AGN Global Business Voice: Practice Management
Explore the practical do’s and don’ts of introducing your own hybrid or flexible working policies and ‘Flex Culture’.
It’s sometimes said about homeworking that the ‘Jeannie is out of the bottle’ – and increasingly, it appears it’s unlikely to go back in. It seems that ‘Presenteeism’ is a thing of the past, and where there’s the vaguest possibility that a job needn’t be done from an office location, it probably won’t be – at least not all the time.
Of more than 500 C-level executives in the U.S. and the U.K. surveyed by LinkedIn, 81% said they are changing their workplace policies to offer greater ‘flexibility’. The majority of recruitment posts for professional office roles now feature ‘flexible working’ as a critical staff employment benefit.
A basic definition of hybrid working is that it’s a way of organizing your workforce by balancing time spent in central offices with remote working, whether at home, in satellite offices or in “third space” coworking locations. It constitutes a massive socio-environmental change from the working practice of the last 70 years. It has consequences for innovation, collaboration, knowledge transfer, training, organisational culture, personal well-being, and working conditions.
There is some evidence that enforced home working (not hybrid) generated an initial spike in productivity, but then employees began to struggle with the lack of social interaction. But it’s been known for some time that a more flexible approach combining office and home working can result in increased productivity and a happier, more satisfied workforce.
An early 2015 study by Connect Solutions (US) found that 77% of those who work remotely at least a few times per month shows increased productivity, with 30% doing more work in less time and 24% doing more work in the same period of time. And a more recent study by Stanford University (US) of 16,000 workers over 9 months found that working from home increased productivity by some 13%.
And so, flexible or hybrid working seems to be here to stay, and many firms are abandoning their attempts to revert to 100% office working as they are swimming against the tide of a significant social change.
The recruitment market is tight, and more and more firms are tempting candidates with their own version of something that’s now become known as a ‘Flex Culture’. Particularly within professional and financial services, flexible or hybrid working is now almost a ‘standard’ requisite for attracting and retaining employees.
STEP 1: Set up a new formal hybrid working policy and procedure.
Consider existing flexible working arrangements, impact on IT policy, expenses and data protection. Define roles and responsibilities.
STEP 2: Take account of the legal implications of hybrid working.
Think about the T&Cs of employment. You’re responsible for the health and safety of people working from remote environments as well as those working in an office.
STEP 3: Focus on manager training and development.
Up-skill your managers in; communications, remote performance management, team building, employee engagement, management by outputs, and detecting signs of poor well-being or mental health issues.
STEP 4: Move to output-based performance and reward management.
Place a greater emphasis on productivity, management by outcomes, and deliverables. Do you have the appraisal and reward systems to cope with this change?
STEP 5: Invest in internal communications.
Communications are now hugely important to maintaining a sense of ‘one-firm’. Use the latest communications technologies and budget for more firmwide social events.
STEP 6: Provide the latest collaboration software and equipment.
Are the collaboration software platforms you provide ubiquitous and homogenous with all clients and stakeholders? Think about security and staff training.
STEP 7: Don’t leave anyone behind – ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a risk.
Who are the staff on the fringes of the policy? How do you ensure that your policy doesn’t prejudice those not present?
STEP 8: Leverage the benefits.
A hybrid policy has great talent appeal – so ensure that it’s maximised in your recruitment offer. Review your office space requirements with a view to reducing your footprint and associated costs.
For decades organisational cultures have tended to evolve from an amalgam of the values and behaviours of the owners and managers, firmwide tacit knowledge (‘how things are done around here’), internal and external messaging, policies and standards, the tone of voice of communications, corporate rituals and ceremonies and the particular mix of benefits and rewards offered to employees.
Until very recently, all of these factors were aimed at engaging and influencing the behaviours of a ‘workplace community’ usually sitting within the boundaries of an office, factory or location. Staff have become familiar with the signposting of these cultural factors and generally respond accordingly.
Many business pundits have talked about the erosion of corporate culture due to flexible working – but a review of the published material and research available suggests that it’s a more complex issue than this would indicate.
A firm’s culture can’t simply vanish. It might change, it might evolve, it might even become negative, but firmwide beliefs and norms are still being created; they’re just not being contained by the old ‘in-office’ protocols.
Culture development is subject to a range of new factors associated with technology and flexible working policies (Flex Culture), along with the non-work factors that employees experience at home.
The move to hybrid working is actually a positive opportunity to reshape a firm’s culture, start afresh, and reset. A firm might approach this very much like they would a re-branding or strategy exercise where they consider their ‘purpose, vision, mission and values’.
A firm’s particular Flex Culture should be closely linked to the firm’s values set, so the challenge is to consider what particular mix of conventional and hybrid working policies represent the firm’s values, ideals and style.
All firms will be different. For example, a firm that wants to reinforce an agile, innovative culture might have regular online events that prompt creative engagement, such as improv activities, and showcase collaboration tools that enable online brainstorming and sketching.
A firm whose culture has a paternal caring emphasis might consider a structured approach to offline and online mentoring, an open-door professional staff counselling service, routine ‘check-ins’ with homeworkers and a lively face-to-face social program.
The mix should be led by a firm’s particular vision and values – what they want their business to represent internally and externally. But there are common pitfalls, do’s and don’ts, that should be taken into account when devising a hybrid flex culture.
In 2020 Future Forum’s (futureforum.com) ‘Remote Working Employee Experience Index’ – a survey of 9000 knowledge workers (inc professional services) across six major countries found that most workers are happier working remotely than in the office. Only 11.6% say they want to return to full-time office work, while 72.2% want a hybrid remote-office model.
It would seem that most employers have also accepted and are adapting to the reality of flexible hybrid working. Home working may have started as a necessity to ensure some form of business continuity through the pandemic, but since then, we’ve seen a shift from a binary choice of home or office working to a system that offers advantages for both employers and employees.
The challenge as we move forward is to take a more considered and strategic approach to the new model, finesse the policy, and harness the new elements of the employee offer into a new firmwide operational culture.
APPENDIX A: The Do’s and Don’ts of Hybrid Working Policy
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