Five things every employer should know about making hybrid really work

Two years on from the first national lockdown, it’s fair to say that our working lives have been upended. What for years was deemed impossible has proved perfectly workable.

Now, employees expect to mix virtual and in-person work and to spend roughly half their time in the office each week, according to recent analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), published by Virgin Media O2 Business.

New ways of working – a mix of office-based, remote and flexible hours – could boost the UK’s GDP by 6.5% by 2040, the report reveals.

Digital progress has undoubtedly been turbocharged by the pandemic, but hasty improvisations must now make way for longer-term arrangements. Employers are busy fathoming how to keep staff engaged and customers happy. So how can employers make hybrid work better?

Remember the person behind the role – and have faith
Employers now have a greater understanding of their staff, and their goals, caring responsibilities, hobbies and struggles, as the last two years have revealed the individuals behind their roles. Building on those human relationships is now more crucial than ever.

“Hybrid and blended working must be based on a culture of trust and empowerment, where managers allow staff to work in a way that is best for them,” says Prof Emma Parry of the Cranfield School of Management.

“Presenteeism and employee surveillance have no place in a modern business,” said Prof Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University and previously the UK Treasury, on the Harvard Business Review podcast. “Judging by results rather than keystrokes is a smarter way to manage.”

Gemma Dale of Liverpool John Moores University Business School
Gemma Dale of Liverpool John Moores University Business School

Don’t lose sight of true flexibility
Debate around hybrid working has been dominated by “where” rather than “when”, says Gemma Dale, HR expert and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University Business School.

Genuinely flexible hybrid working (including part-time working, job sharing and compressed hours) has the potential to bring nearly 4 million people “locked out” from work, such as parents, carers and disabled people, into the workforce.

Enabling part-time workers to work more hours could add £48.3bn to the UK economy each year, according to the CEBR research. The study showed that, of the UK’s 8.6 million part-time workers, more than two-fifths (43%) would increase their hours if they could work remotely, and this could enable part-time workers to earn £3,600 a year of extra income.

“Autonomy is great for motivation, for wellbeing – for employees saying what life they want,” says Dale. “The optimal benefits of hybrid will come when we can truly embrace asynchronous work.”

While some jobs can’t be done from home, businesses can get creative around job shares, allowing staff to set their own rosters. “Employers need to consider how they plan work to ensure equity within the team and how to maintain communication and working relationships so productivity does not suffer,” says Parry.

Find your office ‘why’
Just as we ebb and flow during working hours, so does our desire to work from home or onsite – and employers must build in this flexibility. According to the most recent figures from the ONS, 85% of people say they want a hybrid approach to home and office working – but 32% of businesses are still unsure who will work where.

“Some firms say they want a sense of team cohesion … a feeling that you are part of something,” says Bruce Daisley, host of acclaimed podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat, on The New Everyday podcast from Virgin Media Business. Some companies have decided they want “a moment where everyone is together”.

Employees must also leave the office at the end of the day knowing why they went in – and they want more than gimmicks. No one wants to travel into their physical workplace simply to join online meetings all day.

Managers could consult their teams directly to ask what they want from the office; could it be a learning or social activity that they’re after? “You need to think about how to pull employees in and make this feel like it has value. You need some open conversations,” says Dale.

Listening to employees’ needs was identified by the recent Work After Lockdown (pdf) report as a key factor in successfully adopting hybrid working.

“It’s crucial that employees feel empowered and equipped to do their best work, wherever they are working – and we know that tech is a great enabler,” says Jo Bertram, managing director at Virgin Media O2 Business. “It’s not only the right thing to do – it’s also good business sense. The link between employee experience, customer experience and business performance is a long-established one. But the post-pandemic era has thrown a spotlight on what can happen when the employee experience is neglected.

“Implementing the right tools and technology are fundamental to achieving success, but this is about more than just a tech roll out. Your people need the confidence and skills to use technology in ways that set them up for success, and by giving them the right guidance and training they will feel valued. When transformation is done right, the outcomes speak for themselves – from greater efficiency to higher employee satisfaction.”

Managers must step up – and leave no one behind
After a hybrid work meeting, says Bloom, it’s the remote attendees who miss out. “As soon as the meeting ends, the folks in the office close their laptops, walk out of the cubicle and talk to each other, probably go grab a coffee,” he told a Harvard Business Review podcast. And this creates an “in-group, out-group” hierarchy. “Mixed mode is really problematic,” he says.

His research pre-pandemic found that promotion rates of those working at home were half those of staff who were in the office every day. “That’s an enormous effect … you could find a situation 10 years from now that people with young kids, particularly women, people with disabilities, people living farther away [who prefer to work from home] fall behind.”

There are gains to be had for employees and employers alike – remote working allows employees to be more productive by two hours a day. But managing a hybrid team is harder than when everyone is working remotely.

“Having managers who are capable of inspiring and motivating their teams from afar is going to be the differentiating skill,” says Daisley. Managers now need to become more organised and intentional in communicating, and bring a human touch online. Responsibility to ensure employees aren’t sidelined lies firmly with leaders.

“[Managers] have got to make sure they have the right communication channels, the right policies in place, the right training,” says Holly Branson, head of vision at Virgin, in The New Everyday podcast. “They’ve absolutely got to make sure that we have equal opportunities for everyone.”

Man doing telework and reconciling family life
Hybrid working can give the opportunity of more working hours to those with caring or family responsibilities. Photograph: La Bicicleta Vermella/Getty Images

Technology matters – and will matter even more
We now know the importance of having the right kit and privacy at home, and employers must ensure staff have adequate connectivity and secure access to technology for the job.

Companies must also reassess and adapt their physical and digital locations to allow staff to work better together, according to The Human Connection, a new report from Virgin Media O2 Business.

Office layout, lighting and even furniture all matter, alongside technological advancements and insights. Businesses can use technology (location intelligence) to analyse how people use space and objects, while hybrid conferencing technology can draw in remote and physically present employees to collaborate better.

Tech-savvy organisations have outperformed their peers during the pandemic. Businesses that embraced the likes of artificial intelligence, cloud and mobile technologies during the pandemic saw a six percentage point increase of average growth in revenue compared with their competitors. For larger businesses, the pandemic accelerated digital adoption by four years, and these changes are becoming permanent, says the CEBR report.

“What we call ‘new ways of working’ are really much more than that. We see it for our customers and for our own people,” says Bertram. “This is about keeping employees engaged and connected through the right tech, in the right ways for the business and for them. For companies, there’s an opportunity to differentiate, particularly as the battle for talent is rife. Employee expectations are rising in relation to where and how they work, so that they can have the best experience and be empowered to succeed, and we know this goes beyond work. It might mean more time spent with families, or the chance to unearth an old or new passion.

“To meet these new expectations, we understand that our customers now expect more from us as a digital partner. We’re helping them to achieve more with their employees, and in turn with their customers.”

It’s time to expect more
To find out about how your organisation can thrive in this new era of employee expectations, read the Human Connection report from Virgin Media O2 Business

The Guardian