Deep Dive: The hidden problems of flexible work – and how to avoid them post-Covid

Written by Duncan Cheatle CMgr CCMI, chief executive of Learn Amp Thursday 01 April 2021
With the vaccination program steadily expanding and the end of lockdown on the horizon we ask: what’s next?
Woman working from home on a laptop

Remote work has become the new normal for millions worldwide. For many, this has proved incredibly challenging. Those joining the workplace for the first time have missed out on the ‘learning through osmosis’ and the social interaction that being together in the office enables. Parents with younger children have had to homeschool on top of their job. For others the challenge of flatmates working off the same kitchen table has been difficult at best.

On the flip side, for many employees the experience has been deeply rewarding. Working parents have enjoyed more time with their families. City dwellers are loving the sudden disappearance of the long commute. More than 50% of employees would now leave their jobs for one that offers remote, flexible work.

Companies may well find it hard to drag everyone back to the office every day. On the other hand, once restaurants, bars and gyms open up again, people may start to miss having an office space. For now, businesses need to find solutions that work for both their employees and them. Some, like Shopify, have decided to fully embrace 100% remote work; CEO Toby Lutke announced that “Office centricity is now dead.”

Others are enthusiastic about a complete return to the office. Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Soloman told reporters: “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, [remote work] is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”

However, for most businesses, the best option will be a flexible combination of remote and office work – also known as the hybrid-working model. The majority of British workers have said that they’d prefer a mixture of working remotely and in the office. Well-known tech companies including Hubspot, Reddit, Dropbox, Twitter and Facebook are embracing this flexible approach. And no wonder – hybrid working gives employers and employees the best of both worlds, the flexibility of remote work and the collaboration and interaction of the office.

Unlike 100% remote work (or a complete return to the office), a flexible hybrid-working structure can accommodate workers who can’t (or would prefer not to) work from home, those who prefer mostly remote work but need to meet colleagues frequently, and those who would prefer to be fully remote.

However, despite all its advantages, flexible work also raises serious challenges for business leaders. Creating a successful hybrid working model requires that companies re-evaluate what working culture they want to build to how employees should communicate.

Questions will arise around what to do with existing office space, how to accommodate the wide range of needs for a diverse workforce, and how to update your People policies to support your new way of working. In this article, we’ll provide our tips and suggestions for handling the hidden problems of flexible work.



1. Culture and Communication

The first step to building a successful hybrid working model is to decide on your priorities as a company. What culture do you want to maintain? How do you want to work moving forward? What kind of company are you trying to build?

If you don’t make these decisions now, over time you risk unintentionally creating a divisive and unfair structure. For instance, with some employees at home and others in the office, there is a real risk that remote workers could become second-class citizens. There can be a risk of excluding remote workers from decisions or neglecting their career development.

You don’t want hard-working, talented employees to be overlooked in favour of those you see in the office every day. So how do you avoid the unintended consequences of a hybrid remote environment – out of sight, out of mind?

Improving communications to make a hybrid arrangement work

To create a more equitable culture in a hybrid or flexible working arrangement, rethink your internal communications. First decide on what structure you’re aiming for: remote-only, hybrid or returning to the office with some flexibility? Then focus should move on to how employees should work together and communicate with each other to reinforce your new working model.

If you’re maintaining remote work as an option for some or all employees, then now is the moment to explicitly address the communications challenges of remote working with a review of your communications policy. Here are a few tips for getting that right:

  • Distinguish clearly between visibility and reachability. Visibility (being seen to be “always on call”, a form of remote presenteeism) and reachability (being easily contactable, with a reasonable level of responsiveness). Define explicitly what being “reachable” means. You want to find the balance between an easy flow of communication and triggering remote burnout.
  • Define expectations around timeframes. Do you expect employees to reply to email within 24 hours? Or on the same day? Do you require responses to instant messages within the hour, or by the next working day? Should employees send or respond to email over the weekend or in the evenings?
  • Implement office hours. If you’re working with colleagues in multiple time zones, you may also need to reconsider core hours. You could either agree that all staff must be available during specific time slots, regardless of where they’re based, and even if that involves working early in the morning or late at night. Or you may want to scrap “office hours” altogether and default to asynchronous communication?
  • Build accountability and visibility. Tools like I Done This are a simple way to track remote employee activity— employees send a quick email reporting their daily activity at the end of each work day, creating a feeling of greater transparency for managers. They can also flag up any tasks that are blocked so these roadblocks can be quickly dealt with. Employees can also view each other’s daily reports, encouraging some healthy competition!

Advice from GitLab

As the world’s largest remote company, GitLab has some useful insights about communication and ways of working for companies moving towards remote work. They stress that a hybrid remote solution may be easier for some companies to implement than a fully remote model, but that it “should be embraced with great deliberation, care, and intentionality,” to avoid excluding remote workers. They suggest that the hybrid remote model works best if you:

  • Try to cut down impromptu and casual meetings in the office if possible, and are rigorous about documenting and sharing the minutes of any in-person meetings that do occur.
  • Avoid hybrid video calls (where some participants are in a meeting room and others call in). Instead, provide individual offices for those in the workplace and have everyone call in from their desk. This reinforces the idea that the office is just “another place to work remotely from.”
  • Treat every meeting like a remote meeting, even if some of the participants are in the same building. GitLab recommends using a real-time document editing solution (like Google Docs) for your meeting agendas. All meetings should have a shared agenda prepared in advance. During the meeting, encourage participants to make notes within the agenda itself. You can find Learn Amp's guide to better, more inclusive remote meetings here.
  • Record and share all important in-person conversations and upload it to your shared learning platform. Learning platforms like Learn Amp make it easy to self-record, upload, and share content, and add tags so people can find it for reference later.
  • Encourage leaders to work from home, so employees don’t feel that they have to be in the office to “rub shoulders” with the decision-makers.


2. Listen to your workforce

To support a flexible working structure, you need to understand the needs and preferences of your employees. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do this – listen to them!

You could use a combination of pulse surveys, polls and focus groups to build a clear picture of what your employees are looking for. You can send out surveys automatically, trigger quick polls, or schedule online focus groups to chat over the options with your employees.

For instance, do you have a workforce who will value the flexibility of home work (for example working parents who need to juggle childcare commitments)? Or are your employees missing face to face interaction and desperately wanting to get back into the office for socials? Be mindful that when things open again individual needs might change.

Use employee personas to reduce complexity

If your survey results point to a wide variety of different preferences, it may be helpful to define employee personas to simplify the situation. Similar to the buyer personas used in marketing, employee personas are semi-fictional characters that represent sets of employees.

To create employee personas, you identify and group together your employees based on shared characteristics, and then develop an overarching persona to describe them. These will often reflect the stages of life most people go through: living in a house share; co-habiting couples; family with young children, family with teenage children and so on. Or they could simply reflect working style preferences.

For remote work, you could create a persona who enjoyed working from home and whose work can be done primarily alone and without support or supervision, a persona who enjoys working in the office and who requires extensive face-to-face communication for their work, and so on.

You can then assign different working options to each employee persona - from no remote work option, to the option to work from home for some portion of the week or month, to full-time remote.

Advice from Hubspot

Hubspot is switching to a hybrid model this year. They've proposed a simple solution for managing different remote working options. They're allowing employees to choose from three different set-ups, based on how "how they do their best work":

  1. Office workers, who will come into the office for three days or more and will have a dedicated desk with the option to work from home with a company laptop
  2. Flex workers, who will work in the office for up to two days a week and will have a "hotel desk" when they come in. Hubspot will provide funds to set up a home office
  3. Home workers who will work from home full-time

This solution seems to find the balance between worker preferences and company priorities, allows for plenty of flexibility, and sounds pretty fair. Hubspot has said that there will be roles that are designated as “office only”, but these will be advertised as such.


Flag up potential challenges for specific persona types and address them in advance

For many businesses, the last year has made it clear that some types of work lend themselves more easily to remote work than others. For example, focused deep work and technical problem-solving tasks, such as programming, suit a remote-work set-up, especially when little collaboration is involved.

However, there are certain tasks that become far more challenging when working from home. McKinsey’s research found that "some work that technically can be done remotely is best done in person. Negotiations, critical business decisions, brainstorming sessions, providing sensitive feedback, and onboarding new employees are examples of activities that may lose some effectiveness when done remotely."

It might be a good idea to insist that roles involving high levels of interpersonal communication should be allowed a flexible work option but not full-time working from home.

You also need to consider the impact of remote work on new hires. Many new employees in an office setting learn by osmosis, from working alongside their more experienced colleagues.

To preserve this opportunity, you could create a new hire persona that would start working in the office full-time, and then shift to more days at home as their need for on-the-job learning decreases. To support this, more senior staff or line managers would be required to work alongside new hires once a week on a rotating schedule, developing a mentoring relationship between new and established staff.


3. The Future of the Workplace

Once you’ve established the culture you want to create and the organisational structure you need to build to support the change, it’s time to think about the logistics. What space do you need to support your new vision for your company?

It’s unlikely that your office will simply disappear. After all, typically only 15% of employees want to work at home every day, and over 70% think their employer should have an office of some sort.

But the office is no longer going to be thought of as ‘the place where we go to work’. As your employees gain greater choice over where they work, you’ll need to make the office a place that people want to come to.

Rethinking the office in a hybrid company

For hybrid companies, there are a few potential options to choose between. An important point to note is that if you’re moving to a remote-first model, then you’ll also need to make sure that your employees have an appropriate and safe home office. You could choose between.

  • Offering a home office budget to all your employees, to spend on equipping their home office space with a comfortable chair, decent lighting, and so on
  • Offering a home office budget to everyone, and also providing office space to some employees as a perk
  • Offering employees the choice between office space, or funds towards a home office

If you’re still going to offer office space of some kind, you need to revisit what kind of office space you’re offering. Will you keep your headquarters for now, or take the plunge and switch to a lower cost option?

For example, you could either lease a smaller office for staff who need a permanent desk, with a few “hot desks” for mostly remote workers. Or you could allow staff to choose to work in a co-working space near them. Finally, you could offer spaces in a selection of hub offices, from which employees could choose the one nearest to them.

If you decide to retain your current office spaces, you may still need to reconsider their design and function. After all, if offices aren’t obligatory, the reasons people go to work change too. A study by Tally Market found that 88% of employees will only go back to the office meet with their team, and 60% would return for company events only. In other words, offices will shift from a place to sit in front of a screen, to the place you go to talk over work issues, make decisions, brainstorm, innovate, and socialise with your work colleagues.

Your office design will need to shift over time to adapt to these new requirements. For an office space that reflects a more flexible working model, you may need to introduce sound-proofed, individual pods where people can attend online meetings without bothering their co-workers.

Additionally, you may want to create more spaces that focus on socialising, collaboration and chat. Ensure quiet spaces for ‘deep work’ are separated from ‘social and interactive spaces’. You might also want to create more areas that can be set up for workshops and in-person training sessions.


4. Revising your People processes for flexible work

So, you’ve assessed your workforce, chosen a working structure, overhauled your communications and figured out the space(s) you need to support your new way of working. It’s now time to take a look at the processes and systems you use to support and manage your employees and see what you need to update to ensure long-term success with a flexible working model. Some of the most common areas that will need to be revised include:

Performance Management

Keeping performance strong in a remote or flexible work context will require a careful strategy and the right toolkit to support it. Use a People Development Platform (PDP) to keep performance and alignment strong in your hybrid organisation.

  • Alignment meetings: To make sure that employees remain aligned and continue to improve their performance, it’s vital to establish a schedule of regular performance reviews and goal-setting one-to-ones between line managers and team members. Software solutions can make these meetings easy to set up remotely, allowing you to schedule them automatically and send out reminders to both parties. During these meetings, managers can also work with their direct reports to build customised learning pathways and set personal development goals and milestones.
  • Social learning: Use your PDP or learning platform to encourage collaborative learning. Investing in your technology will allow co-workers to collaborate on learning resources, self-record and share quick tutorials, and comment and ask questions within the learning platform itself. In other words, you can recreate the benefits of in-person learning from the comfort of your own home.
  • Remote coaching: Create an internal coaching and peer mentoring program. In a remote organisation, you may have to be more deliberate about behaviours that can happen naturally in the office. It is now easy to transform your employee directory into a LinkedIn-style platform, you can highlight employee skills and areas of expertise, creating a portfolio of in-house coaches who can guide newer employees through work challenges.
  • Create learning opportunities: You will also need to be more mindful about creating opportunities for learning by osmosis in a remote context. For example, invite junior staff members to sit in on client pitch meetings or decision-making meetings, to see how more experienced team members work.

Induction and Onboarding

One of the most challenging aspects in a hybrid working model is to create consistency for both in-house and remote workers. Achieving this consistency starts with a cohesive approach to employee onboarding.

Again, refer back to your original decisions about the culture you’re aiming for. For instance, if you want a remote-first company in the long-term, then you should switch to a remote-only onboarding experience for all your employees, even those coming into the office. New online platforms allow you to provide everything from a new hire learner journey to video-based introductions from the CEO and other senior staff, in a consistent way but delivered digitally and at the learner’s preferred pace.

You’ll need to make sure that both remote and in-house workers build relationships and feel socially integrated with their new teams as quickly as possible. Again, to avoid disadvantaging remote workers, your meet-and-greet activities will need to be available remotely. For instance, you could schedule a meet-the-team social via video conference or encourage new hires to join the chat on an off-topic Slack channel.

You’ll also need to consider a more remote-friendly approach to sourcing and hiring new talent.


  • Hire for values fit: If you choose employees who understand and value the company mission, demonstrate behaviours that align with who you are as an organisation, and have a conscientious, respectful and empathetic attitude towards their work, you won’t need to worry they’re spending their working hours sipping margaritas on a beach in Mexico!
  • Screen for remote skills: Build an understanding of remote friendly qualities, and then include these in both your hiring and development programs. According to research into high-performing virtual teams by Benedictine University, the key qualities for a great remote employee are:
      • Sharing information
      • Collaborating readily
      • Proactively engaging with tasks
      • Organising time and projects well
      • Providing useful feedback
      • Demonstrating good social skills
      • Offering assistance to teammates
      • Able to work autonomously
  • Take advantage of your new, more inclusive recruitment pipeline: One of the biggest advantages of a remote (or remote-ish) set up is that you are no longer limited by geography. You have the opportunity to build a far more diverse and inclusive community by rethinking how you recruit.

Other considerations

Make sure that you balance your new flexible policies with appropriate caution, or you could risk issues with employee rights, wages and taxation. Some things that you will need to bear in mind:

  • If you let employees move wherever they want, then make sure you protect your business from tax liabilities. For instance, employees may not be aware of tax residency legislation and accidentally expose the company to tax liability in their new country of residence. To prevent this, insist that employees must communicate any planned move in advance. You may want to restrict employees to a maximum length of overseas residency or specify that they must be resident in the country of origin for a minimum number of days per year.
  • Make sure you update your HR policies, employee handbook and legal guidelines to protect employee rights for remote staff. If you have employees living overseas full-time, or decide to start hiring overseas now that it’s an option, you will be subject to local employment laws. Further, working from home, even in the same country, can have implications when it comes to  employee redundancy rights, discrimination law, and privacy rights, which you will need to address in advance.

Key Takeaways

  • To build a successful remote or hybrid company, make mindful decisions about your culture and communication.
  • Next, assess your workforce. Create employee personas to help simplify the varying needs and preferences of your employees.
  • Once you know what you’re aiming for, rethink your office space to reflect the shifting priorities of hybrid and remote-friendly working.
  • Finally, support the transition to hybrid working with remote-friendly People processes and tools. In particular, update your recruitment strategy, onboarding and induction systems, and your approach to performance management.


Duncan Cheatle is chief executive of Learn Amp, a People Development Platform, and a Chartered Companion who sits on CMI's Board of Companions. 

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