The rise of hybrid work
As the world went into lockdown, businesses across almost all industry sectors were forced to move their operations out of the office. In the UK, for example, 46.6% of employees were doing at least some work from home by April 2020. For most organisations, this rapid transition wasn't without challenges. So why then, did things not return to normal after lockdown eased?
According to research by Travel Perk, 76% of companies have now made a permanent commitment to hybrid working, allowing employees to split their working hours between home and the office.1
So what really lies behind this cultural shift, and is hybrid working here to stay?
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What caused the shift from office to hybrid working?
Over the course of the pandemic, the shift to remote working saw businesses faced with pressing and immediate challenges.
With face-to-face meetings off the table, video conferencing technology went from being optional to essential overnight, while online collaboration and communication software was key to supporting employees working on group projects.
Investing in technology, connectivity and collaborative tools enabled companies to shift their operations from the office into a virtual space with minimal disruption. In fact, the shift was so seamless that many businesses reported similar or increased levels of productivity while their employees were working from home.
A well known pre-pandemic Stanford study of 16,000 workers over nine months found working from home increased productivity by 13%.2 Meanwhile, 70% of employees said they found virtual meetings less stressful, with 64% preferring hybrid meetings, according to a report by Owl Labs.3
But what does this all mean in the future of work? With hybrid working proving so successful, and many businesses reevaluating the role of the office, what will be the perfect balance between remote and office working?
Is the office still relevant?
At one point, organisations might have been tempted to wonder whether they needed the office at all. But while home working has certainly been proved viable in terms of productivity during the pandemic, it's become clear that the office still has an important role to play when it comes to creating a positive workplace culture and supporting employee wellbeing. Being on-site, at least some of the time, can be invaluable for:
Collaboration tools bring people together, regardless of where they are. And these connections can then be strengthened even further though informal interactions when people are together in the same physical locations.
The move to remote working has focused people's minds on which tasks are best done independently and which are better done collaboratively. This awareness is helping people make better use of their time – reserving 'remote' days for jobs that need intense solo concentration, and on-site days for more collaborative tasks.
Maintaining work-life balance
When your home is also your office, and you're contactable 24/7, it can be hard to switch off. Going to a dedicated place of work, at least some of the time, helps re-establish that important boundary between work and the rest of life.
Training and development
Being in the same physical space as more experienced coworkers for at least part of the week can make it easier for people to 'learn on the job'.
But while they're likely to be around for some time yet, offices will look very different in the future.
Why is hybrid working so attractive?
Hybrid working offers employees all the advantages of homeworking, without losing the benefits of their workplace community and culture.
But the benefits aren't solely with the employee: a recent report by Accenture found 63% of high-revenue growth companies use hybrid "productivity anywhere" models.
Let's take a closer look at some of the key benefits hybrid can bring.
Benefits of hybrid working for employees:
Improved work-life balance – hybrid companies empower employees to fit work around family and personal commitments
Lower cost of living – employees can live more frugally by cutting down on travel expenses and meals on-the-go
Less commuting – less traveling to and from the office leaves more time for family, exercise and personal activities
Better productivity – people who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to be happy and productive4
Benefits of hybrid working for businesses:
Lower overheads – with fewer workers coming into the office, the need for huge office spaces is significantly reduced. This could result in lower rental costs for businesses as well as less money spent on energy
Reduced absenteeism – empowering employees to improve their work-life balance helps reduce stress levels across your workforce, improving overall wellbeing and helping to combat absenteeism
Lower staff turnover – on average, companies that allow at least some remote work have 25 lower employee turnover than those that don't5
Attract better talent – hybrid work allows companies to explore a more diverse hiring pool that isn't limited by location
Will companies stay hybrid?
Hybrid working may be hugely popular now, but will people gradually drift back to the Monday-Friday, on-site, 9-5? Businesses don't think so. According to a poll by Willis Towers Watson, the majority of employers don't anticipate a return to pre-pandemic working practice, believing that almost half of employees will adopt hybrid working.6 And a McKinsey survey of 100 executives across Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US found nine out of ten organisations will be combining remote and hybrid working.
One of the reasons hybrid working is likely to continue is employee demand – 88% of workers would like to work remotely at least some of the time. 7 Companies that don't offer this option may well find themselves losing staff and having difficulties in recruiting, as candidates look for more flexible organisations. Then there are the productivity, employee engagement and customer satisfaction gains organisations have seen since they adopted hybrid working. No one is in a hurry to give these up.
What does the future of hybrid working look like?
While they may have high-level visions in place, many companies haven't yet filled in the details of how they'll implement hybrid working going forward, according to research by McKinsey. It's likely that in the near future, organisations will look to fill in those gaps, creating policy outlining exactly how hybrid is going to be done in their business.
Things to consider include which hybrid model to adopt – will remote or on-site working dominate? Will employees be able to choose when they come in or will managers be responsible for scheduling a minimum number of days on-site? To make hybrid work, companies need to learn from what has and hasn't worked for them – McKinsey talks about the importance of experimenting and iterating. And of course, it's vital that plans and visions are communicated clearly to all levels of the organisation.
Looking to the longer-term future of hybrid work is important too, as organisations lay the technological groundwork for further leaps forward, for example, into the metaverse. In the years to come, an internet you can step inside will transform hybrid by allowing people to create shared spaces with coworkers wherever they are.
How can companies improve their hybrid working practices?
While for the most part, the hybrid work model has proven to be productive and engaging, it's also come with challenges. These include social isolation, miscommunication between workers, lack of development opportunities and the risk of employees burning out through overwork.
Here are some tips to help you manage a hybrid working model that maintains productivity while promoting a supportive and inspiring working culture.
Encourage open communication – the pandemic opened managers' eyes to the importance of regular check-ins and honest discussion about how people are experiencing work. It's important to retain these opportunities to touch base in the hybrid world.
Be flexible – embracing flexibility around working hours as well as work location could make your organisation more attractive to top talent.
Set boundaries – protecting your business from employee burnout is vital. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) suggests organisations consider measures like 'right to disconnect' policies to protect employees' work-life balance.
Make time for connection – according to McKinsey, companies that supported small interactions between coworkers, to share ideas or network, for example, did better productivity-wise during the pandemic. Keeping this up going forward will help organisations thrive.
Be inclusive – while hybrid working opens new opportunities, there's also a real risk that it could exacerbate inequalities, and even lead to new ones, the CMI warns. Leaders and managers need to be super-aware of the need to foster inclusive environments, wherever people are working.
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