Stuart Duff, Partner and Head of Development at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola
The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest disruptor to the global workforce since the Industrial Revolution. The advent of mass remote working – as the norm – over the past year has enabled our work and home lives to coexist in ways which were unimaginable only a year ago. But just how will this shape the way that organisations and employees ‘return’ to work as lockdown restrictions are lifted?
The hybrid WFH model
There is no arguing that the pandemic has forced companies to experiment with what works for their employees. Many companies are now adopting a hybrid (home/office) work model, in which some employees will continue to work from home while others choose to return to the office. Recent examples of this include Lloyds Bank, who announced that they will slash office space by 20% and become a remote working role model in the banking sector.
According to the responses of managers and employees in our own webinars, one of the most positive outcomes of the year has been increased productivity. Managers and their teams feel that they are getting more done in the day due to less time being spent on travel and fewer distractions from colleagues. Employers will naturally want to maintain productivity going forward and will no doubt focus on remote working as a means to do this.
The hybrid work model also meets newfound employee demand for greater flexibility in the long term. During the pandemic, employees have developed greater levels of resilience and self-reliance by experimenting with work styles to suit their needs. In their employee survey, 77% of Lloyds Bank employees said that they would like to work from home for at least three days per week.
But among the more positive outcomes of remote working lie hidden risks that, over time, could have a significant and detrimental impact on our working lives if they are not managed carefully within organisations.
What are the risks?
Perhaps the greatest risk is inclusivity. In a hybrid work model, companies will have to take greater responsibility for managing a variety of work preferences under one roof, in a way that ensures inclusivity for all team members.
They may even be required to reassess their inclusion policies as it is highly likely that the variety of work styles within a single workforce will increase inequity between employees. This includes an unconscious favouritism towards those who choose to return to the office. There is a well-known phenomenon known as ‘passive face time’ in which leaders and managers make false assumptions about employees, based solely on visibility in a work context. Given that we could see a disproportionate number of men returning to the office as women combine remote working with childcare, there is a real risk of increased gender bias in decision-making on development and promotion opportunities.
Employers also need to be particularly sensitive to any psychosocial risks within their workforce and specifically, how pressure and stress affects minority employee groups in different ways. For example, we are already seeing reports that highlight gender differences in the response to the pandemic, in which women have been pushed out of work due to factors such as childcare, and it could take workplaces years to recover. The new ISO 45003, the first global standard for managing psychological health at work, underlines that mental health at work has never been more important.
Likewise, we have seen how COVID-19 has affected ethnic minority employees, both physically and psychologically. A Public Health England review of disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19 suggested that there is an association between belonging to some ethnic groups and the likelihood of testing positive with COVID-19. In September 2020, reports highlighted a 5.3% fall in employment for Black, Asian and minority ethnic employees in the UK, compared to just 0.2% for white employees.
The impact of the pandemic on minority groups will undoubtedly create an unconscious fear of job loss, which will in turn promote a disproportionate desire for minority employees to prove themselves to their employer – to show that they will go “above and beyond” to hold onto their job. This will inevitably lead to working longer hours or absorbing greater pressure.
Managing a successful transition to hybrid working
The ‘return to work’ on a hybrid model will be a unique test-and-learn opportunity for employers, but investment in these practices and policies is needed to make sure that the transition is a successful one.
- Take time to understand employee perspectives
Employers need to start by developing a comprehensive understanding of their employees’ experiences during the pandemic. Take time to understand the team’s preferences and their most effective work styles, as well as their mental health: how have individuals managed pressure? What levels of support are required to function healthily in pressured workplaces? Can they identify any major causes of stress? Prioritising personal wellbeing and resilience will help employees develop a working style which drives peak productivity.
- Prioritise inclusivity
Employers can demonstrate that inclusivity is a top priority through creating shared experiences for all employees, regardless of work style. Create team and company activities and ensure all employees take part so they don’t feel excluded. Use tools like video conferencing, which are very effective in creating equal environments for employees and, therefore, promoting inclusive practices post-pandemic. Make sure your communication channels are open to give employees the chance to voice any concerns or provide feedback.
- Document the change
Develop policies that accurately reflect the shared experiences across teams and departments, which take into consideration the new dynamics between colleagues who work from home and those who return to the office. For example, a new hybrid working policy which ensures that all employees are aware of who is eligible, clarifies roles and responsibilities and illustrates how hybrid working intersects with other forms of flexible working. It’s also advisable to create or update policies around employee wellbeing, inclusivity and training and development.
The impact of the hybrid model on the global workforce’s return to the physical workplace will ultimately be a positive one. Employees will find confidence in choosing businesses with a work culture that most closely aligns with their preferred work styles. Meanwhile, employers have the chance to work collaboratively with their staff and directly address their new needs.
We no longer need to see work life and home life as two entirely separate entities; rather, both can coexist in a blend that both maximises productivity and promotes healthy relationships between employers and their employees.