Is hybrid failing?

Just because hybrid is challenging we shouldn’t throw in the towel before we’ve even really begun.

agile working


Yesterday, a report from Morgan McKinley highlighted potential tensions between employees’ demand for flexible working and employers feeling that remote working is making retention harder. The survey found 84% of UK professionals are considering a career move in the next six to 12 months, with 71% saying they would consider leaving an employer if they didn’t provide their preferred flexible working options. David Leithead, Chief Operations Officer of Morgan McKinley UK, said remote working may be loosening the loyalty bonds between employer and employee, leading to greater problems over retaining staff. He stated: “Some employers don’t like to admit it, but video interactions are simply not the same from a relationship and retention point of view.”

Some might say that the answer to the retention problem is to reduce remote working, but that doesn’t seem to be what employees want and, like it or not, we’re in an employees’ labour market, with a rapidly ageing workforce. People have tasted different ways of working over the last two years and they want more choice over when and where they work. Of course, flexibility is about much more than remote working and not everyone can work from home for a multitude of reasons and not just because their jobs require face to face interaction. They may not live in a home that is adequate for home working, for instance. They may go to the office to keep warm in the current climate of rising energy bills. The money you can claim for homeworking from the Government is a tiny sum and most people don’t even know about it. Moreover, surveys show that while some employers may provide laptops or mobiles, not many provide any other form of support, including paying for work calls or getting technical support.

In any event, to reduce flexibility because of retention issues doesn’t seem like it would be a particularly effective response. What is needed is more creative thinking on how to engage with and retain remote workers and to create some sense of organisational identity and shared endeavour. There have been some examples during lockdown, for instance, a greater activation of employee network groups to help, for instance, parents through the school holidays such as Atos’ virtual summer camp where colleagues volunteered to teach kids everything from computer skills to languages.

More thought needs to go into what creates close ties between people, into what creates a sense of community. This is important generally. Covid has shown some of the best examples of community spirit, such as people coming together to deliver food to those in need or to do regular calls to isolated people, but it has also shown some of the worst examples of individualism on steroids.

It’s not enough to say at this point that all efforts to forge new ways of working have been a disaster, as some have said. One FT headline this week announced ‘It’s time to admit that hybrid is not working’. Is it though? We’re in the middle of a pandemic where things are changing every five minutes. We’re all exhausted. Many employers have only just brought in hybrid working – which is NOT just remote working as seems to be suggested by some. Hybrid is part office part remote working. We know some people have been wholly against it from the start and have denigrated any effort to implement it – the acronym TWATs springs to mind [for those who are only in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays] and the various calls for remote workers to ‘get off their Peloton’. There is a lot that needs to be done to embed hybrid working, to tweak it, to find out what works. We are nowhere near developing a body of best practice. Most employers are still at the experimentation stage and some have not really put much thought or preparation into it, which means it is almost certain to encounter major teething problems.

Chris Biggs, partner at accounting consultancy Theta Global Advisors, commented yesterday on changing attitudes to work. He said: “While employers and ministers may instinctively want to see their staff back in the office and for work to go ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible, this is not necessarily the strongest or most sensible approach. Working culture and expectations have changed, and if approached with empathy and flexibility, will result in a far happier, more productive workforce delivering work of a higher standard than before Covid-19. Employees have proven they can be effective when given flexible options or working from home, and employers need to respond to this with trust and structured flexibility approaches allowing employees to alter as necessary.”

It’s way too early to declare that mass hybrid working isn’t working because doing things differently is challenging and different employers face different challenges. If you don’t try, if you don’t grapple with the challenge – and it is challenging – you won’t find your way to something that is workable for both employers and employees, that meets both the goal of attracting new talent and retaining them.

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