Returning to a Hybrid Workplace

As October rolls around, and the usual ‘back to work’ messages are coming through, we take a topical look at what it means to return to a hybrid workplace, in collaboration with dedicated HR specialists, Kane HR.

From July 19 the UK government announced the move to step four of the roadmap which included the removal of most COVID-19 restrictions across England. Later, in early August Scotland and Wales also followed suit. Whilst the changes meant that workers are no longer required to work from home, government guidance recommends that employers follow a gradual return to the workplace over the coming months. This approach allows for the variant infection rates to continue to decline and appropriate plans and measures to be put in place by employers in readiness for return.

Employer obligations

Employers have a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their staff. This duty of care places a legal obligation on employers to plan any return carefully, consider their individual environment, conduct risk assessments, and implement context specific risk mitigation plans as appropriate; in short, employee safety and wellbeing must be a priority. Employers should take extra care of those with any potential protected characteristics and discuss with workers most at risk any reasonable adjustments that can be made to the workplace or working arrangements so they can work safely. 

Whilst there is no mandatory government expectation on the specific measures that employers should take, the government has published guidance specific to each industry. The guidance includes certain measures that employers could consider, including;

  • Minimising unnecessary visitors
  • Ensuring social distancing
  • Frequent cleaning
  • Extra hand washing facilities
  • One-way systems to minimise contact
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face)
  • Staggering start/end times
  • Requiring a facial covering to be worn in enclosed space

Employee obligations

A small number of requirements remain in force for employees and must be observed by employers also. Anyone testing positive for coronavirus must self-isolate and should not attend their place of work. Anyone in close contact with someone who tests positive must also self-isolate although, from 16 August, under-18s and those who have received a second COVID vaccination at least 10 days before the contact no longer need to isolate and may continue to attend work as normal.

Employers should note that employees who have been employed for 26 weeks or longer have the right to request more flexible working arrangements, which could include working from home, but they are under no obligation to agree to such requests, particularly where cost, quality or performance may be adversely impacted.

All employees have an obligation to obey lawful and reasonable instructions given by their employer, which includes instructions relating to a return to work. However, employees may refuse to attend the workplace if they reasonably believe that it poses a danger to them, and, if so, they have certain protections under employment legislation. The protections also apply if an employee takes appropriate steps to protect themselves or others from danger.

Having a ‘reasonable belief’ varies from case to case, depending on the facts. There have been a few Employment Tribunal judgements in cases regarding employees’ concerns about COVID-19 which have shown that employees have faced little difficulty in establishing that they have a reasonable belief of significant or imminent danger. However, provided an employer is following the Government’s working safely guidance, indications show that a ‘general’ fear of COVID-19 may not be considered reasonable and an employee would have to demonstrate on what grounds they believe the workplace to be unsafe.

The future – a new hybrid model?

Looking ahead beyond the pandemic and current period of limited restrictions, the government is clear that re-opening businesses is essential for a healthy economy. Taking people back from furlough reduces the financial burden on the country and allows them to continue a normal working life. Studies by the University of Cambridge demonstrate how working can have a positive impact on mental health as well as the financial benefit. Encouraging people to return to the office may also be helpful in reinvigorating city centres where businesses have been adversely impacted by the absence of office workers whilst restrictions were imposed.

With that said however, companies and their employees have a clear opportunity for change, creating a new normal rather than reverting to ‘as was’. Having experienced a fundamental shift in ways of working over the last 18 months, people have found new ways to be successful, maintaining productivity and sustaining operations. As a result, expectations around work have changed for both employers and employees. Employees’ thinking related to how they fulfil their role and how they balance work and domestic responsibilities may have changed dramatically. For employers, there are new opportunities relating to how and from where they can source talent for their business too.

This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working, and harness more agile and flexible working practices to meet individuals’ changing expectations and business needs.

The data

New research from the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management has found that a large proportion of employees will expect a level of ‘hybrid’ working in the future – with just under half (44%) of the workforce wanting to work from the office for 3 days or fewer each week. Additionally, results also found that 63% of employees now believe the office to be unnecessary – this was a rise of one-fifth since the first lockdown (51%).

The poll, which surveyed 2,000 office workers across the country in March 2021, shows that demand for hybrid working is especially prevalent in the younger demographic. Two-thirds (66%) of 18-24-year-olds confessed that not being offered flexible work patterns would cause them to look for another job. Yet disturbingly, over a third (38%) of this demographic feel their employer is putting pressure on them to return to the office – risking losing new talent.

Benefits of remote or hybrid working

There are many benefits to well thought out, agreed, and communicated hybrid ways of working. The research appears to indicate that job satisfaction may be one of the key benefits. Allowing better work life balance and increased flexibility is an attractive value proposition for most employees which could lead to reduced attrition benefiting both company, reduced cost to hire, and enhanced career prospects. Happy employees are far more likely to focus on getting the job done, which in turn will lead to better productivity benefits.

Research during lockdown periods has also shown that typically employees worked at least as many hours if not longer whilst working from home, using what was once commuting time more productively. This has brought about   a concerning blur between the boundaries of work and home life. Taking this into account, it’s important that in planning for a hybrid working model, the benefits that come from greater flexibility are not eroded via ‘work creep’ and encroachment into personal lives. A successful model will therefore be partly dependant on employers and employees agreeing on reasonable expectations for availability, contact times and meetings; one way to address this is in laying out a remote or hybrid working policy, which we look at in more detail later in this article.

Another benefit associated with hybrid ways of working include the reintroduction of social interaction. Whilst lone working allows for greater focus time on specific tasks, both individuals and teams will have missed the real social dimension. Seeing real bodies from which to gauge body language, perceive what has and hasn’t been said, the development of natural learning opportunities and a sense of belonging that grabs people’s hearts as well as minds is important, not least because it will enhance retention. From a productivity point of view also, the ‘osmosis’ effect of employees learning by being with and around others has enormous value for productivity and employee sense of satisfaction; this is equally applicable to new starters or those needing more support in their role.

This sense of productivity from being together can greatly enhance the work of those in creative functions. Brainstorming or ‘co-creation’ can be an incredibly powerful way of fast tracking to new ideas but works best together where employees can create a buzz and bounce off each other. This notion of being together may also be applicable in highly detailed, time pressured environments, perhaps an investor presentation with multiple iterations, a budget presentation or a business-critical deal that needs to be delivered at pace.

Finally, the benefit of social and casual interactions like a chance meeting in the hallway or bathroom, should not be underestimated in building networks. It’s well documented that networking can underpin a greater sense of ‘can do’ in organisations, knowing someone who can, but also helps in career pathing. This is particularly relevant in retaining key talent, giving them a sense of visibility, that what they are doing is being noticed and will help them get the next job. It’s also useful for line managers to become familiar with employee talent making it easier to fill new roles as they become open.

Implications

Each of the above ideas points us to a sense of purpose.

Why do we need to be together? Where do we do our best work? What factors will support our productivity and ultimate success both for the business and the employee?

It’s this sense of purpose that should help shape an employers’ thinking around planning for a return to work or hybrid working.

Taking the most simplistic view, for employees to work efficiently and be productive from home, they will need access to the right equipment and tools to deliver the requirements of their job role. This ranges from basic desk, chair, lighting requirements through to computer equipment, internet access, headphones, and software tooling to facilitate collaboration or another role-specific functionality. Stating the obvious, employees should be provided with training on how to use the tools required for remote working and have access to a helpline for when (inevitably) something goes wrong. They will never feel more isolated and remote than when stranded at home unable to ‘connect’.

Whilst it’s easy to imagine that employees should have all that they need after such a long period of being away from their regular place of work, it’s likely that many will have ‘made do’ and to continue working from home on a more regular formal basis may need additional support. Employers need to consider how that support should be provisioned and what is appropriate. As they do this, it’s important to remember that they have an obligation to safeguard the health and wellbeing of employees and will be responsible for ensuring that whatever provision is made, the working from home environment is assessed and found to be compliant with health and safety legislation.

Continuing to consider purpose, the way employees use an office in the future may suggest employers need to reconfigure office space. Whereas row upon row of desk space with a small contingent of meeting rooms may have been appropriate in the past, perhaps more open collaboration space will be required. If employees manage focused work from home and come to the office for broader project collaboration, team meetings and updates or social events, traditional space may not be fit for purpose and need to be reconfigured. Potentially the space requirement may also be smaller allowing companies to reduce their property footprint, making savings whilst facilitating improved productivity. With this change in footprint and potentially less desks than total employees, employers may need to consider an easy access booking system to manage available space.

Leadership

With so much change it’s essential that business leaders act as role models for new ways of working. A leadership team that is in the office 5 days a week every week may set an unspoken or perceived expectation that to succeed, employees must be visible in the office every day. Being vocal about how often and why they come to the office will help leadership give ‘permission’ to or enable employees to feel comfortable about their own choices on when to work remotely versus in the office.

Crucial also is a clear articulation of expectations from management on what they expect from employees working remotely. This can be facilitated with a well written remote or hybrid working policy which should aim to address the following topics:

  • Suitable locations for remote working
    • Working abroad for prolonged time periods may expose the company to unintended tax liabilities
    • Employers and employees should consider the appropriateness of a given setting, particularly regarding sensitive material. As an example, internet cafes or pubs may not be appropriate locations
    • Protection of IP is also important if employees are going to access material on personal equipment or print documents outside of the office environment.
  • Expectations regarding working hours
    • Is a traditional 9-5 timeframe still expected or are there flexibility parameters within which an employee may choose to work to get the job done?
  • Outline for regular contact
    • What may an employee expect from their manager?
    • What is required of an employee?
    • Are there timeframes within which it’s acceptable, and conversely others where it is unacceptable, to expect this contact to occur?
  • Performance management
    • How will this be managed, how frequently and by whom?
    • What happens if there are issues?
    • Career planning and support
  • Support for home working
    • Who manages provision of required equipment?
    • Who funds home working expenses? E.g., internet, increased utility bills, insurance obligations, travel to and from office if this is no longer an employee’s default location
  • What to do when things go wrong
    • IT support and how to access?
    • Who to contact if an employee experiences any issue with functional work, other team members or managers.
    • Mental health support for those feeling remote, isolated
  • Any changes or amendments to contractual terms, benefits, or incentives

Note the above is not exhaustive.

Meetings

In addition to the above, managers need to consider that not everyone’s model of hybrid will be the same. It’s possible that not all employees will be in the office together and so consideration must be given to how to manage a team that is partially remote and partially in the office. It’s important that all employees feel that they are treated equally and justly regardless of location. Simple practicalities relating to this would include taking care in managing team meetings, with attendance split between face to face and remote participation. Things to be conscious of are as follows;

  1. Everyone should be clear about purpose of the meeting, whether that be decision making, a chance to catch up, information sharing etc, and check it’s suited to a hybrid working approach. If so, it’s important to communicate the intended outcome to the team so everyone has a chance to prepare.
  2. Try to ensure each attendee has a consistent experience by actively taking steps to involve participants working from home – don’t default to those in the room with you. This could be done by addressing everyone by name and giving everyone a chance to contribute. Chat and hand-raising functions can be useful in doing this.
  3. The need to refresh or provide training in meeting facilitation for each type of meeting.
  4. Encourage teams to establish their own rules and way to conduct hybrid meetings. For example: choosing a primary platform to use, ensuring everyone knows how to use it, and deciding on ways to ensure communication is inclusive of all.
  5. Make use of tools such as the Microsoft Teams chat function to allow teams to communicate from different locations without having to be in a meeting.
  6. Avoid the use of equipment in the room that team members who are working from home cannot properly see – present slides via the chosen technology will be more inclusive and easier for remote members to engage with.
  7. Save in-person conversations for another time, rather than just before remote participants have joined, or after they have left.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that the trend towards hybrid working is an evolving situation, one which all employers should be mindful of when considering future plans. Whilst there is no single right or wrong answer, employees will have an opinion on what works for them and the employers likely to be most successful in navigating this challenge will be those that consult and communicate with their workforce to understand exactly what is going to work for everyone.

Holding purposeful consultations will help to steer formulating solutions as will being mindful that the right answer is likely to be a framework which will evolve over time rather than a rigid one size fits all answer. Most importantly, as always, clear communication of any agreement and expectations between both employer and employee is critical.

If any of this resonates and you’d like to discuss your hybrid workplace strategy and how we can support you, get in touch here.