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Ideas & Observations

Hybrid working: Is home working here to stay?

Right throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the structure of our working lives in the ‘new normal’ has been a hot topic. Here, Greg Rosenvinge speaks to Melanie Wilkes, head of research for the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, and Aoife Fitzmaurice, Sage’s vice president for organisation design and workplace futures, to learn more about the case for hybrid working and what needs to be done for it to be enacted effectively in the long-term.

As we all remember, the pandemic necessitated the closing of offices, workplaces and non-essential shops, creating for many a life of back-to-back Zoom calls and work at the kitchen table.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in April 2020 during the first UK lockdown, 44.6 per cent of all workers began carrying out their daily tasks remotely.

Naturally, this had a transformative effect on the day-to-day structure of our professional lives and how employers and staff engaged with each other.

And, since the lifting of workplace restrictions on July 19, the number of these changes that will be carried over into a post-pandemic ‘new normal’ has become a paramount organisational dilemma for businesses.

The Work Foundation at Lancaster University, in conjunction with Newcastle University Business School, recently published a report looking into remote working across Northern businesses, using secondary data analysis and 33 interviews with businesses and local stakeholders.

Its main finding was that employees really valued the increased flexibility and autonomy that remote working brought to their lives, and that these preferences were likely to inform a post-pandemic future towards a hybrid model of working.

Indeed, 89 per cent of remote working respondents in June 2020 said they would want remote working to continue to some extent as restrictions were eased.

Furthermore, 85 per cent of those working remotely in April/May 2021 expected a hybrid working model of remote and on-site working to be pursued post-pandemic, according to the Office of National Statistics.

This was because, according to the report, while increased flexibility and autonomy improved levels of trust between employers and staff, periods of sole remote working in your own home during the pandemic did also contribute to concerns of blurring the divide between work and leisure, with a subsequent effect on employee mental wellbeing.

“The employees we interviewed told us that maintaining some sort of face-to-face interaction within the workplace is going to be important going forward,” says Melanie Wilkes, head of research for the Work Foundation at Lancaster University.

“This is not only towards maintaining formal and informal connections between staff, but also for management purposes towards building and maintaining organisational structures and cultures, and for inducting new staff.”

One of the key recommendations outlined in the report was for hybrid working models to ensure employees offer a ‘right to disconnect’ – the ability to switch off from work considerations and enjoy life with family and friends, which is especially important when the home becomes a site of both leisure and work.

“Many employers were concerned about workers feeling the need to kind be available to respond to emails and work communications right into the evening,” says Melanie.

“We all have a right to be able to have a life outside of the laptop and to close the door on work. This can be much harder to do when you’re not leaving work and physically walking out of the building.

“And that’s where this proposal for a right to disconnect really comes from – recognising that, if developed in collaboration with employees within an organisation, you can create a kind of tailored ‘right to disconnect policy’ that makes sense for your organisation and its needs.

“Rather than imposing something top down and saying everybody will work these hours, it’s about engaging with staff and saying what makes most sense for us.”

Melanie continues: “One of the things that we’re really conscious of is balancing the right to disconnect with the right to flexibility.

For example, some employees who are parents might prefer to work in the evenings to pick their children up from school and prepare their dinner.

“It’s crucial that flexibility is ingrained within future hybrid working models, as engagement with staff and unions is going to be fundamental in making sure the working structures really makes sense for the organisation in question.”

The findings of increased trust between employers and employees regarding autonomy and flexibility in home working patterns seems to be reflected by the operations of Newcastle-based accounting, payroll and payment systems provider Sage.

“We believe hybrid working is here to stay,” says Aoife Fitzmaurice, vice president for  organisation design and workplace futures.”

“The North East might be our homeland, but we are committed to a global hybrid working framework called ‘Flexible Human Work’ – allowing our employees to work from other countries for up to ten weeks as part of our ‘Work Away’ scheme, when travelling allows.

“Our new, multi-million-pound global headquarters at Cobalt Business Park, which opened in August 2021, are equipped to support in-person collaboration and networking, alongside employee wellbeing.

“But for us, where and when you work is not important.

“Instead, having an outcome-focused mindset, delivering the best customer outcomes, collaborating and experimenting as a team, is.

“We know everyone has different needs and we want to ensure everyone feels comfortable and can work at their best – wherever they base themselves.

“We encourage our colleagues to establish boundaries on their work and home life balance, and to recognise the signs when they are starting to blur, as it is so easy for those boundaries to blur and to work longer hours when staying in one room for all hours of the day.

“Ultimately, our aim is to unlock full flexibility across all stages of the career; a highly attractive prospect for existing and future talent.

“This means job shares, more part-time opportunities that flex by week/month and sabbaticals – all are possibilities.”

And while these similar reflections to those found on the report on maintaining flexibility between remote and on-site working and safeguarding employees’ right to disconnect are seen in the example of Sage, the Work Foundation is keen on advancing policy recommendations that can help entrench these practices into more robust working rights across the board in the North East and the rest of the UK.

These recommendations include having the Government’s Flexible Working Taskforce develop clear guidance for employers regarding their duty of care towards employees in remote or hybrid working models, and to set proposals to amend legislation around flexible work, such as introducing an immediate right to request flexible work and to narrow the range of reasons an employer can give to deny a request.

But perhaps most crucially to the North, it recommends enabling hybrid working to act as a plug to the famed ‘brain-drain’ of educated North East workers to London and the South East, by investing in the number and quality of local jobs, and effectively investing in digital infrastructures, such as high-speed broadband in remote working homes and improved public transport.

One interviewee in the report said: “Some people’s ability to work has been disrupted. If you’ve not got adequate internet coverage, you’re effectively in digital poverty because you can’t get the same opportunities that are presented to other people.”

The report also listed recommendations towards repurposing high street and commercial office space in line with decreased demand for its current occupations towards a more multi-use strategy, with an increased focus on events.

It is clear to see how the pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box of conversation towards how sustainable the old model of on-site-only working was, as employees grew to reap the benefits of remote and flexible working more than they did with its deficiencies.

With time, mitigating its drawbacks and getting the best of both of worlds through hybrid working seems to be a model with increasing support across Northern businesses and researchers.