Making a success of hybrid work
– empower employees, ensure leaders lead by example & consider your employment brand

As the UK government announces an end to lockdown restrictions, all businesses who reverted to remote working during the pandemic are considering how, where and when they will be asking their employees to work in the future.

For many organisations, the answer lies in a form of hybrid work – part home based, part office based. To consider the challenges that accompany this hybrid approach, The Alexander Partnership brought together a virtual roundtable of senior HR leaders from major UK and multi-national businesses to look at the problems, solutions and what the long-term strategic approach looks like for their organisation.

The problems

Most office-based employees have worked from home since March 2020 and many employers are now encouraging people to come back into the office for a specific number of days a week – typically three. But some employees are saying they have been very productive at home full time, the office is outdated, so why do they need to come back in now?

It’s not clear whether that reluctance is anxiety about health risks, the change of moving to a hybrid model and all the uncertainty that brings, or a genuine desire not to come back in. The risk for employers is they could lose their most talented people if they mandate a return to the office that employees are not comfortable with.

One size doesn’t fit all
One international communications consultancy talked about a 60% (back in the office) hybrid approach which seemed to match the wider consensus on the roundtable. But organisations working in multiple geographies also face a challenge imposing one set of global guidelines, with one HR leader concerned that they “were not sure the parent organisation recognises the need for different policies in different locations.” Which adds to the feeling that there can be no one size that fits all when it comes to developing a hybrid solution, certainly for the global businesses.

Learned helplessness
Other issues related to a desire from employees for absolute clarity on the minutiae of the employment relationship, a more assertive stance from some and the challenge of managing a physical/virtual meeting with five people in the room and three joining virtually, creating an ‘us and them’ feeling. While others felt that many employees were not taking enough personal ownership of the situation. One HR leader from a major ecommerce seller called it a culture of “learned helplessness” with people demanding clarity on every potential scenario.

The solutions

So, what are the answers to many of these hybrid work problems? One HR leader described implementing an “office centric culture” where employees come to collaborate and learn from each other. But there must be an emphasis on empowering the individual: “Reflect on what you need to do and how you can make three days in the office and two days outside the office work.”

Allow the individual to take responsibility
Of the many individual requests being made was from those who might want to work remotely from another country outside of where the employer is based, asking “why does my location matter?” some organisations on the roundtable saying they will allow this – at least for a certain period every year – but ensuring that the individual is responsible for any potential tax liabilities that might come from working out of a different jurisdiction. In many instances that additional liability has caused the individual to be discouraged from making the move but at least they’ve been given the option to explore it for themselves rather than being told a straight “no”.

Home or office: make the tech set-up the same
Turning to the office space itself, its purpose is now much clearer – for collaboration. Refits have been carried out to reflect the collaborative needs of working as part of a team, with new workforce planning tools in place to replicate the visibility of productivity (to replace the office whiteboard). One HR leader stressed the importance of ensuring that, given people have been refining their work environment at home, employees have the same technology set-up in the office so the two environments feel similar.

Leaders will set the tone
The key for making a success of hybrid working, however, lies with leaders setting the tone. That is, if they want their employees to follow a hybrid model, they must lead by example and adopt the organisation’s approach. Organisations become shadows of their leaders.

What are the long-term, strategic implications?

There is a big question as to how the new hybrid way of working becomes a “differentiator when it comes to culture” either as the employee experience and/or part of the brand. “If you’re not careful,” said one HR leader, “and you’re all working on the same web conferencing platform, the employee experience can become too generic.” How do we make our Employer brand come to life in this world? 

Create an office experience
This then places the onus on the employer to think more about “creating an experience” in the office. “In creating the office of the future, we can provide more experiential space such as virtual and altered reality, and also use our new space for client meetings and enable them to have an experience that they might not be able to have themselves in their own working environment” said another HR leader. 

Mental health challenges
Another important factor voiced was mental health. “People have become more introverted, more self-reliant, more reluctant to mobilise themselves and even venture into the office let alone relocate to a different country,” said one HR director. And it also feels like there has been a shift in the power of the employee who has a stronger voice, which is both “fantastic and risky”. 

Be more colleague centric
The pandemic has perhaps highlighted that organisations have not been “colleague centric” enough in the past. To try and rectify that, leaders will have to think about how they can “switch the lens to get an employee experience that delivers results” and “create conditions enabling employees to be at their best,” and not get “caught between what employees want and what is best for the company”. 

Developing future leaders
Set against all this is the challenge of developing future leaders; how can tomorrow’s leaders learn in a virtual space? Where do they get the glue that ties it all together? “There is lots of experience above and around me but unless it’s there on a call, it’s not happening,” said one HR leader which is tough for the younger generation when so much they learn is from observation and shadowing. “And companies are beginning to worry, particularly if they’re succession led,” cautioned one HR leader. 

Clarity will come
For HR directors and Chief People Officers, the ongoing challenge will be in managing the tension between the organisation’s leaders, the objectives of the business and the changing demands and expectations of their employees. But optimistically, one HR leader concluded that as the situation continues to evolve, “clarity will come”. 

It’s a reassuring sentiment for all those organisations struggling with this unprecedented disruption to operating models but underlines the need to ensure leaders set the right example, while empowering employees to make decisions for themselves and their teams to give the hybrid model the best chance of success.