Hybrid working is a mixed bag. Individuals have more flexibility than before the pandemic, and organisations are saving money on space. Everyone’s a winner, in theory. But while employees revel in their release from five days a week in the office, employers are concerned about morale, unity and culture. Is hybrid a buoyant bubble of futuristic freedom, or does it puncture productivity? Our answers to this might make life a little easier for you, your team and your organisation.

In the first week of May 2022, 38% of UK employees worked from home at some point over the previous seven days, up from 12% before Covid. But while hybrid is increasing, not everyone is sold on it. Making it work in practical terms is easier said than done.

What is hybrid working? 

Hybrid working quickly caught on in 2021, as the world opened up after the pandemic. At first glance, hybrid seems like little more than a new approach to scheduling. Individuals spend some of their working week away from the office, typically spending two or three days at home. But hybrid patterns need to balance the competing needs of organisations, teams and individuals, and the whole shebang has become bogged down in a head-scratching mishmash of roadmaps and challenges.

Hybrid working, for organisations: two steps forward, one step back

According to consultants Grant Thornton, hybrid is losing popularity with employers. Grant Thornton’s survey of executives in UK mid-market businesses, (April 2022), found that 51% said their organisation was committed to hybrid, down from 88% in December 2021. Of those, little more than half (51%) believe it is working well, while 19% are struggling to implement it. In 2022, Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries and found that 85% of leaders have concerns about hybrid’s impact on productivity.

There is much variation in hybrid work patterns. By and large, people spend between one and four days in the office, partly depending on the sector in which they work, with finance and consulting organisations often allowing a minimum of time at home. There are inconsistencies even within an organisation, with some employees entitled to more time at home than others, while managers sometimes fail to stick to the rules that they impose on their team.

Uneven policies on hybrid stoke unresolved tensions at the cost of team cohesion, as Apple discovered when their hybrid working pilot fuelled internal controversy. Some employers have even rolled back their hybrid plans, often after adopting an inflexible one-size-fits-all policy.

It isn’t just senior leaders who have concerns about hybrid. Some employees find that switching back and forth between two types of schedules, workspaces and environments is draining. “It’s the psychological shift – the change of setting every day – that’s so tiring, this constant feeling of never being settled”, UK-based office worker Klara told BBC Worklife in February, 2022. 

Hybrid working, for individuals: part office, part home, mostly Zoom

Despite leaders’ concerns, hybrid is popular with employees. In February 2022, Grant Thornton asked more than 2,200 of its own people about the merits of hybrid working and found that the vast majority (93%) believe it allows them to be more productive. A large majority (91%) also agreed that it supports their wellbeing.

Interest in hybrid sprang from hidden mindsets that developed while people were working from home during Covid. Hybrid patterns fit in with lifestyle choices, and while home utility bills are higher people save money on commuting.

According to UK government figures, (May 2022), more than three-quarters (78%) of people working from home said that doing so gave them an improved work life balance. In February 2022, more than 8 in 10 workers who had to work from home during the pandemic said they planned to stick with hybrid working.

Hybrid relies on increased trust between employers and employees, which represents a marked shift from workplace attitudes that were prevalent in years gone by. Nevertheless, there are variations in how this trust is working.

Before Covid, the idea of working from home was as popular with employers as a dry cough. For some, not much has changed. However, in its 2022 global talent trends survey of more than 10,000 people, consultants Mercer found that while executives remain concerned about remote working, employees see things differently:

The retention risk – hybrid’s dilemma for employers

Given the popularity of hybrid working, employers must either overcome their concerns, or risk losing talent to competitors. In May 2022, data from recruitment specialists Robert Half suggested that 50% of professionals working from home would look for a new job if required to return to the office full time.

“Retention is a huge issue for all employers right now”, Rich Deosingh, US-based district president for Robert Half, told the BBC, “and if you take away flexible work options, your employees are going to consider other options.”

Dave Munton, head of markets and clients at Grant Thornton, said: “There is no doubt that those that fully embrace true hybrid working…will have a sustainable, competitive advantage. Both in productivity and, critically, in attracting and retaining talent.”

Given rising inflation, labour tensions in the UK and elsewhere, and the creeping shadow of recession, in the coming months organisations will be dependent on resilient, creative people. “Thriving employees will give organisations a competitive advantage in today’s dynamic economic environment”, according to Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO of Microsoft.

To ensure they hang on to their best people, it makes sense for leaders to bite the bullet and go with hybrid working. The question they face then is what are the future skills that will best help them protect productivity, team cohesion and morale?

Social wellbeing – the secret to successful hybrid working

A good starting point for leaders is to recognise the misleading assumption that hybrid is about scheduling, and that everything else will sort itself out. This line of thought focuses on individuals, it’s about who works where, when, and it’s not particularly helpful.

To introduce hybrid into the workplace, or to rethink the version you have now, better to prioritise the team. Hybrid begins with a clear commitment to unity. Team cohesion supports all individuals, regardless of where they happen to be working.

Connectivity guards against loneliness, it champions difference and diversity, it’s inclusive and forward-looking, and it’s rich in trust and recognition. Rather than regard employees as individuals hidden away at home, better to see them as team members looking out for each other. This mindset supports wellbeing and morale, which in turn improves engagement and retention. This is social wellbeing, which lies at the heart of any successful switch to hybrid working.

As the surveys mentioned above suggest, employees see wellbeing as an attractive feature of hybrid working. As well as quiet time at home to focus on ‘deep work’ tasks, wellbeing includes essential opportunities for people to reconnect with each other in the office. According to the Microsoft survey, “the data shows that people come in for each other to recapture what they miss: the social connection of being with other people.”

What is social wellbeing?

Social wellbeing is the mindset that connects people in a hybrid workplace, ensuring that when they work remotely they effectively take the team home with them. By helping people feel that they’re part of a group, whether they’re in the office or at home, social wellbeing protects mental health, builds confidence, strengthens resilience, and encourages people to find creative solutions.

Social wellbeing, as developed through meaningful human contact, fends off problems that stem from working in isolation. Without it, individuals are prone to cynicism where they come to regard others as selfish, dishonest, greedy or self-interested. These negative feelings lead to gossip, secrecy, complaining and backstabbing, fuelling a culture of demoralisation, burnout and turnover.

How to create a hybrid working culture

Leaders can guard against negative issues like cynicism by developing a company culture that focuses on unity. This requires a heartfelt commitment to values such as tolerance, trust and empathy, which sometimes take a little time to take root. They can be encouraged through an understanding of future skills, particularly social wellbeing.

A culture of social wellbeing places an emphasis on clear communication, overcoming digital challenges, clarifying direction of travel, and cutting through disruptive noise and confusion. For example, familiar words might need to be reimagined: ‘workplace’ is no longer just about where you are, these days it includes a sense of who you feel connected to.

Social wellbeing particularly relies on the informal watercooler moments that were once so familiar. They all but vanished during the pandemic, and later came to be replaced by virtual calls – which are largely functional and allow little informal contact.

Giving people the space to rediscover in-person, relaxed moments of easy-going human familiarity is a far better investment than designing ‘kindergarten offices’, with bean bags, table tennis and funky perks designed to keep people in the office. Organic moments of human contact are always a better bet than an artificial sense of ‘mandatory fun’. Fundamentally, hybrid relies on a culture of human understanding – the focus of our four courses on social wellbeing:

  1. How Leaders Create Culture

Culture is largely invisible, easily overlooked and often misunderstood. It needs to be purposefully tailored if it is to be an effective tool in preparing a team for a hybrid work pattern. This course explains how to develop ‘culture carriers’, individuals who know the landscape. Indispensable and well regarded by others in the team, they set an example by championing the values that matter.

  1. Hybrid Working Practices

After cohesion, the next most important element of successful hybrid working is integration – successfully performing one job in two locations. The key to this is to maintain a consistent level of

energy, relationships, engagement and productivity, both in the office and at home. By discovering assumptions about the best way to do this, people can learn how to leverage the advantages of working in a hybrid pattern, and move beyond the disadvantages.

  1. The Social Human at Work

While a team is stronger than an individual, its value shrinks when its members fail to support each other. Building connections isn’t an automatic process that can be taken for granted. Nor can we make assumptions about personal identity. Someone we see at work might feel themselves to be less than who they are when among friends and family. Perhaps their input at work is less than it could be too. To help people bring their best self to work, we need to develop our social side, so that the group benefits from collective intelligence and collaboration.

  1. Building Social Confidence

Anxiety levels have been climbing since 2020. Resilience is stretched, and engagement is suffering. Shoring up confidence will help people in social situations at work, from speaking up in meetings, to chatting easily with colleagues. Developing social confidence involves tackling the limiting ideas that get in people’s way. By sharing information and stories, connections can be built through friendliness and approachability, leading to stronger trust, engagement and creativity. 

Preparing for an uncertain future

Already, the 2020s are proving to be a time of turbulent uncertainty. Leaders will increasingly come to depend on sustainable working practices that maintain motivation, engagement, and productivity. For many people, these include hybrid working. For a more detailed look at sustainable working, take a look at our guide to the Sustainable Human.

Leaders looking to take on new people, and keep those they have, may have valid concerns about hybrid but these can be addressed through courses delivered in person, virtually, or via e-learning.  Employers’ concerns often lead to questions about productivity. But trusted, resilient employees, whose creative engagement is reinforced by social wellbeing, will always be well placed to answer them.

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