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Getting ready for the new normal of hybrid working

Many companies are preparing to return to offices for the first time since the UK’s first lockdown began, but the office environment will look very different to a year ago. With some workers looking forward to returning to the office and others preferring to stick to remote working, employers will have to accommodate differing needs and create an IT and networking infrastructure to do so

With a few noticeable exceptions, the general consensus among UK businesses is that as they adapt to a post-Covid working environment, the majority of employers will adopt a hybrid approach going forward. In many instances, this means staff will be able to opt for a mixture of home, office and remote working, unless their job or geographic location prohibits it. But while such flexibility might seem great on the surface, the situation beneath is somewhat more complicated.

As Rebecca Berry, senior associate and employment law expert at law firm Stevens & Bolton, points out: “Before lockdown, the norm for many people was office work, with home working being the exception, and then during lockdown it was about working remotely if you could. But hybrid working will make things more complex as that kind of uniformity no longer exists.

This complexity is reflected in a report by mobile operator O2, titled Creating a dynamic workforce, which reveals that different worker segments are after varying, and sometimes mutually exclusive, things as the UK economy starts to reopen. According to Jo Bertram, managing director of O2 Business, these worker segments can be divided into three main categories: office cravers, home dwellers, and mixers, who sit in between.

Office cravers, who make up about 10% of employees, are keen to be back in the office as soon as possible and on a permanent basis. But there are two sub-categories here. The first is “career starters”, who mostly belong to Generation Z and miss the social dimension of work. Only 57% are happier with their work-life balance now than they were before Covid (77%). The second sub-group is “command and controllers”, who are usually older, more senior staff. Around 45% of this group dislike technology and only use it when it proves necessary for work.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are “home dwellers”. They account for about 16% of the workforce and are keen to work remotely on a permanent basis to maintain their current work-life balance. They consist of two groups: “hobbyists”, four out of five of whom are happier with their work-life balance now than before the pandemic (53%), and homebodies, 84% of whom are more content now too.

What employees want, and the business needs

In the middle, meanwhile, are the majority “mixers” group, at 74%. Their optimal approach is to work from a range of places, be it the home, office, or elsewhere, but their motivation is not uniform, manifesting itself in three different personas: nomads, socialisers and planners.

Nomads are happy with an equal mix of office and remote working, but also like having the option to operate from other locations too, such as customer sites or coworking spaces. Socialisers appreciate the flexibility of remote working as it makes it easier to socialise with friends and family, but they also enjoy engaging and interacting with colleagues in the office too. Planners, on the other hand, take a more functional view, wanting the flexibility of going into the office when necessary for specific purposes, but also being able to work at home to manage family life when required.

But even if employers are aware of this huge range of employee wants and needs, a big challenge for many of them is how to best support and manage staff without making a rod for their own backs.

As Stevens & Bolton’s Berry points out: “There’s a lot of focus on what employees want at the moment, but it’s equally important not to lose sight of what the business needs and to evolve practices to ensure the two align. There are impacts with hybrid working on everything from performance management to career progression, and it’s a bit of a minefield as a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work.”

As a result, Berry recommends that employers undertake a risk assessment to explore the potential implications and impact of hybrid working on their staff, before putting a policy in place based on broad guidelines.

These guidelines should clarify such issues as which roles can work where, when and for what amount of time, based on the nature of the tasks they perform. It should also explain which services, both technology-based and otherwise, will be made available to provide staff with the support they need – not least as employers’ legal obligation towards them remains the same whether they are based in the office or working remotely. 

Systematic approach

Taking this kind of systematic approach is valuable in that it could, for example, help to reduce the potential risk of discrimination lawsuits taken out by people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 if they feel a particular practice or provision means they are being treated differently to others. It could also prove a useful framework in those problem areas where HR and IT professionals will need to work together to find joint solutions.

Marc Tanowitz, managing director of advisory and transformation at business and technology consulting firm West Monroe, says: “Policies are likely to be created by HR [and] implemented, monitored and managed by IT, which means that HR and IT professionals are going to have to work together more closely now than ever before.”

How IT and HR can work more effectively together

  • IT and HR have traditionally not made particularly comfortable bedfellows, coming as they do from very different worlds. But as the hybrid working model looks set to become a de facto standard for most employers, the two functions are finding their worlds intersecting like never before.
  • One important way of bridging the gap, believes O2 Business’s Jo Bertram, is to focus less on the detail of the technology or people issue in question – with all the resultant jargon this generates – and more on outcomes. For example, a discussion could centre on how, rather than what, technology could help boost staff productivity or enable employees to better manage their work-life balance.
  • The aim here is to enhance mutual understanding and focus on results rather than become bogged down in details that fail to move anything forward.

One example of such cooperation relates to policies and practices around safeguarding data, particularly if employees are “nomads” and work from multiple locations. Another example relates to employee vaccination status information, which falls into a special data category carrying with it heightened employer obligations.

This makes it necessary to undertake a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) – despite the likely difficulties in gathering such data because, in the “vast majority of cases”, employees should be allowed to volunteer it rather than be asked for it directly, Berry warns.

The aim of the assessment is to evaluate how any potential risks could be reduced and ensure adequate documentation and safeguards are in place. Such activity then makes it easier to process and store the data in compliance with data protection legislation.

But there are other data considerations for a hybrid working environment too. “Data has to be available to everyone that needs it to do their job, which is going to mean breaking down silos across the business,” says Amy O’Connor, chief data and information officer (CDIO) at data integrity firm Precisely. “If some people are working remotely, you can’t just mention things in passing anymore – the data has to be actively provided to them.”

A delicate balancing act

For IT leaders, this means not only ensuring high levels of data quality and accuracy, but also working with HR to support culture change. The same kind of cooperation is likewise required to straddle the difficult line between monitoring employee performance and productivity – which has become an increasingly popular activity, especially during the pandemic – and invading people’s privacy.

A big problem here, says West Monroe’s Tanowitz, is that monitoring can lead to an “erosion of trust”, which is damaging for employee engagement, motivation and. ultimately, the productivity that employers were aiming to boost in the first place. “There are a couple of themes guiding the sentiment of the modern employee – they expect to be trusted and to have a certain amount of flexibility and control over their lives,” he says. “So if an employer feels it is necessary to monitor their [employees’] work, they at least have to be transparent and open about what they’re doing and why.”

The secret to success here, believes O’Connor, is to focus on monitoring “only what is required for the business”, for example, by ensuring employees are safe and well, and tracking project and task outcomes rather than the number of hours spent at a computer.

Another delicate IT and HR balancing act involves ensuring remote workers feel included when they are participating in office-based meetings and events. On the tech side of things, this means ensuring rooms are equipped with adequate video-conferencing and audio equipment, and that speakers, cameras and microphones are placed appropriately so that participants can be seen and heard all around the room.

It also means providing hybrid teams with effective collaboration tools, ranging from electronic whiteboards to platforms, such as Microsoft Teams. But while such tools work well for “fingers-on-the-keyboard work”, Tanowitz believes they still do not make the grade in supporting wider social interaction. “Social, personal interaction is at odds with tech-enabled collaboration,” he says. “It’s about providing access to a near-personal experience virtually, so that people working remotely feel as engaged as those in the office do.”

Although technology suppliers claim their software is up to the job and has simply not been deployed in a way that makes the user experience “as simple as using Amazon”, in Tanowitz’s opinion it is more of a “mindset and cultural issue”, which again requires insight and input from HR.

“When you can figure out how to deploy technology in a way that doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed, and that is there for the benefit of employees, you’ll have won. So to get it right, it has to be part of the workflow and inherently part of what people do, not just a separate set of activities,” he concludes.

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