Totum was recently delighted to join PSMG to host a joint webinar, ‘To hybrid or not to hybrid? Returning to the office’. Totum’s Tim Skipper and Laura McNair, were joined on the panel by Carly Hubbard, Head of HR at Travers Smith, for a lively discussion and Q&A session on how firms are approaching hybrid working as people return to the office (now expected from September).

In this piece, we share some highlights from the event.

Current thinking

The webinar began with panellists sharing current thinking on hybrid working in the professional services sector. The consensus – supported by a Totum snap poll conducted before the webinar – is that hybrid working will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future (meaning that working life will be split each week into a certain number of days in the office and the others working from home).

Debate in the market has now moved on to exactly what policies should be agreed to underpin these arrangements – ie, how can firms make hybrid models work in practice?

With that in mind panellists provided some insights into current thinking in the sector:

  • Hybrid working is here to stay, with many firms currently formalising their hybrid working policies.
  • Office capacity is creeping up a little at present, although people are asking permission to go into the office rather than it being an expectation. Firms are looking at September onwards to implement more formal hybrid working policies (with firms looking at ways to reassure more nervous colleagues to return via clearly communicated and consistently enacted Covid policies and welcoming offices).
  • Firms are generally not asking about vaccinations for returning to the office, although many employees are offering that information.
  • The pandemic has had a mixed impact on mental wellbeing with some faring better than others through lockdowns (and some now feeling very tired/stressed after 18 months of hard graft through quite isolating pandemic conditions). Prioritising wellbeing is seen as vital for managing further changes ahead.
  • Nothing is seen as too trivial for discussion right now – from training mechanisms to managing office equipment, firms are trying to think of everything that needs to be considered to make the hybrid environment work.
  • Panellists agreed that internal snap surveys can be useful to provide proper data on mood/sentiment and to address practical concerns moving forwards.

Panellists then moved on to discuss the specifics of hybrid working policies. One question centred on how firms might vary their approaches to hybrid working, due to their size or culture – for example, would US and UK firms in London offer different levels of homeworking? While some of this may yet be unclear, panellists thought it likely that larger firms would have more to consider around facilities management (how can large numbers of individuals and teams best use the available office space in a hybrid environment?).

It is also likely that firms that struggle to compete on salary will use hybrid working as a differentiator to attract good candidates. But overall, there seems to be a lot of consensus around approach, with many firms choosing a 2:2:1 hybrid model – ie, two days in the office, two days working from home and one left for flexibility.

In terms of the recruitment market, Tim and Laura agreed that the virtual landscape has allowed for considerably more contact between candidates, recruiters and clients. Virtual interviews and onboarding processes have operated incredibly smoothly across firms – with virtual interviews likely to become a permanent fixture of recruitment, particularly in the early stages. They are more efficient, people have better availability for online interviews, and they move the whole process along more quickly. In the long run, they also offer firms the ability to reach a far wider candidate pool.

This led to a discussion of salaries/benefits for employees who might work in locations further afield (with hybrid working allowing many more people to consider living further out of cities/London). While it seems that firms are not altering their salary packages just yet, there does seem to be some agreement that salaries may need some adjustment further down the line to reflect the reduced cost of living in different places. This is certainly an area under scrutiny and will be worth watching into the future.

How to plan

The following tips emerged from the conversation to help firms get ready for hybrid working:

  • Planning a hybrid working policy takes time. Factor in a consultation period, conduct internal surveys and be willing to adapt. At this point nothing is likely to be set in stone – be ready to learn and change.
  • Keep mental health and wellbeing front of mind in any policy you draw up. With more people working remotely more often, this will be vital.
  • The past year has proven that firms can trust their employees – productivity did not suffer, nor financial performance. Try not to make a policy that shouts rules and restrictions but sets out key principles in a way that preserves trust (Travers Smith has chosen to call its plan an ‘agile working protocol’ to avoid a rules-heavy tone).
  • Consider how supervision can be best implemented (and discrimination issues avoided when some people are in the office more often than others) – managers will need to be in the office at the right time to support their teams and people will need to take ownership of people’s development.
  • Some people will be permanently working from home/remotely so salaries will likely need some evaluation as costs of living shift.
  • The key will be consistency across the firm and avoiding localised/individual arrangements that could build confusion and resentment.

The conversation covered a lot of topics and questions. There was particular concern about how trainees and more junior employees will learn and develop in a hybrid environment – so much is learned through a process of osmosis, listening in to conversations or spending time with more senior people. Considerable planning will be required to ensure that the right individuals and teams still come together in those days that they are in the office.

Overall, however, there is a strong sense that firms are approaching their hybrid policies in a proactive way that seeks to balance the best of remote and office working.

Policies will undoubtedly evolve in what continues to be a learning experience, but we are delighted that this event provided a platform for firms to share ideas and take away practical advice to make a success of a hybrid future.

We are hugely grateful to Carly Hubbard for joining us for the webinar and to PSMG for jointly hosting the event. If you would like to know more about this webinar or future events we are planning, contact [email protected]