated as business as usual. Organisations should consider what benefits can be achieved from people being in the office that cannot be achieved when people are working remotely from one another. Perhaps the focus during office time should be on collaborative and creative tasks such as team meetings, team building activities, knowledge and experience sharing or for development activities.

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated a trend which was already in play when it comes to homeworking. It was put in play by the changing nature of work, social trends around integrating work and life, and by the fast emergence and power of enabling technologies. Although, there is unlikely to be a seismic shift towards exclusively remote working, we cannot hold back this tide of change. Companies are likely to experience a continual move towards hybrid working, driven by the benefits it provides employees and employers, and by the growing sophistication of technology which will enable it. The key to successful implementation of hybrid working will lie within an organisation’s ‘people practices’. To fully benefit from hybrid working, a strategic approach will need to be taken.

Forbury People has a wealth of expertise when it comes to strategic human resource management and can help you plan for and implement your new post-Covid workplace. Should you need assistance navigating any of the issues discussed above, please contact the Forbury People team on 0118 953 3929 or via email at contact@forburypeople.com.