As many of us start to return to offices and other workplaces, the hybrid approach has emerged as the most popular solution for both employees and employers.

But organisations must err on the side of caution, as return to work efforts are likely to be just as disruptive as the shift to working remotely in the early stages of the pandemic. As in any experiment, organisations will need to evaluate what works and what doesn’t if they are to make widespread hybrid working a success.

For instance, whilst hybrid work proffers many advantages, there is also a risk for some organisations who find that they must now accommodate as many different working routines as there are people on the payroll. A new raft of challenges has emerged. How and when will teams overlap so that they can collaborate? Will some combinations of people ever be present at the same time again and what consequence might this have? How do new starters, both those starting their careers, or those joining at a later stage, effectively integrate into the organisation?

There are many organisational, cultural and logistical challenges to address, and no one-size-fits all solution. Indeed, the flexibility of a hybrid approach does seem like the best option to support a range of needs. And yet embracing flexibility could create a host of new challenges to tackle.

Commentators have warned of other possible unintended consequences of the hybrid-work model. These include excessive surveillance of employees while they are remote by organisations who are overly keen to keep tabs on what the workforce is doing, and disparities emerging between those who come into the office more and are able to develop bonds and networks that those who are remote do not. Previous research has even suggested that those who are ‘present’ in the office could have better promotion prospects than those who work remotely.

So how can business leaders do more to help employees decide what is right for them, their teams and their organisations as a whole?

Throughout 2021, the Capita Institute is undertaking a study of over 350 key decision makers to understand how as individuals, as organisations and as industries we have been affected by the pandemic and how we are adapting in these tough times. In four quarterly ‘pulse’ surveys conducted in partnership with YouGov, we’re looking at whether there is a great opportunity to view work and life after the pandemic as a new frontier.

In our Pulse 2 report, based on field research conducted in April/May of this year and available to download now, our findings show that most of our senior respondents support a hybrid approach, defined as a split of days in the workplace or office and days working remotely. More respondents (48%) favoured these options over models that were either fully remote or fully in the workplace. In terms of implementing the return to the workplace, 72% reported that they are adopting a phased approach, with some employees returning during the rest of this year.

Our survey also revealed how business leaders are facilitating the return. The most popular solutions were practical in nature: reconfiguring space (67% putting this as one of their top three choices) and cleaning the workplace in line with health and safety standards (64%). Next came implementing SHE (safety, health and environmental) measures in line with current legislation (56%) and increasing communication to their workforce about the return (54%).

Practical measures are, of course, essential. But another aspect that is just as crucial was, perhaps surprisingly, only the fifth most popular choice: understanding employee needs, with 49% putting this option in their top three. Organisations that have not sought to explore the views of their workforces are perhaps missing out on valuable insight for shaping their policies and procedures.

Since last year, Capita has regularly engaged its 55,000 global employees via surveys, focus groups and employee networks, and used the feedback to help shape ‘Ways of Working Principles’. These principles include: we are all empowered to work in the most flexible way our role allows and have a voice in determining how we work; we prioritise our health, safety, and wellbeing; we match our work to our location, doing the right work in the right place; we’re inclusive so everyone can thrive; and our leaders set the tone to trust, support and empower us all. Having these consistent principles throughout the organisation helps guide teams to find the flexible solutions that work for them whilst at the same time supporting Capita’s purpose of creating better outcomes.

It’s worth remembering, too, that we must beware of false certainties when it comes to our new hybrid arrangements. We may not have the definitive answer to what works best for us and our team straight away, so any new arrangements should be treated as experiments, where feedback and insights can be reviewed and approaches re-calibrated. Research has found that humans are bad at predicting what will make them happy, and so it is not a foregone conclusion that everyone will know what kind of arrangement is going to work for them before they have tried it out. Finding the system that works best should be a process and we must anticipate the need to change and pivot in response to learning what works and what doesn't.

Finally, we should be encouraging our staff to get to know themselves better, so that they can make more informed decisions. We need to equip our people not just with practical tools they need to perform their roles but also with a knowledge and understanding of how they are most comfortable working.

One way to do this would be to employ behavioural science techniques. Some workplace compliance specialists recommend using personality assessments in business in general, with the potential benefits including recognising leadership qualities, developing successful teams and identifying training needs. And since the pandemic has placed an increasing focus on the issue, research into working preferences has led to workplace personality tests being applied specifically to remote working. Such tests can help employees get a firm grasp of their needs and so better articulate them to management.

Alternatively, employees may benefit from personal reflective study to help them better understand how the ways they tend to behave can indicate the way of working that will best suit them. One example is the provocatively titled book Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson, a Swedish behavioural expert. His approach groups patterns of personal behaviour into four colour categories. Blues and greens are more task-orientated, introverted and passive (possibly better suited to remote working); reds and yellows tend to be relationship-orientated, extroverts and implementers (indicating that they are suited to being around other people). Seeking to gain these types of insight could help employees to make a smoother transition to a hybrid working ennvironment, recognising that people are not all the same, and ultimately minimising disruption for the organisation.

Despite all the difficulties we’ve experienced over the past 18 months, we now have the opportunity to redefine how and where we work for the benefit of both employees and employers. The workplace is evolving and the potential benefits for both groups are huge – if we do all we can to get it right, there is the potential to create a working world where we are all set up to be more comfortable, happier and more productive.

You can register using the button below to receive your copy of the full great opportunity debate Pulse 2 report and automatically receive our third pulse report, which will be published in the Autumn.

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