Hybrid working – how will it change when restrictions ease?

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With the easing of pandemic restriction in England set to lift on 19th July, employers need to look at working arrangements for their employees. So, how to decide where employees should work as restrictions lift?

After many setbacks, Covid restrictions are now set to lift on 19th July. Over the past year, many employers have faced the difficult and ever-changing decisions on the extent of remote working and open offices. So, with the end now in sight, employers face the complex decision as to what extent they can open their offices and welcome their employees back to work.

Staying operational and maintaining work efficiency during the pandemic has been motivation for the majority of UK businesses to change how they work. With the end of lockdown restrictions now in sight, the end to social distancing rules could be an opportunity or employers to look at their ways of working on a more permanent basis.

When considering the extent of hybrid working, it is important to remember to continue to prioritise employee wellbeing as well as a focus on driving profits through in-depth planning. So, how can business leaders and HR professionals ensure teams stay connected in a hybrid working set up and what key changes can they make?

Creating fresh opportunities

While new approaches to the work environment bring challenges, businesses are often keen to pursue them as they bring the ability to generate fresh opportunities for both employees and employers.

Before the pandemic, many organisations suffered from issues such as presenteeism and poor productivity, but the pandemic has proved that employees can be just as productive remotely as in the office.

As remote working slowly transitions into a hybrid format, it is important to make sure to maintain high levels of productivity, managers need to be focusing on managing outputs rather than inputs; incentivising staff with rewards and key targets equips employees to work smarter.

Ben Gillham, owner of office design business Thirdway, referred to there being four business types: “the business as usual; the temporary pivoter; the shape shifter, and the re-inventor”. These categories can help to establish a starting position; hybrid working needs to be applied differently to each of the four categories, and the outcomes should be different as a result.

Most importantly, it is vital for businesses to seek feedback from employees on the sort of flexibility and approach they wish to adopt moving forward; some now feel that they do not need or want to return to the office full time, as working remotely has create a better work/life balance for them. This may push business owners out of their comfort zones and challenge their preconceptions.

However, employers should also bear in mind that trust is key, so if they promise to take the views of workers into account, they must respond constructively to the results.

Remaining inclusive

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Traditionally, working from home was viewed as a luxury to many, or something only available to senior members of staff. However, the past year has demonstrated that many employees can work just as effectively from home without the need to be constantly in the office.

Implementing processes around effective file sharing, online meetings and daily check-ins were swiftly put in place at the start of the pandemic and many organisations have become more agile than ever. Most employers believe it would be counterproductive to revert to how things were.

Instead, organisations should view this time as an opportunity to adopt new practices and support employees to drive the business forward in a more inclusive and collaborative way.

However, it’s important to remember that, although many businesses have reported a short-term productivity increase linked to home working, wider research suggests that this is limited to routine tasks. When focusing on the drivers of long-term productivity – creativity and innovation, these appear to be best approached by focusing on teams meeting and working in collaborative space, to boost output.  

Efficient workspaces

Workspace design cannot be forgotten as it can influence productivity levels and can assist concentration – as many of us working from home have found. Employers can play a role in this by making sure that individuals have access to the helpful advice, the appropriate equipment, and technology to meet their needs at home. In the office, allocated desks are being replaced with a smaller number of ‘bookable’ ones, for those coming to the office on any specific day. This method allows a fair system for those wanting to return to the office, without excluding anyone.

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Employers will also want to look at how they can use employees time in the office most efficiently. For example, marketing agencies may want to prioritise office time for pitch development and mind mapping. Other employers may want to bring their employees together for knowledge-sharing or interactive training opportunities.

The one thing many employees have missed are those all-important ‘water cooler moments’, this is something managers should not forget about and should continue to encourage employees to socialise as a team online, regardless if they are in the office or remote working. Furthermore, it is vital for managers to prioritise time to have one-on-one discussions with those who are working remotely, to make sure they remain connected with the business and aren’t indirectly discriminated against as a result of their non-office attendance.

Safety is a priority

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All employers have a responsibility to ensure each employee has a safe working environment. Regardless of if staff are working in the office or in their garden shed, all the usual rules apply when it comes to protecting their health and safety.

To help establish a safe hybrid working environment, employers should discuss with their staff whether home working is a suitable option and look to carry out the necessary risk and workstation assessments, to ensure that suitable arrangements are put in place. This may include covering additional costs for equipment or a WiFi upgrade, if necessary.

There could also be contractual issues to consider. Where contracts of employment do not provide for the place of work to be ‘home’, employers should consider what changes to terms should be agreed with hybrid and home workers to protect them against any liability.

For example, it may be wise for business owners to establish a ‘homeworking policy’, where the employer’s standards and expectations are set out clearly. Employers liability and individual employee home insurance policies should also be checked to ensure there is cover for home working.

There may also be provisions in the employment contract dealing with benefits and expenses; employers might consider contributing to an employee’s increasing electricity bills or to providing an ergonomic desk and chair to make homeworking more comfortable and safer. Some of the company’s savings in running their offices should be reinvested to ensure staff at home are safe, happy, and productive.

Check in regularly

Due to the nature of remote working, it can often be more difficult for managers to see when someone needs support, unless they actively ask for it. So, in order to protect workforce wellbeing when hybrid working is in place, employers need to adopt processes that allow them to check in on employees regularly.

This may include reminding employees to take proper breaks and encouraging all staff to properly disconnect outside of working hours as well as when they are on annual leave.

Following the challenges the past year has thrown us, mental health has now been pushed to the top if the HR agenda. It is important to remember that as workplaces transition into the ‘new normal’ that this needs to remain a top priority. Building a culture that considers the continuation of hybrid working means managers need to take individual employees needs into account, as a one-size-fits all approach is not likely to work.

Regardless of how far they choose to go with the re-introduction of office-based working, employers and HR professionals have a responsibility to ensure each worker’s needs are met. This will require considerable focus and care looking forward.

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