As the various restrictions and schemes implemented to fight COVID are eased, many workers across the world are returning to the office. Not everyone, however, is eager for things to return to business as usual.
Many companies have found that remote work has improved employee performance, productivity, it's reduced costs, and many employees have discovered flexible work means less stress and a better work-life balance.
Given the unexpected success of remote working, many businesses are now looking for a more permanent way to combine the benefits of flexible work with the advantages of in-office working. A June 2021 ONS survey found that 24% of businesses intend to increase working from home.
Another study found that 74% of UK office workers also wanted a hybrid option. The ‘hybrid’ approach could allow for workers to commute to the office two or three days each week, for example, and work from home the rest.
There is no “one size fits all” solution for the implementation of hybrid working, however, and considerable scope to get it very wrong. If you are offering a hybrid or remote option to your staff, you should take care to tailor your policies to the needs of your business, and ensure the policy is clear and fair for both in-office and at-home staff.
In-office work versus hybrid work
The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, recently argued that many staff should return to the office. Mr. Sunak said that remote workers could lose valuable experience and miss out on networking and other opportunities for career development. The Chancellor argued that “for young people in particular” being physically in the office was valuable.
Whether a permanent hybrid or remote option works for your business will depend on many factors, including the sector you are in, the nature and preferences of your workforce, and the costs of managing a hybrid solution.
Although your team may have enjoyed unexpected success during lockdown, that “Blitz spirit” may not translate into long-term enthusiasm, and productivity gains may prove to be short-lived. In contrast, if performance fell while staff were forced to work from home, that doesn’t mean a properly-implemented hybrid scheme is impossible to achieve.
No company exists in a vacuum, and you will also need to consider the strategies taken by other firms in your sector, by suppliers and customers. If you don’t offer flexible working, but your competitors do, you may find retention and recruitment harder.
What are the benefits of hybrid work?
Well before the arrival of COVID-19, several large studies had found that, overall, more flexible working improved staff morale and improved productivity. Workers that don’t need to waste hours each day commuting are less stressed and have more time to focus on actual work. Research into remote work arrangement under lockdown has, perhaps surprisingly, supported these findings.
Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) data shows that “improved work life balance” was felt to be the biggest benefit, followed by the ability to complete work faster. Younger workers showed a weaker preference for remote working than older staff.
Having remote employees also enables your business to recruit from a much wider pool of people, including from other regions and even across the globe. Hybrid working can also reduce your fixed operating costs and reduce the environmental impact of your business, with fewer car journeys and lower office energy usage.
That said, hybrid working won’t be right (or even possible) for every company. To assess what kind of hybrid solution would work for your business, you could start with an objective assessment of how lockdown work from home affected the business. What worked, and what didn’t? An open consultation with staff may be the best place to start.
Are there any downsides?
The study data mentioned above was compiled in the context of businesses that had taken the time to implement proper remote working policies, and generally workers were free to choose remote work or not. It’s not surprising that those workers who chose flexible working then thrived.
A hurried work-from-home implementation as lockdown hit, combined with reluctant staff working in suboptimal conditions, may not be the best evidence of whether hybrid working is right for your business.
Some firms’ working cultures are more gregarious or competitive by nature. Many employees thrive in social settings. Although there is little evidence that lockdown did actually impact workers’ mental health on average, some staff will have felt the isolation keenly. You may have observed that while productivity rose overall, one or two workers’ output suffered.
The OPN survey identified “reduced communication” as the greatest concern for workers, along with a “negative impact on working culture”.
Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance commented, “A poorly-implemented and managed hybrid scheme or remote working policy could damage office culture, and could expose some staff to increased stress, overwork, loneliness and occupational health issues. Many of the potential downsides can be addressed by developing clear remote working and hybrid working policies, in consultation with employees.”
It is also crucial that these policies avoid the risk of a discriminatory two-tier system of work evolving, whereby homeworkers are overlooked or neglected and in-office workers resentful of home working ‘perks’ (or vice versa).
Making a remote work arrangement fair
Though it is impossible to remove every difference between in-office and remote working, your policies should be developed to be as fair as possible for all workers. Broadly speaking, the factors that can cause two-tier discrimination can be separated into two categories; intentional differences that would be explicitly stated in a policy, and more subtle, unintentional differences.
Obvious differences between in-office and remote workers could include:
- Working hours
- Meeting attendance
- How expenses are handled
- How overtime is calculated
Resentment can set in if office workers feel that (compared to homeworkers) they are chained to their desks, leading to presenteeism, lower morale and an ‘us and them’ mentality. In contrast, homeworkers may feel under increasing pressure to work longer, or be seen to be working longer.
Less obvious differences that could still result in a two-tier business culture include:
- Access to HR and other support resources
- Consideration for promotions, bonuses and other opportunities
- Access to facilities such as a gym or child care
- Management of occupational health risks, including mental health
Some of the issues and risks that remote working can create may only become evident over time. For this reason, you should consider your hybrid and remote working policies as ‘first drafts’ that will need to be amended and improved on an ongoing basis. Here are five things to think about when putting together a remote work policy.
1. Working hours
Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, the majority of UK workers are restricted from working more than 48 hours a week. Workers are also entitled to at least a 20 min break for each 6 hours worked, 11 hours rest between work days and at least one full 24 hour break each week.
Homeworking allows for more flexible hours, but employees should not exceed the above limits unless they explicitly opt out. Your policy should explicitly state how an employee’s working hours are structured.
Without a clear separation between home and work, remote workers risk exceeding these limits, leading to low morale, burnout and other health issues.
The business could provide and encourage the use of tools to better define and separate work and home life, including shared calendars and out of office email notifications.
2. Costs and expenses
Some companies subsidize the food and travel costs of workers, or provide other benefits like a company car, laptop or phone. Remote workers are more likely to provide their own equipment and pay the full cost for their meals during the workday.
Whether it is reasonable for the business to subsidize a remote worker’s energy bills or other expenses may vary on a case by case basis, but it is important to factor this into your thinking and to explicitly set out what is and is not covered under the remote working policy.
3. Management and support
So many HR and management issues can be spotted and preemptively dealt with thanks to a quiet word or impromptu meeting. It is much harder to achieve this proactive approach with home workers, whose mental state may be difficult to gauge over email or Zoom.
A recent study found that 51% of workers felt under pressure to “put on a brave face at work”. 81% wanted their employer to help with their mental wellbeing.
Managers and HR should factor the challenges of supporting remote workers into their approach, and care should be taken to provide an equivalent and effective amount of support to both in-office and remote staff.
You should consider reframing what you recognize “warning signs” to be, spotting changes in behavior like a worker’s emails becoming much shorter, replies slower or fewer questions or feedback on Zoom calls. It’s important that remote workers understand how to access management and HR support, and that they are encouraged to do so.
4. Networks, career development and training
As argued by Rishi Sunak, one of the biggest risks faced by remote workers is the difficulty in building networks with colleagues and industry peers. If you’re not at the office, you could miss out on after work drinks, in-jokes, friendships and the social side of office life more generally. Remote workers may also find it harder to benefit from mentoring and contact with more senior staff.
In the longer term, this lack of deeper relationships and ad hoc contact could mean the remote worker misses out on valuable opportunities for career development.
On a more mundane level, remote workers may find it harder to take part in training courses and top-up sessions, particularly if sessions occur during the course of normal workdays.
Managers, trainers and HR staff should consider how best to involve remote workers in these activities. The best approach will depend on an office’s culture and training needs. Strategies could include organizing “away days” in locations that it is practical for remote workers to attend, or office drinks on Zoom rather than in person.
5. Health and safety
Under The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999, companies must explicitly consider the health and safety of remote employees, in the same manner as workers in any other situation.
In concert with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and several other pieces of legislation, the Regulations set out the duties that an employer owes to its staff, including remote workers. The key task employers must carry out is a risk assessment of the remote worker’s work and work area.
COVID restrictions have made in-person risk assessments difficult, but it has become common practice to ask a remote worker to complete a detailed questionnaire about their at-home setup. The questionnaire can be supplemented with photos, or even with a video call with the company’s Health and Safety rep, so the worker can carry out a walkthrough of their work space.
Any issues or hazards identified during the risk assessment should be promptly addressed. Just as the company would provide for in-office staff, the home worker may need equipment, such as a keyboard wrist rest or glasses to protect the workers eyes if they are using a screen for long periods.
Occupational health hazards should be considered, such as RSI, back pain, eye strain and stress. Your remote working policy should explicitly address the need for regular breaks, and invite workers to raise health concerns as soon as they become aware.
Risk assessments should be carried out on a regular basis, and employees should be encouraged to report any material changes to their at-home situation.
Is a remote or hybrid work arrangement worth it?
Historically, many firms were reluctant to offer remote work. Some found it hard to justify the costs involved in setting up tools and policies to support remote workers, along with the prospect of ongoing management and other support.
The pandemic changed all that, forcing many businesses to hurriedly jump into remote working at the deep end.
With COVID restrictions and furlough support winding down, employers are facing the choice of whether to continue supporting remote workers, or whether to offer a hybrid model.
Whatever degree of remote working offered to staff, now is the ideal time to review all the ad hoc arrangements put in place at the start of lockdown, and to review policies for all workers. The ideal synthesis of remote and in-office work will vary from firm to firm, and worker to worker.
By consulting with all staff, and updating and evolving your policies on a regular basis, you will give your business and workforce the best chance to thrive in the post-COVID “new normal”. Considering both the obvious and more subtle differences between remote and physically-present work will also help you to get the best out of both, and help prevent the emergence of a two-tier workplace.