Scott Wilson, Director of Customer Experience, eFax, considers the future of hybrid working

While no one actively sought a second national lockdown in England, it is noticeable that it has barely sent a ripple through the working patterns of what would once have been considered office-based businesses. Whereas the first shutdown was followed by several weeks of companies scrambling to get workers online while offsite, this time around this vast majority have not seen a major change to their routines.

This obviously doesn’t apply to all sectors, and the fact that schools are staying open has helped the situation, but it is telling that businesses have hardly had to make any adjustments to working patterns this time around. Offices had remained underoccupied even as the country opened up over the summer, as employees remained working predominantly from home. This meant that when the new lockdown was announced, it just meant that those that had been doing one or two days in the office stopped going in.

 

A remote future?

Does this mean that every office-based job will be done remotely from now, irrespective of whether there is the opportunity to safely return to a centralised place of work? It’s unlikely; while there have been a number of major businesses announcing that they will allow employees to work remotely indefinitely, the general theme is one of allowing more remote working, but with some time in the office – according to a McKinsey study, 20% of UK executives said that at least one-tenth of their employees could work remotely two or more days a week going forward, compared with 15% globally.

It points to the rise of a hybrid workforce, whereby a proportion of employees work from home, and a proportion from the office, with some working in both locations. In theory, it makes sense – businesses would not be watching expensive office leases and other costs go to waste but could still get the benefits of face-to-face collaboration, while employees have more of a choice of working wherever suits them best.

 

Having both the right technological and cultural infrastructure

But a business saying it is going to have a hybrid workforce moving forward, and actually being able to implement it, are two different things. Ultimately, there are two areas that need to be addressed – whether a business has the technology infrastructure in place to support mobile employees continually changing their working location, and if it has the right culture in place to support this new approach.

From a technology perspective, it would appear those that support hybrid working are ready for it. A new survey from eFax found that 95% of UK IT decision-makers are confident in the digital transformation steps they’ve put in place to enable the move to a hybrid workforce. In fact, more than three quarters believe they could have made the transition sooner if they had been aware of the pros and cons of such a switch.

But what are those pros and cons? Looking at the former, there are potential longer term benefits when it comes to the running costs of offices – with fewer people on site at any one time, there’s an argument to be made that businesses need less permanent space and amenities. Then there’s the opportunity to expand the pool of talent – while a hybrid workforce will never be able to go international in the same way that a fully remote one could, not having to travel to the same office every day gives employees more flexibility in terms of where they live. This ties into the cultural aspect of hybrid working – according to one study, employees who feel they have a good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t.

And the cons? They are less drawbacks than they are challenges – obviously the right technology needs to be in place, so that those in the office and those remote can collaborate effectively together, as well as maintaining security irrespective of location. With the world almost a year into the pandemic, having personal devices that work just as effectively at home as in the office should be a given, but if businesses haven’t been able to properly equip their workforces by now then a hybrid pattern is going to be a struggle.

Then there’s perceptions of productivity and output, which is where having the right cultural infrastructure is critical. If a business has deployed remote monitoring, multiple check-ins with managers and teams a day and other punitive management techniques, then it is going to be challenging moving to a hybrid workforce, and not just in its successfully implementation.

Why? Because businesses won’t be able to keep workforces engaged if they are slow to implement hybrid ways of working. The eFax study found that being unable to switch to the new approach would, in the opinion of more than half of respondents, make it harder to attract and retain talent. A further third thought it would lead to a disengaged culture, while slightly more identified that a failure to introduce new ways of working would make it harder to accommodate family life, and in doing so impacting talent retention.

Put another way – a failure to successfully implement a hybrid working model is going to make it harder for businesses to operate with the right talent and levels of engagement in the future.

 

A hybrid model for an uncertain future

While the coming months promise little in the way of clarity and uncertainty, businesses need to be making decisions about how they’re going to operate in the mid-term that reflects the needs and wants of their workforces. While not every sector, nor every company, can work remotely, those that can need to offer the option of more flexible patterns that combine the best of offsite and onsite employment locations. If they don’t, whether through a refusal to accept how working is changing or lacking the technical and cultural ability to do so, then they run the risk of trying to achieve their goals with a decimated, disengaged workforce.

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.