To hybrid or not to hybrid? Find out the results from Totum’s latest snap survey of professional services firms on hybrid working and their planned return to the office.

In virtual networking meetings that Totum has hosted since the first lockdown of March 2020, a consistent leading theme has been the ‘return to the office’. Some level of normality was restored as people returned to their offices over the summer and early autumn of 2020, but in the time since then, further lockdowns have put working policies centre-stage once more.

This time, however, there seems to be deeper shift in mindset… With homeworking patterns now well established, will we ever really return to full-time pre-Covid office life? And if not, what will replace it?

To find out, and to take some of our virtual meeting discussions further, we conducted a snap poll amongst out professional services firm clients. We wanted to find out what working policies, if any, they had in place for their return to the office (anticipated from June) and to what degree they will be adopting hybrid working policies (defined as formally splitting each week into days working from home and days working from the office).

Key findings

The results were striking. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The huge majority (90%) of respondents are planning permanent changes to their working policies.
  • While some (17%) have already made decisions on their return to the office (including target date and written policies/procedures), the vast majority (71%) are still in discussion over the issue.
  • Of those that have already made decisions, or are discussing the issue, a significant 71% are considering implementing some form of hybrid working policy as defined above, with 71% also stating that they would offer it to all employees. In addition, 28% claim to already have some form of hybrid policy in place, albeit 14% are considering reviewing it.
  • There is a fair split of opinion on the exact nature of the hybrid policy firms would implement, reflecting the numbers still discussing the issues. But the most favoured option (selected by 29%) seems to be to allow employees to choose how they work (ie, how many days in the office and from home), with specific agreements then made with local managers/teams. However, a further 29% chose the ‘other’ category here, with several stating they would prefer the balance to be weighted to the office – for example, three days in the office, two days working from home.
  • Most (48%) intend to roll out a formal working policy across the whole business although 24% are planning to introduce guidelines that can be rolled out and interpreted locally.
  • The majority (52%) would want their employees to live within commutable distance to the office (rather than further afield), although with 38% still in discussion on this issue (and the prospect of broadening the talent pool if this condition is eased), this could shift.
  • Most take a positive view of the shift. In selecting the top two impacts of permanently changing working patterns to more hybrid models, 38% cited improvements to employee morale and wellbeing, followed by broader talent pool (13%), better productivity/performance (7%) and reductions in office costs/overheads (9%).
  • However, there was some concern expressed, with 29% selecting ‘cultural challenges’ in implementing hybrid models, and 4% selecting poor training, development and management mechanisms.

A permanent shift?

These statistics provide considerable food for thought. The key takeaway is that the vast majority of firms do not anticipate a return to pre-Covid office normality. As far as most of these firms are concerned, office life is changing for good, and the discussion is focused on how to implement more hybrid policies effectively.

There is inevitably an element of flux in this – firms may well be reluctant to implement rigid policies too soon before there is a clearer idea of how things pan out in practice. It is also as yet unclear just what employees will want longer term – while a lot of assumptions are being made that everyone will now demand flexibility and hybrid working, there will perhaps be a stronger contingent than anticipated looking forward to returning full-time to an office environment. This seems even more likely for younger members of staff who have limited homeworking space/capacity and enjoy the opportunities for development, mentoring, training and socialising that the office environment provides (which in turn would require management oversight/presence).

In addition, it is interesting that nearly a third cited ‘cultural challenges’ as a potential impact of permanent shifts to hybrid working. This is no small matter. As respondents commented in individual survey feedback, potential problems lie in how to manage teams that are located remotely and/or in the office, ensuring equality of treatment, fair pay (should salaries be reduced for jobs that are primarily homebased?) and ensuring ‘out of office / out of mind’ discrimination issues do not arise.

However, while there are obvious challenges, nor does it seem likely that things will revert to how they were. Too many employees and businesses have seen first-hand that remote working can be successful. And for many employees that have wanted some degree of flexibility for so long, it seems unreasonable to envisage many businesses returning to a fixed 9-5 office mentality. 

There are too many potential benefits of changing for businesses too. Half of the survey respondents, for example, are already thinking about redesigning their office space to include more break-out spaces, hot desking and open-plan structures. In addition, 15% are either considering moving to smaller offices or leasing out part of their office space. There are potentially significant savings that can be made from thinking differently.

We will continue to report on this critical issue, as discussion and decision making evolves. Future working policies are topping the agenda among professional services firms right now; firms know that what is agreed now may well shape the sector for good.

Click here to find out more about the Totum team or to discuss changing trends in the professional services sector. Or have a look at our latest job opportunities as firms seek to ramp up capabilities in the weeks and months ahead. 

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