During the past few years, working life has gone through seismic change.
At the start of the pandemic, homeworking became the norm overnight.
Gradually as restrictions eased, that changed again to hybrid working, where the week was split between time in the office and working from home.
Recently, as economic pressures grip, some organisations have backtracked on this new way of work.
Disney, for example, announced earlier this year that its hybrid work arrangements were becoming much less flexible, with the company mandating a four-day return to the office.
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, one of his first actions was to summon people back to the office to work “long hours at high intensity”.
Yet, many other organisations realise being flexible is crucial to attracting and retaining the best talent. And costs less than a big pay rise.
So, even if it turns out there is a gradual move to more time in the office than at home, hybrid working is here to stay.
How can organisations make it work better?
I caught up with Dan Boniface, one of our leadership and management coaches, to answer that question.
And we began by looking at the benefits.
Dan says the main benefits include improved morale, greater job satisfaction, and better employee retention.
He said: “The early adopters of hybrid working retained their staff when we had the ‘great resignation’.
“Hybrid working makes people feel empowered, trusted and respected.
“When we look at what motivates us to work and keeps us there, salary is fairly low on the list.
“It is the human elements around how we feel that have the bigger impact.
“If we feel like we have control over what we are doing - including where we work - we are more likely to thrive.”
One of the criticisms of hybrid working is that it impacts productivity. That has been the narrative for some politicians who have linked the desire to work at home more to laziness.
Dan doesn’t believe hybrid working negatively impacts productivity.
“I think it has the opposite effect because we have the trust and autonomy we desire,” he said.
“If anything, it can lead to people being overworked.
“We can have this ‘always on’ attitude at home. It is easy to work an extra 15-20 minutes a day.
“It is easy to get up from your desk at the end of the day but leave your laptop on and then halfway through the evening, check your emails.
“And it only takes a minute to see an email that causes anxiety or a positive one you want to action immediately.
“You can end up not switching off in the evening.
“So, you need to be disciplined when working from home and remember to shut your laptop down and do the things that make you happy.
“You cannot perform at the highest level 100 per cent of the time. Elite athletes peak at certain times in the season.
“You need to have downtime where you switch off.”
Three years into hybrid working becoming commonplace, I was keen to know if Dan felt organisations had mastered it.
“Many companies have got to grips with hybrid working and are embracing it, he said.
“But there are still plenty who are trying to make it work and haven’t quite got it right.
“This is often because they put restrictions on how and when it happens.
“And hybrid working is about creating autonomy and trusting people – and your actions have to back up what you say.
“When there are restrictions on working days and hours, is that truly hybrid working?”
That’s a vital point and is one of the reasons why a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid working will not bring success.
Some people thrive working at home. Others feel they work better in an office. Some organisations and teams must be in the office more than others.
Dan said: “Hybrid working has to meet the strategic aims and objectives of the business. It shouldn’t be in place because people love working from home.
“But it is also about empowering employees. When we are comfortable in our work environment, happy and have high morale, productivity levels will be higher.
“If that means working two days in the office and three days at home, that’s the approach.
“If it is four days in the office and one at home, that works.
“There isn’t one approach that will suit every organisation. There should be conversations with teams and individuals about what works best and have some flexibility around that.
“People I speak to on my leadership and management training courses sometimes tell me they are being dictated to that they must come in on a Monday and Wednesday, for example.
“That’s not necessarily giving freedom to that individual to thrive – it is an autocratic approach. Having the freedom to choose which days you work at home and in the office, in my experience, motivates people more.”
But for all its benefits, hybrid working can increase the strain on managers.
A survey of 1,200 middle managers for The Times last year showed 43 per cent believed it had made managing their teams harder. And more than half said their ability to build meaningful relationships with team members had declined.
Dan said: “You can’t call all the team into your office when something urgent happens. And you can’t support all of your team and see how they are getting on at the same time.
“You have to make individual calls and plan team meetings.
“If everyone is in the office, on the other hand, you can walk around it in 15 minutes and have a catch-up with everyone.
“When making phone calls, even short ones will be at least five minutes per person. If you have 10 people in your team, that’s an hour on the phone.”
So, how do you best deal with these additional time pressures?
“You need to find a solution that works best for the organisation and the team,” Dan said.
“That might be a dedicated day where everyone has to be in the office, on a Friday for example. It could be set meeting times where people dial in if they work remotely and attend in person if they are in the office.
“It could be planned short one-to-ones with team members where there is a clear expectation the calls will be a maximum of 10 minutes, twice a week, so they don’t eat up your time.
“If it goes over that, it demonstrates there is more going on, and they probably need to come in for a full one-to-one.”
I wondered if this meant managers should be in the office more.
Dan said: “The manager must demonstrate similar behaviours to what they are asking from the team.
“It would quickly become a toxic environment if the manager dictated everyone had to be in the office three days a week, and they were only in there once a week.
“You can lose trust and respect quickly through small actions.
“You have to show that ‘we are all in it together’.”
Another challenge faced by organisations and managers is that the reduced visibility that comes with hybrid working can make it harder to spot if someone is struggling.
“Managers need to be more compassionate and understanding that their teams may suffer in silence more with hybrid working,” Dan said.
“You need to create that open culture where people know they can speak to you about problems.
“Your responsibility as a manager is then to check in on them regularly.
“That might be a phone call. Or it could be a Whatsapp at the end of the day.”
It should also involve managers ensuring they lead by example.
Dan said: “If the end of the working day is 5.30, the manager cannot send emails out at 9pm wanting replies from their team.
“You have to demonstrate the correct behaviours.
“I was coaching someone on this recently. They kept saying to their team ‘go home the working day is finished’. And the team would say, ‘we know you’re not finished and that you will keep working, and we are going to be there with you’.
“That feels like a nice team environment. But you are just encouraging people to work additional hours.
“Sometimes we need to do a bit extra. But it can’t be a daily thing.”
If we don't see each other as often, it can be tricky for team members to build and maintain connections.
Hybrid working doesn’t lend itself so naturally to watercooler conversations and corridor run-ins.
Technology can help bridge this gap.
But organisations and managers must still get people together in person.
Dan said: “You still need opportunities to come together as a team. And it doesn’t always need to be work-related togetherness.
“Play golf. Have a life drawing class. Anything fun. Maybe have an activity in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon.
“It is about ensuring the enjoyment levels are still in our work. We should enjoy work.
“I was talking to someone recently whose company used to spend a lot of money on annual conferences.
“And she was saying that opportunity to come together and build connections has been lost through covid – the company saved a lot of money not putting them on through the pandemic, and it is unwilling to go back.
“That’s damaging for morale, and the impact is far greater than saving money. It impacts retention rates and job satisfaction.
“You don’t need to do a huge conference, but you need to create opportunities to get together.
“If everyone is pulling together in different directions, results will not be great.”
This is an easy one to overlook, partly because people have been working from home for some time now.
But businesses and managers need to get it right.
Dan said: “When everyone started working from home, it happened quickly.
“And because people did a good job, some companies have let people carry on with their initial setups.
“It is crucial to make sure the set-up is right. Do they have enough screens? Are they sitting on the correct chairs? Sitting on a kitchen chair all day every day is different to sitting on an ergonomic office chair.
“Are you offering free eye tests if they need to stare at a screen all day?
“We are talking about people’s health. And if these things are not addressed, there could be knock-on effects down the line.”
Whatever your hybrid working arrangements, it is important to regularly take stock.
And make changes if you think it can be improved.
“There should be regular reviews with hybrid working, either as an organisation or with the individuals in your team,” Dan said.
“Plan the review dates in advance. Maybe make it part of the appraisal process to look at how hybrid working is working for the individual and the business.
“If it is working well, great. If not, it may be the case you need to get someone in an extra day a week.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to change if things are not quite perfect yet.”
The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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