The Covid-19 pandemic had a huge impact on societies right across the world. One of the areas that have seen most change is the world of work. Lockdowns showed that many organisations could operate successfully with a remote workforce. When countries began opening up again, employees were slow to return to the office full time, keen to retain an element of the flexibility and freedom that comes with working from home.
Hybrid working has become the norm for many. In fact, the majority of employers in the UK now support this way of working. But what is hybrid working exactly? This piece looks at what hybrid working is, what the benefits are, its impact on the workplace, how to adapt your performance management to a hybrid team, and what the future might look like.
What is hybrid working?
Hybrid working is a flexible work model which supports a blend of in workplace, remote and on-the-go working. It is designed to allow employees to work whenever and wherever they will be most productive for the activities they are working on.
Hybrid working has rapidly been adopted by a wide range of organisations, many of whom prior to the pandemic worked in a conventional way, with employees coming into their workplace most of the time. New data from the CIPD shows that more than three quarters of organisations have embraced hybrid working in either a formal or informal way. Well known organisations such as 3M, SAP and Spotify have all adopted hybrid working in one form or another.
Due to the nature of hybrid working, every organisation will have their own approach, depending on their specific circumstances and needs. For example, 3M, the company behind brands such as Post-it Notes and Scotchgard, has embraced a trust-based approach called “Work Your Way”, which allows employees to choose working in the office, working remotely or a mix of the two, depending on their role. Spotify supports employees who relocate by paying for co-working space if they move to a new location that is not close to one of their offices.
Is hybrid working new?
Advances in technology over the course of the twenty-first century have changed how and where it is possible to work. With the widespread availability of Wi-Fi and easy access to smart devices, there was already a trend towards more remote working. However, with only around 5% working mainly at home by January 2020, it was more of a trickle, rather than a tidal wave.
Pre-pandemic much of the drive around more flexible working practices centred around the rise of the ‘gig economy’. This term was first coined during the financial crisis of 2009 and was originally used to describe workers with more than one job. Since then, it has evolved to also include the hiring of independent workers for short periods of time. It is predicted by the end of 2022, 7.25 million people in the UK will be working in the gig economy, either in addition to another job or as their main profession.
People like the flexibility that this type of working offers them, enabling them to fit it around other commitments like family or study. Prior to 2020, many employers had been slow to offer this kind of flexibility. In fact, a survey conducted by the TUC in 2019 found that 30% of flexible working requests were being turned down by employers. The same survey found that more than half of respondents felt that flexibility was “unavailable” in their current role. While flexible working can cover a number of variations, like reduced hours or compressed hours as well as remote working, this does illustrate that many employers were reluctant to embrace a more agile approach before their hands were forced by Covid-19.
Difference between hybrid working and flexible working?
While hybrid and flexible working are linked there are differences between the two. Hybrid working tends to refer to an approach taken by the whole organisation, describing the overall attitude to how and where employees can work. While a hybrid approach of course offers flexibility at its core, flexible working tends to describe the specific practices relating to a particular employee and their needs. Employees tend to ask for specific amendments such as flexible start and finish times, compressed hours or working remotely.
All employees have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements with their employer, not just those with caring and parental responsibilities. Employers must deal with these requests in a “reasonable manner.” This means thoroughly assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the proposal, holding a meeting to discuss the proposal with the employee and offering an appeal process if the request is turned down.
Employers can learn from their experience around flexible working requests when it comes to adopting a hybrid approach. Following a similar pattern of assessing the current situation, considering what changes may improve it and discussing and agreeing those changes between managers and employees in departments or teams ensures everyone buys into the approach and has their say. Our Hybrid Charter Checklist is a useful guide to help managers agree on the ground rules for hybrid working, ensuring alignment between the needs of employees, the team and the organisation.
How widespread is hybrid working?
Hybrid working has been rapidly adopted right across the UK. A BBC survey of the 50 biggest employers in the UK, found that almost all of them had no plans to bring employees back into the office full time. 43 had already embraced a mix of office and home working and a further four were reviewing the idea of adopting hybrid.
It is not just the largest companies that have embraced hybrid working. SMEs have also released the benefits hybrid working offers them. Almost six in ten prefer a hybrid working style combining time in the office with remote working. Smaller organisations not only see the benefits it offers employees in building a better work/life balance, they can see the cost savings it offers them. Reducing the amount of time employees spend in the workplace, means lower energy costs at a time of rising prices and also the potential to downsize or use shared office space.
In a recent Chartered Institute of Managers (CMI) survey, 84% of managers said their organisation had adopted hybrid working and two thirds said this was prompted by the pandemic. Their Chief Executive, Ann Francke said “It would be very short-sighted of bosses not to see some correlation in the shift in the working world, and the move towards hybrid. We're saying the best practice is to have a blend, so when you come into the office you can do those things that are very difficult to do remotely.”
While many companies clearly see the benefits of hybrid working, this is not universal and there are some high profile detractors, who either want employees in the workplace or at home full time. Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, has ordered all employees to come back into the office for at least 40 hours per week. His justification for this move is that the company faces tough times ahead and he believes these will be overcome by employees working intensively together in one place.
On the other hand, the CEO of Yelp, the online business director, Jeremy Stoppelman has branded hybrid working as “the hell of half measures” and “the worst of both worlds.” Following surveys with their staff and recent increases in profit and revenue, Yelp has adopted a remote-first approach and will look for other ways to build collaboration beyond employees coming into the office for part of the week. He believes they work better working from home and the company results bear witness to this.
Key hybrid working benefits?
There are many benefits to hybrid working, especially to those businesses that don’t rely on face-to-face contact with customers and clients. These business benefits include:
- Potential costs savings with reduced energy, equipment and possibly office space.
- Wider talent pool to draw on - if employees don’t need to be in a specific location, employers can cast their net further afield to find the most suitable employees.
- Increased efficiency - no working time is lost on the journey into work, negating the impact of things like traffic jams or rail cancellations.
- Employee retention - more than half of employees who currently have access to hybrid say they would leave their job if it was taken away
- Increased productivity - research from Stanford University is just one of many studies that shows hybrid working can lead to more productivity employees, who were able to plan their time more efficiently and were motivated by this degree of autonomy.
There are also numerous benefits for employees which include:
- Improved work/life balance
- Less work-related excessive stress, burnout and fatigue
- Greater autonomy - more freedom to choose when and where they work
- More efficient use of time
- Employees feel they are more productive - a Cisco survey with employees found that 60% believe their productivity and quality of work had improved through hybrid working.
At Appraisd, many of our customers have also adopted a hybrid approach and found that it worked well for them. This is especially true of companies that rely heavily on technology to conduct their business. Maze Theory, a video game producer has found by embracing hybrid working they have been able to look further afield for talent and now have employees up and down the country. Duplo International, who specialise in high-end printing technology, had embraced hybrid before the pandemic. They already knew it was an approach that worked for them so have supported it further with new processes and technology to ensure employees remain focused and connected.
What are the potential drawbacks of hybrid working?
While having the freedom to work where and when they want is appealing to employees, without proper support and processes in place, it can lead some to feel lonely, isolated and disconnected from their employer and their colleagues. This is something that employers need to keep top of mind to address. Hybrid working is particularly challenging for young, junior and inexperienced employees to learn from their seniors ‘on-the-job’, particularly in training environments like professional services.
A recent survey conducted by Gallup among more than 8,000 remote capable employees found these other top challenges of hybrid working:
- Having the right tools (equipment and software) to be effective when away from the workplace
- Feeling less connected to the culture of the organisation
- Reduced collaboration with team and other employees in other departments
- More difficult to coordinate work schedules and projects
- Fewer opportunities to give and receive feedback
To overcome these challenges, it’s important that employers acknowledge that they exist and put together strategies to overcome them effectively. Trying to find ways to connect employees is crucial to making hybrid working a success. Employees must feel they belong, they are valued and what they are doing matters. Failing to do this can make it easier for people to become quiet quitters - to just to the absolute minimum required, never going the extra mile.
To support remote workers, many of our customers have introduced regular wellbeing check-ins between managers and employees. These encourage both parties to talk about how they are feeling, providing an opportunity to tackle any issues early and ensure employees get the support they need quickly before the situation escalates.
The Impact of work environment on employee performance
For many years now, there has been discussion around performance management and whether it is fit for purpose. The inadequacies of the annual appraisal have been highlighted numerous times - too much changes in a year, too much ground to cover, too much to remember are just some of the many drawbacks. However, the move towards more continuous approaches has been slow. A survey by XPertHR conducted last year found that 63% of respondents were still conducting an annual appraisal.
The pandemic starkly highlighted how unsuitable a yearly review is for the modern workplace. Overnight, almost everyone’s objectives changed and organisations had to pivot quickly to survive during lockdown. Even without the shock of a pandemic, change is continual, with the speed of technological advancements increasing all the time. Employees, especially those who aren’t in the workplace all the time, need objectives that are relevant and aligned with the overall goals of the organisations to help keep them on track and feeling like their input matters.
When it comes to performance in a hybrid environment, there is a sharp contrast between how effective employees believe they are and how effective their managers believe they are. A recent YouGov survey found that 60% of employees felt they were more productive working from home, while only 33% of business decision makers felt their team was more productive. What is behind this discrepancy?
While employees are enjoying the greater freedom and autonomy that hybrid working offers them, being physically separated by their employees makes some managers feel uncomfortable. For them seeing is believing – if they can’t see their employees how can they be sure they are getting the job done? Other managers feel uncertain how much they can now assert their authority and demand employees follow certain working patterns. The balance of power has shifted. While the old rules around work have been superseded, many organisations have failed to put new ones in place. Many managers also lack training in how to manage a remote team, feeling out of their depth and unsure of the best way to proceed.
How should performance management be adapted to support hybrid working?
Making hybrid working a success requires all working practices and policies to be adapted so they are fit for purpose. Reviewing performance management is an important part of this process. Senior leaders have a crucial part to play in this, leading from the front and clearly communicating the overall business strategy so everything else can align to it. They also need to empower HR teams to work with leaders and managers to collaboratively find a new approach that works for everyone.
For performance management to be effective in a hybrid environment, the following changes need to be made:
- Short-term objectives – with so much happening in the outside world and events seeming to shift week by week, setting more short-term objectives is a way to keep employees focused on relevant tasks and concentrating on the most important activities. It also offers them an opportunity to achieve their goals more rapidly, providing a greater sense of achievement and purpose.
- Continuous feedback – to let employees know what they are doing well and what could be improved, relevant and timely feedback is essential. Building this feedback into your performance management process ensures employees’ positive behaviours are reinforced while highlighting areas for possible training and development.
- Regular check-ins – building a strong, positive relationship between employers and employees is vital in hybrid working. The more open and transparent this relationship is, the more productive and motivated employees are likely to be. Regular check-ins to discuss progress against objectives, wellbeing or career development are an important building block to build this relationship on. Our check-in template helps managers to create one-to-one sessions that best support each of their employees.
- More frequent reviews – in a world with less face-to-face contact, it’s important to introduce regular opportunities to take a step back and assess the situation, exploring what is going well and what requires attention.
- Employee recognition – a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. Sometimes a simple “thank you” is enough to provide employees with a much-needed boost, especially if they are working away from the office. Incorporating regular recognition into your performance management process ensures employees know their efforts are being recognised and encourages them to keep giving their all.
Many of our customers have adapted their performance management process to adapt to hybrid working. From IT service specialists ILUX, who updated their process to give employees a better focus to creative agency Mullenlowe Group who used it to embed a culture of feedback, many organisations are taking the opportunity to reassess their practices and devise better ways to enhance performance.
Are you addressing your hybrid workers specificities in your check-ins?
Appraisd check-in template lists questions managers should ask their employees. Questions focused on objectives, wellbeing and hybrid working.
What support do hybrid employees need to be productive?
As we have explored in this article, hybrid working means different things in different organisations. There is no one size fits all and for it to work effectively it needs to fit the demands and culture of the business and the people who work in it.
The first step for finding the right support for employees is to ask them what they need. If hybrid is to be successful it needs to be collaborative, with managers and employees working together to find the approach that best works for them.
- Frequent or infrequent check-ins: Some employees will want check-ins every week, while others will feel comfortable going longer between meetings. Find a cadence that suits everyone. Also ask what they would like to discuss. Employees need to know they have an opportunity to ask for help if they need it and won’t be judged if they are struggling.
- Technology: Technology is vital in hybrid working as it helps to keep employees connected. Finding the right platforms that are intuitive to use and provide clear value is essential. However, no matter how good a tool is, it will only be effective if employees understand why and how they should use it. They need to see that it will support their working lives, helping them to do their jobs better.
Hybrid working is very new to many organisations, so it is unlikely they will hit on the correct formula at the first attempt. It’s important to evaluate how it is working and ask for feedback from all concerned. Listen to what employees have to say and encourage them to be open and honest. If there are issues, act quickly to find alternatives to prevent discontent and disillusionment from breeding.
Is hybrid working here to stay?
The short answer is yes. While hybrid working will most likely evolve as organisations become accustomed to new ways of working and find the right balance between collaborative time and remote time, most organisations are unlikely to back to fill time in the office. Even before the pandemic, only 6% of employees worked the traditional 9 to 5 office hours. Technology had made flexible working possible and Covid-19 acted as a catalyst to speed up its widespread adoption.
Going forward, it's really important for organisations to find the working arrangements that suit their business and employees. This needs to be done through open dialogue and honest conversations to ensure everyone is on the same page and understands and agrees to the new framework. Hybrid working has the potential to create a happier, healthier workforce, but only if it is tailored for each organisation.
If you are looking for practical insights into optimising performance in a hybrid world, watch our webinar with Amira Kohler, our Director of Performance and Change, Roly Walter, our CEO and Founder and Neil Wainwright-Farrar, Head of Learning and Development at Clarity Travel.