Hybrid working is fast becoming the newest trend for organisations. During the pandemic, many people were forced to work from home, but now as the world begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel, people are starting to look to the newest ‘new normal.’
You could be forgiven for assuming that hybrid working is a relatively straightforward setup. After the last two years, organisations and their people are used to working remotely, and before Covid, working in the office was the expected norm. So, hybrid must be just a simple fusion of these two things? Well, not quite.
While it is technically half of one and half of the other, hybrid working has the potential to be so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s a lot to think about when asking your people to start hybrid working – you need a clear plan of action, an understanding of the logistics and you should recognise how it’s going to change your organisational culture. We’ll guide you through it.
Recognise the mix of feelings
In a previous article discussing what you need to know before bringing your people back to the workplace, we argued that having a clear, considered and well-communicated strategy is key. The same is just as true for hybrid working as it is for a full time return to the office.
Your people have dealt with a lot over the last two years: a sudden shift to remote working, followed by a great amount of uncertainty. While you should absolutely applaud them for their resilience and agility, you may also begin noticing a weariness to constant change.
So, if you’re going to change how they’re working once again, you’d better be able to tell them why it will be better for them. Many people have now become cynical of the typical 9-5 office routine. In organisations where staff have been forced to return, an amount of discontent can be expected. In many organisations, the pandemic has proven remote working can be just as effective as being in an office, and the people working there will be aware of it.
Equally, others have been champing at the bit to get back to the office. Whether they’ve been home alone and feel isolated during the days, or they’re in a crowded house and are looking forward to the peace that comes with being around co-workers, there are many emotional and physical advantages to a dedicated workplace around other people. For both of these groups, you need to explain why hybrid is right for them and the organisation, rather than being full-time either in the office or remote.
Communicate the benefits
Hybrid working has only recently become mainstream, but people have been benefiting from it for a long time. Arguably, the most immediate advantage for hybrid workers is a safe return to a shared workplace while we all continue to ride out the pandemic. Less time commuting and being around co-workers means a lower risk of exposure. However, in the longer term, it helps those who may otherwise struggle under typical working environments.
Research carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2013 found that the most common intervention to help disabled people stay in work was modified working hours.1 Similarly, studies have found that remote working during the pandemic has helped those with child or family caring responsibilities – primarily women – to return to work.2
Every organisation and team are unique, which means the pros and cons of hybrid working will be different for everyone. Spend some time working out exactly what the benefits will be – whether it’s easier communication, collaboration, training or access to physical resources, discuss this clearly with your team.
Communicate your plans as early as possible, giving people time to adjust to the idea, ask questions and get themselves organised. Last minute changes can add to an already stressful time. Don’t be afraid to say that things are still being worked out and you’ll give them more information soon. At least they’ll have some idea of what’s going on.
It would be naïve and ineffective to assume people can simply walk back into the old office, find their desk and work three days a week like nothing changed. As one Microsoft executive said: ‘If you then go to try to run a company like it’s 2019, workers might say, “I’ve changed, but you haven’t? Then I think I have to go make a change.”’3
Create the right setup
Before you can communicate the plan, you’ve got to have a plan. Workers are now used to a certain level of independence and aren’t used to having someone watch over their shoulder in a way that a manager might have done before. Many will be used to working with the TV on or playing their music as loud as they want, while others will be out of practice when it comes to working around other people.
This should affect how you begin organising things. Are people allowed to pick their own days or are they assigned? Is it a strict regular rota or is there flexibility? This will all shape the experience and atmosphere for your people.
Also, consider where the workplace will be. Your original office might be the best option, but don’t take this for granted. Many organisations used remote working as an opportunity to recruit talent from further afield, who are now unable to easily or regularly commute. Additionally, if you won’t need your whole team to come in at the same time, your organisation may decide to cut costs by downsizing. In organisations where there will be day with no one in workplace, it may be beneficial to rent a space just once or twice a week rather than pay to have a dedicated office that lies empty half the time.
Beyond this, think about how meetings will work. When everyone’s remote or everyone’s in-person, it’s straightforward. When half the group are in the room together and the other half are spread around the world, this poses a dilemma: how do you make everyone feel equal? Some organisations may choose to ask everyone to sit on individual devices with their own webcam, so that everyone can be seen and included in the same way, others will find it more beneficial to have one big screen and one laptop in the room. The former is certainly more effective, but the second takes much fewer resources.
Try out different options and think about what works for you, your people, your space and your resources. It may take some trial and error – which might be something you want to do before bringing people back, or you should be open about the fact you’re still working it out and you’ll welcome their feedback.
Getting the team back together
Research has found that 45% of employees say the number of people they interact with at work has significantly decreased over the pandemic, with a third feeling disconnected from their leaders.4 This feeling of isolation may be one of the reasons to start hybrid working, but that doesn’t mean you can suddenly throw everyone in the room together and assume your work is done.
Company culture is something that’s actively made, it shouldn’t be ignored or left to just happen. And, as with the working situation, you can’t just assume people will interact in the way they used to. Some people may want to chat, others may be overwhelmed at first. Create equal space for all of these feelings by considering who goes in on which days – are there certain combinations that work better than others? – and establishing rules and guidelines. A particular room may be a social space, while the main office remains quiet for work.
Many bonds will have been lost over two years of not seeing each other. For people that joined your organisation since working remotely, it’s even harder to walk in for the first time. Organise social events – anything from a team lunch to giving them the time and space to catch up and talk.
Keep it all balanced
Be conscious of who’s going in when. If you’ve got a scheduled rota of who goes in on which day of the week, it may be that certain people are always together and other people don’t meet in person at all. This can have some unintended side effects.
Avoid creating a culture of presenteeism by establishing equal and shared experiences, regardless of where anyone physically is. If managers and company leaders are in more, some people may start spending more time at the office to show off or build influence. This has the potential to put those who – through choice or necessity – come in less often at a disadvantage.
In the same way, cliques may form between those who see each other more regularly. This is bad for work and the culture and should be avoided.
The main trick is to ensure there’s no unfair advantage or disadvantage to coming into the office over working from home days. Of course, as we discussed, there should be some benefits or you shouldn’t be asking people to come in, but those working remotely should still be consulted on decisions, recognised for their hard work and rewarded in the same way.
Make sure you’re listening to your people. Actively encourage feedback, so everyone has a chance to say what’s going well and what isn’t. If it’s the first time your organisation has adopted a hybrid model, then you’ll be forgiven for teething issues as long as you’re seen to actively fix them.
As well as getting team members to feel comfortable with the changes, it’s essential that managers and leaders are given the support they need. Managing people face to face is one skill, while doing it remotely is another. Once again, hybrid becomes something similar to both and unlike either.
It can be easy to fall into a trap of leaving things that can wait until you’re next in the room together, but urgent tasks may fall through the gaps and important conversations remain unsaid.
Some organisations also have a small blind spot when it comes to the welfare of their managers. It’s common to give leaders the tools to look after their teams through times of change, but the managers themselves are people too, who need time to adjust. It can be difficult to guide others through something you’re also feeling unsure about.
Make sure your leadership team are also given ample opportunities to air their feelings towards any changes and have someone to support them. Don’t ask more of them than you would of anyone else. They don’t always have to the in the office when other team members are, as long as channels of communication remain strong.
Just as with the move to working from home, hybrid working takes people time to adapt to. While some will try arguing that working from home was working well and there’s no need to change, others might be upset that it’s only part-time back to the office, a carefully considered plan with clear communication which recognises the different viewpoints will go a long way to allaying many uncertainties and fears.
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1 People Management (2022) The important difference between 'flexible working' and 'working flexibly'
2 BBC (2022) Covid-19: Home working 'helped women get back into work'
3 Washington Post (2021) As offices open back up, not all tech companies are sold on a remote future
4 O.C. Tanner (2022) Global Culture Report