Hybrid working - the "new normal": What we found out

Author: Robert Shore

Director of Epic HR Gary Cookson recently delivered a webinar for XpertHR entitled Hybrid working - How to personalise the employee experience. During the session, he asked attendees a number of questions about the realities of the new post-Covid world, which is increasingly characterised by hybrid working arrangements.

Here, we share some key findings from the webinar and give you the chance to hear from others about how they are managing the challenges associated with the "new normal", and to discover what is working for them - and what is not.

Gary began by inviting attendees to describe current arrangements in their workplace regarding the right to work away from the office. Respondents described very different kinds of organisation, where working from home might be more or less appropriate depending on the nature of the business and how much of the role was public-facing. But nearly 40% of those who responded said their employers are now operating a mandated 3/2 or 2/3 split between office and home, with a requirement to work either two or three days in the office each week, and the balance remotely.

Collaboration and division

Among the benefits of onsite attendance, respondents cited opportunities for collaboration and team working. On the other hand, the new world of hybrid working is clearly presenting some challenges that organisations need to consider. For instance, there was some resentment at obligatory office attendance where the benefits of being together at a single location were not always evident to those present. "The boss forces us to come in on a Wednesday but no one speaks to each other! Defeats the purpose," said one.

Some noted an inconsistency in organisations' adoption of hybrid arrangements. One respondent said that their company had invested in new technology to facilitate hybrid working but is now mandating a minimum number of weekly office days - which are largely taken up with Teams calls. Increased flexibility in relation to where people work, noted another, is not always accompanied by a similar flexibility regarding working hours, for instance to accommodate employees' needs around school runs.

As noted above, hybrid working arrangements do not apply equally to all roles. A number of respondents described resulting splits within their organisations where "operational" or "frontline staff" are required to be onsite, while "office-" or "knowledge-based workers" work remotely or can choose between home and office. Such splits could prove divisive, "fostering some resentment", said one participant. "Creates a bit of a 'them and us'," noted another.

Useful resources

Hybrid working - fairness and inclusion

Are you sitting comfortably?

Where do people sit when they work from home?

Around two-thirds of those who responded when Gary asked whether they preferred to work sitting at a desk or on a sofa when at home said they worked exclusively at a desk. Several said they worked on their sofa at least some of the time. One said they worked in bed, while another said they used their bathtime to read documents and send Slack messages.

A number of people commented that working away from the office allows them to inject a more "varied rhythm" into their day. They enjoy the freedom to move around, whether within their own homes (for instance between personal office, kitchen and conservatory) or across different offsite spaces, such as libraries and cafés.

One respondent said that organisations should equip staff working remotely with "suitable seating and kit". Another reported that their organisation had provided office furniture for workers' homes and continued to provide a modest monthly allowance. A further respondent said that, in addition to supplying IT equipment, their employer had made a one-off payment to employees to allow them to purchase home office items.

Less positively, working from home may sharpen pre-existing socio-economic inequalities and aggravate personal or domestic issues. One respondent pointed out that there is an assumption that everyone enjoys the "luxury" of a work-from-home space but that this does not reflect the reality of many people's lives. Several participants said that their home-working arrangements are ad hoc and some borrow their school-age children's desks during the day (though such sharing was viewed positively).

Another respondent commented that everyone should be able to work in the office if they so desire, whether because they lack "the right home environment" or for "mental or domestic personal reasons". Another said some colleagues come to the office to do "focused work" as they have small children who "can distract them" at home.

Useful resources

Creating a working environment for good mental health - line manager training

Adapting the office for the hybrid era

Gary asked participants to what extent their organisations had redesigned physical workspaces in the wake of the increasing shift to hybrid working. Responses indicated that around half of organisations had redesigned their office space, a similar proportion had offered employees guidance on setting up or adapting home-working spaces, while one in five had made no changes to or interventions in working arrangements in either location.

Office spaces need to be more "agile" in the new hybrid era, commented one attendee, since they are increasingly being used for meetings rather than for more traditional desk work. Another suggested that organisations would find it easier to adapt to this new hybrid reality if they moved premises. If that is not possible, they said they should reduce the number of fixed desks and create more flexible spaces.

Some employees are reportedly resisting change. One person said that, owing to the introduction of remote working, their office is now always half-empty. Despite this, staff want to retain their personal desks. "It's a huge waste of space and money and always feels eerily quiet," they noted. Another respondent reported that attempts to redesign their office are being obstructed because "everyone is hung up on not desk sharing". Another said that proposed hot-desking arrangements in their organisation had met with "a flat refusal to desk share in any form".

Useful resources

Setting up the office for effective hybrid working

How are you managing?

What good line management looks like is changing in the hybrid age. Many managers are successfully adapting their style to meet the challenges of this new era, where workers require different kinds of support and performance needs to be monitored in fresh ways. But some are clearly struggling with the transition. "Many managers don't feel comfortable managing by output rather than input," noted one person. Hybrid and home working "relies on trust", suggested another, who added that "generationally the older members of the workforce only think work is being carried out if people are in the office". Negative perceptions of hybrid working remain, another said, noting that some think home working is tantamount to "skiving".

One respondent said that their organisation allowed workers to decide for themselves where they should work if operational needs allowed, but that "old school managers" took the view that "if they couldn't see you, you weren't really working". Another suggested there might be "organisational favouritism" towards those who prefer office to home working. Despite having the capacity for hybrid working, one respondent commented, managers in their organisation "prefer employees to be in the office every day". Arrangements remain "highly controlled" and there is a "lack of trust and accountability".

Useful resources

Managing hybrid/flexible workers - line manager training

All aboard! The onboarding challenge

The onboarding process has been affected by the growth in hybrid working. One participant said that home working has made the induction of new staff more challenging, in particular where "on-the-job learning tends to happen by observing and being exposed to colleagues in the office". The need for effective "knowledge sharing", they said, is one of the strongest arguments for a mandated return to the office at least two days a week.

One person wondered whether remote working was having a "detrimental effect" on new starters and employees in new roles who are less able to learn "organically" simply because they cross paths with their colleagues less. One new starter in a remote role said they have had to be "super-proactive" in their quest to get to know coworkers and find answers to questions. They underlined the importance of experienced colleagues offering support, and not just in the form of a Teams message.

Useful resources

Onboarding a new employee - line manager training

Recruiting and onboarding hybrid workers