How to build a hybrid-working model that is right for an organisation

Need to know:

  • Hybrid-working arrangements have become the norm; employees now favour organisations that offer it over those that do not.
  • Creating a sense of fairness around flexible working is a challenge for employers, especially for those whose staff are not able to work remotely at all.
  • Employers are now focusing on creating a sense of purpose and a valuable employee experience through hybrid working approaches.

Minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg and prime minister Boris Johnson may want workers to put down the cheese and come back into the office, but as far as most employees are concerned, the genie is out of the bottle. Hybrid working is here to stay.

In the war for talent, the balance of power has shifted in favour of employees. One in three workers are willing to resign from their job if their employer does not agree to their choice of hybrid-working arrangements, according to The employer/employee power shift, a May 2022 survey by Barnett Waddingham. Organisations that can offer flexible working see it as a tool they can wield.

From the employer’s perspective, the good news is that most businesses are racing from the same starting point, after the Covid-19 pandemic changed the rules of engagement. It is an exciting time for reward and HR professionals to respond to the challenge of trying to cater to employees’ preferences while running successful businesses.

Of course, not every organisation is in a position to offer flexible working. If you are an HR leader of an organisation that needs people in a physical workplace for at least some of the working week, what can you do to draw people back without risking losing them to another firm?

How to engage employees who are working remotely

One big risk when people work from home, or perhaps from a different location to most of their team, is that they may lose their sense of connection to their employer. How can employers help people to feel like they are still working for the same set of goals and preserve the employee experience?

Every expert Employee Benefits interviewed emphasised the importance of communication. As Jane Bradshaw-Jones, HR technical consultant at AdviserPlus, says: “It’s vital to have regular meet ups, whether these are in person or virtual. These shouldn’t just be about work and process. Make them team-building events, perhaps charity or social gatherings.”

David Taylor, managing principal of Punter Southall Aspire, adds: “When everyone is working from home, creating culture has to be much more intentional. We need to be really intentional about how we manage and lead people, and managers need to be really proactive. For example, we have weekly check-ins with teams, and that goes right up to executive level. We’ll talk about work, but we’ll also ask how things are at home, how is [their] wellbeing. I think that’s really important because [we] have to work much harder on relationships now.”

Whether they are in another location or working from home, it is really important that managers make sure workers are recognised when they go the extra mile, adds Taylor. “What we are finding is it doesn’t need to be linked to the standard £25 Amazon voucher or whatever it is, it’s more about just saying, ‘you’ve done a great job, thanks so much,’ at a really local level.”

And what should employers not do? One sure way to irritate home workers is to micromanage them. Employers need to trust people to get their work done within the parameters they have set, rather than checking in constantly. “Measure outcomes instead of activity to assess impact on performance or productivity,” is one piece of advice that Noelle Murphy, senior HR practice editor at XpertHR, took from its recent Hybrid working survey of HR professionals.

Softening the transition back into workplaces

Of course, not every employer will be able to offer flexible working five days a week. There are challenges involved with trying to draw people back to workplaces, though. People are not comparing going back to the physical workplace with their working lives before the pandemic. Instead, they are comparing returning to work with what they have become used to during the pandemic. This status quo bias makes it harder for employers to entice people into offices.

Fairness is another concern for employers. “A lot of people really had to keep turning up during the pandemic and they didn’t have the opportunity to work from home,” says Murphy. “That really weighs heavily with [employers] because they are striving for something that’s transparent and has a sense of fairness. We emphasise to [employers] that generally, there is some form of flexibility [they] can offer everyone, whether that’s looking at the hours that they work, whether it’s giving them a little bit of flexibility or compressed hours.”

Make people part of the discussion about the new normal, adds Taylor. “If [employers are] asking or telling people to come, firstly, make them part of that discussion. Explain the reasons that [they] are asking people to come into the office, involve them in the conversation and help them to own the solution by engaging them early.”

If employers are asking people to come back into workplaces, they need to make sure their time is used wisely. David Collington, head of benefit consulting at Barnett Waddingham, explains: “There’s no point in being in an office to do what [they] can do at home. Office time should be used to collaborate, connect, communicate and strategise, rather than for Zoom meetings.”

“[Employers] need people to be leaving the office after a day there thinking, ‘actually, that was really worth going in for,’” adds Taylor.

Employers should also create a sense of purpose, says Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of Journey HR. Business leaders should ask themselves: What are we using the office for? What is this space giving us, which makes it a compelling reason for us to all be here together? What is our mission when we are together? What energy do we want to create?

One practical piece of advice from Xpert HR’s aforementioned survey of HR professionals is: “Ensure up-to-date and accurate use of diaries so it is clear to see in advance each week who will be office based on what days; it helps others to decide what days to be in and ensures appropriate cover so that individuals are not left working alone in the office.”

Where relevant, employers could also consider special themed weeks where people are needed in the office. Taylor explains that one of its clients explained to its staff that they were needed to be onsite for one week to complete a special project that could not be done from home. “Actually, people loved being there because they made a special thing around this week.”

The evolving benefits picture

Employers are largely focusing on creating a sense of purpose, and this can be more important than reforming their benefits when it comes to attracting people back into their workplaces.

However, the timing is difficult for employers hoping to encourage people back into offices, with the cost-of-living crisis starting to bite in all areas of life, including travel costs. “The jobs market is brutal and the cost of living crisis is creating financial worries for people. I think businesses need to re-evaluate their benefits,” says Vigor-Robertson.

Employers in the creative industries are often putting on breakfasts and lunches. “These simple things are really appreciated,” adds Vigor-Robertson.

For example, some agencies have put on drinks on a Thursday to encourage people to stay out and connect with their colleagues.

Employers are also looking to soften the financial blow of people coming back to the office with one-off cost of living-related bonuses, says Vigor-Robertson. They are also putting together more education on financial wellbeing, or giving people access to financial advisers.

In a world where employees’ working lives can look really different within an organisation, benefits that feel personalised are really important, concludes Jeff Fox, a principal at Aon. “The only way to offer that is through choice. We are seeing a return to things like flex funds for wellbeing, where employees are given an account which they can spend in ways that suit them. Employers are offering an array of benefits that employees can choose from.”