Advice on how organisations can begin to prepare for a return to the workplace and a longer term move to hybrid working in Ireland.
Over the last few months a wide range of research, including the series of national remote working surveys, indicate that after the pandemic the majority of workers want to continue to work from home at least some of the time, presenting new opportunities for organisations to establish new ways of working.
The pandemic, and government mandates for people to stay at home, has significantly increased employers’ willingness to allow employees to work from home.
While some employees want to work from home all the time after the pandemic, most would prefer a balance where they are in the office for some of the week and at home for the remainder. This has led to the use of a relatively new term: hybrid working. Many organisations are now considering what ‘hybrid’ means for them, how they might meet this new employee demand, and what will need to be in place in order for these new ways of working to be effective.
For most organisations, the introduction of hybrid working will require a significant culture shift and establishing new ways of working and associated policies and practices. We can learn some lessons from working from home during pandemic, however, in some ways hybrid will make greater demands of managers and organisations than the urgent shift to total remote working.
With the vaccine roll out offering a potential return to the workplace for current homeworkers later in 2021, how, why and what should organisations think about implementing a hybrid approach?
The significant interest in more flexible forms of working, and hybrid working in particular, have created new employee expectations and desires. Organisations who do not support flexible forms of working may therefore risk increased employee turnover, reduced employee engagement and limitations on the ability to attract talent in the future. Hybrid working also provides other opportunities for organisations in terms of reducing estate and facilities costs, enabling employee wellbeing, and supporting inclusion and diversity.
Benefits of hybrid
Despite the many complexities and challenges of living and working through the global pandemic, employees have still identified many benefits from working from home, for both them and their organisation. These benefits include a better work–life balance, greater ability to focus with fewer distractions, more time for family and friends, saved commuting time and costs, IT upskilling and higher levels of motivation.
Other benefits of flexible working include savings on office space, higher levels of employee job satisfaction and reduced absence rates.
The full benefits of hybrid working as a specific form of flexible working are yet to be fully researched but we can expect that it will, when properly implemented and supported, lead to similar benefits for both employees and organisations alike.
What to do now
Regardless of long-term strategy decisions about flexible and hybrid working, whilst social distancing remains necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 many workplaces will need at least an interim hybrid approach, with a mix of home and office-based working in the short term. The Government is currently predicting that employees in Ireland will be required to work from home wherever possible until at least the end of the summer period. Depending on the prevalence of the virus at that time, organisations will need to make their own decisions about when and how employees may return safely to their offices.
Short term plans for a COVID-safe return
Any plan for a return to the workplace needs to include communication and reassurance about COVID-19 safe measures. It will also require ongoing wellbeing support, especially in relation to employees who may be anxious about returning to the workplace or using public transport to commute.
In relation specifically to interim hybrid working, people professionals should:
- Determine if there are any roles that should be prioritised for return to the workplace.
- Identify any employees who need to continue to work from home in the short term, for example, because they remain vulnerable, have ongoing health conditions or are undertaking caring responsibilities.
- Calculate safe office occupancy levels in order to maintain social distancing.
- Establish and communicate a plan for when employees will work from the office and when they will work from home. This should include reference to caring responsibilities, wellbeing issues and any relevant personal circumstances and preferences. Where possible, try to ensure that all employees spend some time in the office and some working remotely, possibly on a rota basis.
- Consult with employees (and trade unions were applicable) on plans for returning to the workplace and encourage them to raise questions or concerns.
In advance of any return to the workplace later in 2021, where organisations have not already done so, they may wish to consider undertaking a listening exercise with their workforce. This will help them to understand the specific working preferences of their people for the future, as well as learn more about their experiences of working during the pandemic. It’s worth bearing in mind the impact of a large scale return to the workplace on those employees who have continued to work in the workplace throughout the pandemic and their preferences for working patterns going forward.
All plans for returning to workplaces should always follow the government’s Work Safely Protocol.
Planning for the future
Roles which previously may have been considered as unsuitable for flexible or homeworking have been successfully undertaken from home for a sustained period. Although hybrid working is different from remote working, we can draw on some of the lessons and experiences from pandemic related working from home period.
Key steps towards introducing hybrid working should include:
- Agreeing an overall strategic position on hybrid working for the organisation and development of a policy and supporting guidance reflecting the strategy.
- Defining hybrid working with regard to the specific organisational context. This might include several different forms of hybrid working even within one organisation, depending on role requirements.
- Engaging people managers throughout the organisation, providing an opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns, as well as the provision of training and development to support successful hybrid working.
- Development of a communication plan to share plans for future hybrid working with all employees, including information on how to request hybrid working.
- Planning for and responding to the organisational implications of hybrid working on matters such as technology, employee wellbeing, inclusion and facilities.
- Supporting effective team building and cohesion in hybrid teams.
Some of these areas will now be considered in more detail.
Policy and procedure
Hybrid working is a form of flexible working. Therefore, employers may consider either adapting or updating an existing flexible working policy to include hybrid working as a specific category or introducing a specific hybrid working policy. Whichever decision is made, as hybrid working is a relatively new concept, any new or adapted policy should be issued with supporting guidance and information to enable effective implementation.
When developing policies and procedures organisations should consider the following:
- Setting out who (or which role types) is eligible for hybrid working.
- Explaining how to request hybrid working.
- Clarifying roles and responsibilities for hybrid workers and people managers.
- How hybrid working intersects with other forms of flexible working.
- Reviewing other related policies including, for example, expenses, IT usage, homeworking and data protection.
There is a critical difference between the flexible working applications that were made before COVID-19 and those that are likely in the future. Hybrid working may need to be considered at a team level. Demand for hybrid working is expected to be high and it may not be procedurally effective to consider multiple requests at the same time – instead managers may need help to consider requests holistically.
Hybrid working is based on effective communication. It is critical to success but also a potentially high-risk area. When communication is not well managed it can result in poor information flow, knowledge gaps, barriers to effective team working and exclusion of team members who are not in the office. Communication within hybrid teams needs to be more intentional as casual or ad-hoc conversations may be reduced. Effective communication needs to be seen as the responsibility of everyone in the team.
Consider some of the following recommendations for effective hybrid team communication:
- Meetings should be held online by default. This will help to ensure that each attendee has a consistent experience of the meeting. When co-located employees have a face to face meeting but colleagues attend remotely this can lead to ‘presence disparity’, where people experience the meeting differently and communication can be disrupted.
- Teams should be encouraged and supported to establish their own principles for communication. This may include how often to meet physically, what technology to use for meetings and asynchronous work and how to ensure that communication is inclusive of everyone.
- Making use of asynchronous tools. During the pandemic many employees have reported feeling fatigued by long online meetings. When teams are working in a hybrid way, communication can be enhanced by asynchronous tools such as Slack or chat functions in platforms such as Microsoft Teams. This allows people to have more schedule flexibility, as well as location flexibility, and reduces online meeting time.
- Building in regular social and human connection opportunities to support employee engagement and team building.
Manager training and development
Organisations will need to put learning and development in place to ensure effective people management. This should include two separate but related elements:
- Managing requests for hybrid (or increased flexible) working at an individual and team level, including initial implementation of new ways of working.
- Developing the skills to ensure effective communication, performance management, team and relationship building and collaboration in hybrid teams.
Managers will also need information and guidance on ensuring inclusion and diversity, effective induction and employee engagement with a distributed team.
Technology skills may also need further development – see the next section for more information.
In the longer term, hybrid working may support improved wellbeing through reducing commuting time, providing employees with more autonomy around their schedules and extra time for health and wellbeing activities. Hybrid working may however bring with it specific challenges around work-life balance and managing the boundaries between work and home.
Consider the following:
- Providing training and support to employees on managing work-life balance whilst working in a hybrid way / working from home.
- Offering training on digital wellbeing and having healthy habits in relation to technology use, including helping employees to mindfully disconnect.
- Helping managers to understand the potential wellbeing implications of hybrid working and equipping them to have appropriate wellbeing conversations.
- Ongoing mental health support and information for all employees.
- Ensuring managers are aware of potential signs and symptoms of poor wellbeing or mental health, as these may be weaker whilst employees are working in a remote or hybrid way.
Inclusion and fairness
In a hybrid environment, organisations must ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for all employees and make sure there is a fair allocation of work and opportunities.
Consider some of the following:
- Identifying areas where inequalities may have developed during the pandemic and setting out plans to address these to ensure they not have a long-term detrimental impact on individuals or the organisation.
- Identifying where any inclusion risks may arise if employees move to hybrid working and how these can be mitigated.
- Where employees are unable to work in a hybrid way because of the work that they undertake, raising awareness of other forms of flexible working that may be suitable for them.
- Taking steps to ensure equality of experience between employees in the office and employees at home.
- Being aware of potential conflict and taking steps to ensure managers are prepared to properly manage any conflict situations.
DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. First Choice Purchasing is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.