Most of the homeworking surveys, including my own research, suggest that it isn’t full-time homeworking that people seek, but a blended or hybrid approach. The majority want to go into the office for the work that requires collaboration and connection but work from for the rest of the time.
The drivers behind these decisions are varied: the desire to have more time for family or hobbies, a belief that they are more productive at home, as well as a wish to avoid costly and draining commutes.
Before the pandemic, the pace of adopting flexible working in the UK had been described as glacial. Homeworking happened, but not at scale and more often than not it was of the ‘one day per week’ variety. This meant that the majority of employees were in the office for the majority of the time.
COVID-19 changed all that, and since March 2020 the opposite has been true. Most knowledge workers have been at home. In many respects, this makes it easier. Introducing hybrid or blended working arrangements however, changes everything – and this is where it is going to get significantly more complex.
When some people are in the office and some are not, there is a risk of a two-tier workforce developing. Communication problems may result too, and there is the potential for challenges around inclusion, engagement and collaboration. All of these challenges are surmountable – but they will take focus and effort.
Within those organisations that are prepared to embrace a more flexible future, HR teams have a critical role to play. Every single aspect of the employee lifecycle is challenged by hybrid: induction, learning and development, reward and recognition, performance management, wellbeing, employee engagement, recruitment, communication and voice.
Successful implementation of hybrid working will not happen without those elements that were missing when we transitioned to work from home in an emergency: planning, training, the right technology and communication practices – and the deliberate creation of a supportive culture, lived and breathed by senior managers.
We should not assume that everyone, including people managers, is supportive of new ways of working. We also cannot assume that those managers, so resistant to flexible working in the past, have had a change of heart during 2020. Many of them will be keen to reassert the old normal at the earliest opportunity. This is going to be part of the HR challenge too.
Hybrid working models will demand new policies and procedures. It’s not just the flexible working policy that will need to be reviewed but policies relating to homeworking, expenses, IT and travel.
Hybrid also forces us to challenge many long-held beliefs about work, and what amounts to a high performer. Hybrid means we can no longer assess employees based on presence or hours in the office (if we ever should have), but instead on their results, contribution and value added.
Pre-pandemic, we know that flexible and part-time workers were often seen to be less committed or harder to manage. We need to consign these attitudes to the old normal.
The time for flexible working has finally arrived – and HR professionals are perfectly placed to help their organisations take positive steps into a more flexible future of work.
Gemma Dale is a senior HR professional, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University Business School and wellbeing and engagement manager at The University of Manchester.