In a piece first published in PSMG’s Centrum magazine, Totum Director Rebecca Ellis and Consultant Liz Chappell share their insights gained from many conversations with professional services firms over the past 12 months on the makeup of the future, post-Covid workplace. Will the future be a hybrid of home and office, and, if so, how can it be successful?
Since March 2020 and the first lockdown, Totum has been part of a recurrent conversation among professional services firms. Whether kicking off Totum’s virtual networking meetings, or cropping up in more informal chats with clients, the same question always comes up: when and how will we return to the office?
A year on and discussions are still intense. Many accept that hybrid working – defined as formally splitting each week into days working from home and days working from the office – will be the order of the day at least for the foreseeable future. And firms are working hard to finalise agreements on their specific approach to the hybrid office as lockdown conditions ease. We explore some of these considerations in this piece.
First, a few highlights from our recent snap poll we conducted through March 2020 with professional services firm clients on their attitudes to hybrid working. The survey was conducted in advance of Totum’s webinar, ‘To hybrid or not to hybrid: Returning to the office’, hosted in partnership with PSMG and Carly Hubbard, Head of HR at Travers Smith. The survey’s key findings were as follows:
- The huge majority (90%) of survey respondents are planning permanent changes to their working policies.
- Of those that have already made decisions about their working policies, or are discussing the issue, a significant 71% are considering implementing some form of hybrid working policy, with 71% also stating that they would offer it to all employees.
- 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.
There is inevitably an element of flux in these results – firms will understandably be reluctant to implement rigid policies too soon. It is also yet unclear just what employees will want longer term – while more people may want permanent flexibility, there will be others 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, the ‘cultural challenges’ cited by a third of respondents are significant. Potential problems here 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.
Making a success of hybrid working
So how can firms plan effectively for this hybrid future?
In our discussions with Carly Hubbard for the webinar, we shared some thoughts on this, in which she highlighted some important elements for success in a hybrid workplace: more pastoral care as people work remotely more frequently; more structured opportunities for development; ensuring equality of supervision (and avoiding discrimination) for those who are working remotely more often; establishing different ways of engaging staff and effectively managing expectations; continuing to invest in technology to enable seamless communication and work delivery; and finding ways to maintain the positive elements of a firm’s culture (for example, ensuring that management prioritises office days for team meetings and get-togethers).
There’s a huge amount to think about. However, we have one big advantage one year down the line: we have all learned a huge amount. Flexible policies were being rolled out pre-Covid, but a year of lockdown has tested remote working to the max. Perhaps surprisingly, many have reported that performance has not dropped, despite everyone working from home under testing conditions. Managers have been shown that they can trust their teams to work from remote locations – if there was any lingering scepticism over productivity levels at home, Covid may just have vanquished it.
On the other side, lockdown conditions have proved that firms need to take particular care in engaging effectively and regularly with individuals working remotely, to ensure they are not isolated or deprived of the same opportunities for development as those working in the office. This will undoubtedly require considerable management time and resources, especially as some may be working remotely more often than others.
A win-win solution?
But it’s worth remembering that the hybrid office will not be like the Covid workplace. In the hybrid environment, the office will once again become an important hub for getting individuals and teams together, no matter what the specific nature of the policies adopted by different firms. This will soften the extremes of lockdown, in which people could not meet at all for weeks on end.
Firms that look back now and assess carefully what worked well and what did not, have a big opportunity – to address the challenges while taking forwards the positives of the past 12 months. This could result in a workplace that offers the best of both the remote and office world – in other words, a perfect hybrid.