A recent Grant Thornton survey (2021) suggests that in solidarity with corporate giants such as Facebook, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC or Nationwide Insurance, most UK mid-sized companies are now considering a hybrid work model.
Most businesses surveyed expect to continue offering hybrid working conditions – albeit to a lesser extent than employees.
Businesses must carefully assess the available insights on home-based and remote/telecomms-based work. Earlier studies have established that working from home is often associated with an improvement in employees’ wellbeing, work-life balance and productivity, although not uniformly.
Existing evidence points to the blurring of work and home boundaries, longer working days, greater intensity for each hour worked and an expectation of enhanced voluntary effort (Felstead and Henseke, 2017; Moore, 2006).
Remote working has also had a negative relationship with career progression (Bloom 2021).
Extensive data looking at the impact of homeworking under the extreme scenario created by the COVID-19 pandemic has also provided some unique insights into the future of work. Studies point to an increase (or at least no decrease) in productivity (Feldstead and Reuschke 2020) and satisfaction with lack of commute (Marks et al 2020, Beck and Hensher, 2021) but also concerns about informal learning opportunities for new staff (Saks and Gruman 2021), the blurring of work-life boundaries, and a potential deterioration in mental or physical health (Parry et al 2020) often affecting women more seriously (Craig 2020).
It remains, however, necessary to attempt to disentangle the impact of COVID-19 as a partial causal factor in some of these negative outcomes, most profoundly the pressure homeschooling imposed upon parents and the social isolation of people living far from family and social networks (Andrew et al 2020).
The future of hybrid work is not a continuation of the lockdown models many organisations have depended on since the pandemic started but will require experimentation in hybrid working.
Inspired by the findings of our Working@Home study during the COVID-19 pandemic – which draw on repeated interviews with 80 employees and over 2,700 survey responses to two UK wide surveys – we suggest that to make the transition to hybrid work, employee preferences should be meaningfully considered.
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Our winter survey of more than 1,300 UK people working from home under COVID-19, shows high diversity in the ideal working from home days per week. It is not surprising that like the Grant Thornton survey, data from the ongoing fourth round of interviews suggests that several employers ‘announce’ hybrid work plans, which do not necessarily correspond to staff expectations or their individual circumstances.
While public attention is currently on staff who wish to work at home longer than their employer expects them to, our findings show that nearly one in four wish to work from home a maximum of one day a week.
The latter group of staff may find themselves working at home much longer than that. To promote an inclusive workplace where employee voices are heard and matter, it is important to close the expectation gap between staff and employers as much as possible.
The results of our research suggest that what accounts for employee preference is complex and depends on a wide range
- The nature of work (e.g. staff often prefer going to the office for work involving emotional labour and thus benefiting from peer support; or highly collaborative or creative work)
- The perceived effectiveness of face-to-face meetings (in other words the desire to see peers’ body language vs the perception of more efficient and ‘flatter’ virtual meetings)
- The perceived quality of home office vs workstation at the workplace (e.g. staff may find themselves hot-desking or working in open plan office when they concentrate better in an environment without audio/visual distractions (see figure below).
- The individuals’ caring responsibilities, health condition and disabilities (especially when pre-COVID they did not always have reasonable adjustments in place when needed), and work-life balance concerns (e.g. they feel that the work-home boundary is blurred)
- The employees’ home in terms of physical space (e.g. employees that do not have a dedicated space to work at home or an appropriate work station prefer to work longer hours in the office)
- The individual’s need for social interaction or a desire to minimise social interaction when this is considered unproductive
- The location of the workplace in relation to the location of work and quality of transportation options
In highlighting the need to engage with employees and listen to their preferences, it is also important to attend to their concerns.
The changes in the nature of work in some organisations have been and will continue to be significant. This can create insecurity and anxiety among staff. Effective two-way communication is vital to managing such turbulent environments effectively.
Check back tomorrow for part two of this different slant for turning this research into reality.
Lila Skountridaki is a lecturer in organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School, Oliver Mallett, professor of entrepreneurship in management at the University of Stirling and Abigail Marks professor of the Future of Work at Newcastle University
This piece appears in the July/August 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.