Hybrid working: now for the reality…

Wednesday 19 May 2021
First we had the ‘new normal’. Now we’re faced with the ‘new new normal’, and the management implications of hybrid working
A computer on a video call with a plant beside it

Flexible working is here to stay. CMI’s research shows that the majority of managers (80%) are already working in a blended approach (where between one and four days a week are on-site and the rest is remote). As we emerge from the pandemic, managers seem keen to retain some element of home working – according to our data, 61% of managers said they expect their staff to work in a blended fashion.

So what will ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ working mean in practice? And what management challenges might it bring? We brought together a group of CMI Companions to discuss the issues. The event was chaired by Rachel Sandby-Thomas CMgr CCMI, registrar at the University of Warwick.

“I know I’m not the only one contemplating working in a hybrid way,” says Rachel. “We’ve had the ‘old normal’, with lots of presenteeism in the office; the ‘new normal’, with everyone working from home; and the ‘new-new normal’, which is going to be a mixture of the two.”

When the University of Warwick polled its employees, very few people wanted to be entirely remote or entirely on-site; a hybrid model, with elective days in the workplace, was the preferred approach. “But we then go into  the divide of: who should choose where an employee works on a particular day?”

Who decides on what type of flexibility is on offer?

This discrepancy, between managers who want to choose what day their employees come in, and employees who want to make the choice for themselves, is a critical challenge.

Kathryn Austin CMgr CCMI, Chief People and Marketing officer at Pizza Hut, says mixed working practises will require careful navigation, but that we should not forget the lessons of the past year. “The last year has proven that we can be incredibly productive working from home – so if a role can legitimately be fulfilled remotely and that is the preference of the individual, then why not support that working style as the new permanent norm”. If we set hard company-wide policies based on old world paradigms, without listening and responding to individual needs we’ll lose talent who will choose an employer who is more flexible.”

Michael Winslow CMgr CCMI, a non-executive director, says that while we need to lead with empathy, ultimately the needs of the organisation trump the preferences of the employee. “If your business is highly focused on having people around to generate ideas and make things happen, that chemistry cannot be done as effectively over Zoom. Employees need to know what the goals of the business are – if that doesn’t align with their personal goals, then the business should try and find them something  else to do. It’s clearly going to be a conflict and won’t end well unless it’s addressed.”

“But who should have the reins?” says Jose Lopes CMgr CCMI, head of business engagement for West Midlands Combined Authority. “Who should keep control? Is it HR, is it senior management – who has that ultimate say in how that organisation should be run?”

The wellbeing challenge

Robert Baker CMgr CCMI, who runs his own consulting firm Potentia Talent Consulting: “There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the pandemic about people burning out because they found it very difficult to switch off. Working from home was great, but if you were coming from the spare bedroom down to the dining room, you tended to overwork because there was no commute to give you “breathing space” – and there was the danger you would go back up the stairs after dinner and just continue working. There’s been a whole issue about how to switch off and how to have that separation, and I think employers need a value proposition for employees as we enter the ‘new-new normal’, with policies that take their wellbeing into account.

“It’s complex, because there’s also wellbeing issues around whether people want to be in the office and how they’re able to keep safe. If we put employees at the centre of this, how do we make sure they can cope with, and more importantly, thrive in whatever model we develop?”

Can flexibility break down dated barriers?

“In the past, the definition of a ‘good employee’ has been someone who is at work and available during certain hours and has a good attendance record,” says Edwina Dunn CMgr CCMI, founder of The Female Lead. “I think there’s always been a greater difficulty for women to  conform to that pattern, particularly mid-career when they might have families or dependants who they’re responsible for.” While flexibility for working parents was becoming more standard across organisations, it did lead to some unexpected fallout. “They began to feel like second-class employees because they’re not present in the same way,” Edwina continues. “There is now an opportunity to reset that and not have just one model of what a 'good employee' looks like.”

Robert Baker says there’s been an unexpected positive for working fathers who have been spending more time with their children during the pandemic. Just as working mothers are now on a more even footing at work, working fathers are getting quality time with their children at home. The emergence of flexibility really does benefit everyone: it can enable more present parents and provide a better, more balanced role model to their children.

But will remote working create a new divide?

Thomas Lawson CMgr CCMI, chief executive of Turn2us, an organisation fighting financial inequality, expresses concern about a new ‘digital power divide’. Where once power and authority lay with those at the top of the chain of command making big decisions, is there now going to be a new divide between those who enjoy and engage with technology vs those who are reluctant or are even technologically illiterate? And what consequences does this have in terms of ageism and ableism? “There’s going to be a new divide in this new way of working, which will unfairly advantage and disadvantage different groups of people.”

Professor Karen Stanton CMgr CCMI, vice chancellor at Solent University, Southampton, believes that digital skills are fundamental for every organisation and employee. “We set out a project, called Our Ways of Working, which is intended to change the culture of the organisation and set a number of principles, like trust, empowerment, and [new ways of] measuring performance in this new, hybrid model.

“Our project is in three phases: we set out how we’re going to operate in the new academic year; our second phase is reviewing how our hybrid model is working; and then bed down the model that we really want to adopt. For us, a lot of this has to be dictated by what our students want. We clearly can’t have all of our staff sitting at home when we’ve got students who want to be on a campus. A campus breathes life, it is vibrant; so one of the challenges for us is to map onto what our staff and students want to do.”

And what about culture?

Thomas Lawson: “Someone once described me as suffering from the ‘tyranny of positivity’ – which wasn’t a compliment at the time! But about remote working I am much more concerned. The past year has been a period during which we have not been particularly well connected to each other; our meetings are incredibly functional, and even when we’ve tried to create that coffee chat they’ve felt inauthentic and a bit hokey. We’ve lost a lot of social capital.” The danger is that employees might lose trust in each other, and that there’ll be a negative impact on professional relationships.

Dr. Malraj Kiriella CMgr CCMI is a past president of CMI’s Sri Lanka board. He says that “countries like ours have learned a lot, as before this we weren’t very technologically savvy. Currently offices are closed because the Covid-19 infections are going up, so I’m lecturing from home.” He has concerns about how hybrid working will affect different sectors. “To be productive, you need to have the correct systems – but for sectors like tourism which have people-to-people processes, you need the people touch, not the machine touch.”

And we must consider the finances...

Elizabeth Haywood CMgr CCMI, who has a portfolio of non-executive roles, raises the issue of the personal financial costs of home working. If organisations decide on a hybrid model, whose shoulders do the costs of increased energy bills and setting up a home office fall on? “What’s the cost/benefit and where will the money for the additional costs come from? We’re still at fairly early stages in the whole discussion, but it’s got to be part of the mix.”

Rachel Sandby-Thomas agrees – and mentions that in terms of sustainability, there are positive implications from fewer commutes, but people are also using more electricity at home.

“One of the things we’re really conscious of is the impact [of Covid-19] on the city centre,” says Jose Lopes. “Our office space at the moment is in the centre of Birmingham, which has been severely impacted; it’s primarily professional services that are located there. We have for example, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, KPMG – and many are moving to some sort of hybrid model. The impact on the region – the restaurants and coffee shops, etc – is something that, as a regional authority, we’ve got to try and balance. The hybrid model has an implication from an economic perspective.”

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