It's really time to head back to the office, what have we learnt and how can we make hybrid working a success?
The idea of hybrid working – splitting the working week between home and the office – emerged when pandemic restrictions first began to be lifted. Since then, the frequent reimposition and relaxation of those restrictions has meant working practices have been less hybrid than hokey cokey – an exhausting cycle of in and out that has left workers and employers confused and stressed. But now, after more false starts than a 100 metres final, it finally looks as though we may be approaching a period of greater stability (readers are welcome to touch the nearest piece of wood at this stage).
So, the much-vaunted idea of hybrid working can now become a reality.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), this brave new world could be good for everyone. “For those organisations that are able to accommodate staff working flexibly between locations, hybrid working can offer benefits to employers and workers alike. With rising interest among workers in blended ways of working, offering hybrid working could be key in attracting new talent. Hybrid work can also benefit workers through helping them to achieve greater work-life balance, reducing the costs of commuting and providing autonomy about how and where they work.”
In many cases, workers have reported that a degree of home-working has reduced their levels of stress, which will surely go some way to alleviating the 32.5million working days that are lost to work-related ill health each year in the UK.
“It would be very short sighted of bosses not to see some correlation in the shift in the working world, and the move towards hybrid [working],” says Chartered Management Institute chief executive Ann Francke. “We are experiencing an uptick in productivity, and an uptick in many companies’ results. We’re not saying everyone should work from home 100% of the time, we’re saying the best practice is to have a blend, so when you come into the office you can do those things that are very difficult to do remotely.”
Meanwhile, according to workplace solutions company IWG, “adopting hybrid working will enable companies to contribute to sustainability issues such as climate change, health and wellbeing and gender equality, which creates a triple-win situation to the people, profits and our planet.” But, for all the purported advantages of hybrid working, it’s not all good news. Both employers and staff will have to undergo a degree of adjustment as new practices bed in. Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and fellow of the British Psychological Society, says: “Hybrid practises haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organisation and planning. You have to form new strategies – hot desking, planning commutes – that you wouldn’t need if you were fully remote or in-person.”
And while 84% of employers have said they are willing to embrace the concept, not all workers are finding the transition easy.
In a recent global study by employee engagement platform Tinypulse, more than 80% of people leaders reported that such a set-up was exhausting for employees. A separate study found that 20% of UK workers reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling ‘always on’; struggling to adapt to hybrid. The permeable boundaries between home and work was cited as a major factor.
London-based account manager Klara is a case in point. “I feel settled and focused on the days that I work from home,” she explains. “But by the evening I dread having to go back in: sitting at my desk for eight hours a day in a noisy office, staring at a screen, readjusting to exactly how it was before Covid.”
Klara feels she now has two workplaces to maintain – one in the office and one at home. “It involves planning and a stop-start routine: taking my laptop to and from the office every day, and remembering what important things I’ve left where. It’s the psychological shift – the change of setting every day – that’s so tiring; this constant feeling of never being settled, stressed and my productive home working always being disrupted.”
Klara is no outlier in her feelings. Forbes cautions that more than 8 in 10 people leaders report that hybrid working is exhausting for employees. Workers, too, say that they find hybrid more emotionally draining than fully remote arrangements and even full-time office-based work.
The CIPD recommends that organisations “support people managers with developing the skills necessary to lead and manage hybrid teams, including performance management, communication, collaboration, inclusion and wellbeing. The introduction of hybrid working could be a big cultural shift for some managers and there will be a learning period whilst new hybrid working patterns settle.”
It highlights a key recommendation: “Promote any organisational wellbeing activities and support on a regular basis. This can help to create an environment in which wellbeing is seen as a priority.”
But how do you encourage workplace wellbeing when, much of the time, your workforce is scattered to the winds? The answer can lie with interventions like BuddyBoost.
BuddyBoost is a proven employee wellbeing tool, where participants commit to doing at least 26 minutes of physical activity for 26 days in a month. They form into small groups in the BuddyBoost app to support and encourage each other to complete the challenge. Participants rate their mood after exercise, and the data from thousands of participants shows that on average people get a 25% mood boost from the programme.
Because BuddyBoost is app-based, employees can use it wherever they happen to be working. And, by encouraging them to take time out from their day to leave their desks and get some exercise, using BuddyBoost will help employers to fulfil another CIPD recommendation: “Ensure that employees are not over-working and remind them about the importance of maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing and taking regular breaks, fresh air and exercise. Make it clear to all employees any health and wellbeing support you have available.”
But potential hiccups don’t end there. “Employers beware, hybrid work weakens loyalty”, says Emma Jacobs in the FT. As hybrid becomes the norm and workers spend less time in the office, their attachment to the organisation may diminish. “If workers spend less time together, their social ties will weaken, as will the attachment to an employer.”
It is a theme echoed by Octavius Black, co-founder and CEO of MindGym. He believes the Great Resignation is being driven partly by remote working, which has weakened workplace ties and made us forget what we liked about our jobs. Working from home is “dissipating the social capital that you need to be a successful, complex organisation” he says. “You have to build the right psychological contract.”
Social contact of some form or another is key, according to a recent Forbes article: “The innovation, productivity, relationship-building and camaraderie that come from personal interactions and experiences shared together are so important for businesses.”
While the benefits, viability and comparative efficiency of virtual-working technology are clear, going forward companies must work on building relationships and team rapport in their remote networks. Again, BuddyBoost can help with this. A key aspect of the BuddyBoost experience is that it strengthens camaraderie and fosters a strong team spirit among co-workers. Everyone taking part in a BuddyBoost challenge stays in touch on their company’s private community feed, posting messages and photos, boosting engagement and sense of unity.
One recent BuddyBoost participant, Simon, reported: “I found BuddyBoost to be a real conversation starter with people I hadn’t really spoken to before. That was great and helps with work issues as it breaks down barriers.”
That breaking down of barriers can lead to open and honest discussion about how participants use exercise to manage their wellbeing. As luck would have it, another CIPD recommendation is as follows: “Urge team members to share ideas for wellbeing and how they manage their wellbeing when working remotely.” Job done.
And simply by implementing a scheme like BuddyBoost, employers are showing their workforce that they care about more than just the bottom line. Another recent participant, Stu, had this to say: “It says a lot [about my employer]. It says they care about their staff, their health and wellbeing, their mental health. It just shows they’re true to their word – they do care.” This sort of connection could prove vital to companies with the purported “Great Resignation” on the horizon.
Generally speaking, research shows that younger workers are more eager to get back into the office, as their home environments may be less conducive to work, and they have missed the social element of the office. But for those over 30, who are more likely to have caregiver duties or want to spend time with family, the return to the office, even part-time, is a less welcome development.
By introducing incentives to tempt staff back in, employers can mitigate against such reluctance. In person events can be key to encouraging staff into the workplace. Organisations using BuddyBoost could arrange for group lunchtime walks, runs, or workouts. There could even be a BuddyBoost launch event, where teams get together and advice and tips are swapped.
Hybrid working, whatever form it takes, is here to stay. As businesses grapple with this new era, and the complex responsibilities it entails, those who best look after the welfare needs of their employees will find it to be a more exciting and beneficial experience than those who rest on their laurels or hang on to the outdated practices of the past.