How could a hybrid model change not just our workplace but our work mindset?

For senior decision makers, there’s no doubt that 2020 was a tough year. According to the Capita Institute’s great opportunity? report, which explores the potential for change brought by the pandemic, 82% of business leaders felt the speed of change was faster than they expected and many are worried that the pace of change will be unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Capita’s forthcoming survey Decoding HR also finds that 70% of companies found adapting to remote working challenging, as they’d had to change the way they interacted with every client, colleague and stakeholder in a short time frame. Respondents cited concerns around ongoing economic instability, as well as the health and wellbeing of employees.

Now that pandemic restrictions are starting to lift, businesses are making plans to return to offices. Even though the shift back to workplaces may not require the same speed as the exodus in early 2020, there are still many factors that employers have to carefully navigate. After a year at home, studies show that most employees have enjoyed the experience, with the majority keen to adopt a hybrid approach to working life – 66% of respondents from the Capita HR survey said that they were planning to either introduce permanent working from home arrangements or introduce more hybrid models of working in 2021. Even onsite incentives may not be enough to tempt people back to offices full-time, with the Envoy Return to Work survey suggesting that 40% of people would leave their position if they’re not offered flexible working. Moving forward, strong leadership will be essential, so that companies can re-evaluate their priorities to meet the needs of their employees and their own strategic goals.

When returning to the workplace, companies will need to consider what the new model might look like, not base assumptions on the old office structures. For many businesses, particularly those in the technology sector, the ‘workspace’ as we used to know it will no longer be fixed. Instead it will be constantly evolving, with businesses prioritising innovation and flexibility over traditional structures and hierarchies. Companies will also have the chance to use technology to create more dynamic working options, which take into account individual needs. For example, booking technologies can be used to arrange collaborative meeting spaces or desks in advance, while emerging tools like virtual reality (VR) may be used to facilitate product demonstrations, and artificial intelligence used to make corporate learning personal. While everyone has been forced to get up to speed on technology, companies will also be looking to increase soft skills in their business, like communication, to ensure smooth transitions.

Working from home has been particularly popular among older people and those with young families, but it’s not without challenges. Organisations are finding that people starting their careers are missing out on hands-on mentoring and training, while others are noticing a high drop-out rate among new joiners, who haven’t had the chance to build networks as easily as they would potentially have done in an office. On the other hand, junior staff can get the opportunity to join meetings they might not usually have been part of when those meetings are remote as opposed to in person.

Overall, offering total flexibility without any formal structure runs the risk of causing division, and leadership gaps. As well as potentially leaving only younger staff in the office, it’s also a challenge to replicate a sense of culture and belonging, which could negatively impact businesses and their clients over time.

In addition to the practical issues relating to work spaces, we’re seeing different approaches to comfort and safety. Some people are raring to get back to the buzz of city life, while others don’t feel comfortable travelling on packed trains or sitting near people who may be unvaccinated. As opportunities to socialise at work have diminished, many have increased their local community activities, which will also contribute to the way we work and live. It’s important to remember that, outside of a pandemic situation, people are likely to have different needs, which will continue to adapt and change as we learn to live in the ‘new normal’.

Although the months ahead are unlikely to be easy, businesses have expressed their desire to harness the power of innovation to modify the wheel, if not totally reinvent it. Getting a suitable hybrid working structure in place is a top priority for many businesses, and the challenges in doing so will vary between different companies. For some this will involve enhancing skills in certain areas, such as communication, problem solving and resilience, as well as reconsidering how recruitment and training processes might work. Others may wish to consider a skills-based approach, hiring people to deliver specific skills at a certain time, potentially on a temporary basis – which in turn has an impact on how recruiting operates within organisations. This is likely to be especially popular among younger generations, who often prefer to work in contract and freelance-based roles.

If implemented in the right way, remote working could also allow companies the chance to diversify and widen their talent pool. Pre-pandemic, people living far away from cities or unable to travel due to caring commitments or health reasons were left with fewer job opportunities. Companies now have the opportunity to level the playing field and reap the rewards of employing a more diverse group of people.

Teams may also become less paternalistic, relying more on individual drive. However, companies can’t rely on tech alone to ensure people are on track and supported in their environment. They will need robust processes in place to ensure good remote working practices and performance management. Previous studies have shown that presenteeism means employees are more likely to be promoted, which could discriminate against other workers. It will be important for organisations to openly communicate with their employees and utilise new tools for managing people’s work outside of the office space. For example, ensuring that people are completing certain tasks in a way that suits the business and that managers are supporting people who are clocking up excessive hours at home.

The pandemic has presented us with a short-cut to the future, and enabled opportunities for real cultural change. With a blank slate in front of us, it’s time to build on the innovation from the past year and develop new ways of working together. By collaborating with clients and employees, businesses can take the best from the old and new worlds to design more successful and inclusive workplaces.

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Peter Wallace
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