March 14, 2024

The Complexities of Planning & Implementing Hybrid Work

A photograph of a desk with a computer lamp and chair.

What do we mean by “Hybrid work”?

Hybrid work is very much en-vogue. But what does it really mean? And how can organisations implement it in a way that benefits all?

We can define the core of hybrid work as operating in a variety of locations and across flexible time frames. The shift towards more flexible working arrangements has been in place for several years but it accelerated rapidly with the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and has now become the ambitious ideal many businesses and individuals strive towards. However, it also risks becoming the mask behind which the disengaged and disenfranchised can hide.

Achieving the right balance is hard. As part of the Business Insights and Conditions Survey conducted in the 2nd quarter of 2021, the Office for National Statistics found that 36% of employees expected to spend most or all their time working at home. However, almost four in ten businesses expected 75% or more of their workforce to return to their regular workplace in the future. Either employers or employees will have to shift their expectations, or a significant rift will emerge between the organisations prepared to prioritise employee demands and those who prefer to set the rules according to their business needs. This will open a critical debate as to what is the greater determinant of success, a happy and empowered workforce or structural and procedural efficiency. As always, the answer is not straightforward.

One size does not fit all

There are two major challenges. The first is that employers and employees do not see the same benefits and drawbacks from working at home or in the office. The second is that not all employees or employers want the same thing, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution: Some people thrive on the social contact of the workplace while others value the freedom of remote working. Similarly, some employers see huge benefits from reduced real-estate costs while others fear they may incur greater administrative costs from trying to keep track and organise decentralised work schedules.

There are considerable benefits to be had from offering more remote working options. These may include less time spent commuting resulting in financial savings and more time that can be allocated to other activities. This may lead to higher employee satisfaction, motivation, and wellbeing. Hiring and retention may be improved if employees perceive working from home as a benefit. But there are also costs: There are challenges around administration; security may be compromised, planning and decision-making processes are less effective. Communication patterns are significantly affected and performance measurement becomes harder. The biggest challenges, however, are probably the least visible, namely the psychological and behavioural implications of a dispersed workforce: networks shrink, silos form, groupthink becomes endemic, innovation is stifled, and individuals can become excluded. These changes can undermine the performance of an organisation and create lasting damage if they are not mitigated.

Organisations must therefore weigh the pros and cons of each approach and seek a balance between centralised and remote work and between controlled and flexible time schedules.

Building a better working model

To optimise the shift to a hybrid working model, we need to understand the key variables. The two main factors we consider are location and time. The main metric we must consider in measuring these is the degree of flexibility given to employees in deciding where and when they work.

The location variable contains two considerations: the number of days worked remotely versus at the workplace, and the choice of which days of the week are worked at either location.

The time variable can include the number of hours worked and the times at which they are worked. Total hours worked is mostly relevant to zero-hour contracts, but for the purpose of this article we are concerned with fixed-hour contracts, so we will concentrate on when hours are worked. Organisations can create flexibility in two ways, by dispensing with the traditional fixed working day, allowing variation in the number of hours worked each day, or by creating flexibility around the time of day at which hours are worked.

Increased flexibility can empower and motivate employees through a greater sense of autonomy, but it can also have the opposite effect when the line becomes blurred between freedom to vary the time that hours are worked or the location in which they are worked and flexibility as to how much work gets done. It also brings a risk of disorganisation that can turn to chaos and can create silos of people working in different locations with the risk of stigma being attached to people adopting certain work routines.

Greater fixity means that organisations can administer and plan more effectively. For employees, fixity can help those struggling with self-discipline to structure their lives and establish healthy work patterns. Being able to bring people together in the same location at the same time is better for collaborative innovation and aids decision making. It also creates a greater sense of collective identity and belonging. With fixed schedules, even ones which incorporate some remote work, there are no differences in individual practices. This reduces the risk of adverse group dynamics emanating from the emergence of silos. However, in the current environment, there is a reputational risk associated with ignoring employee demands for greater choice and it presupposes that one size fits all. What is intended to be structured can become rigid.

Businesses must decide whether to provide flexible, semi-flexible, or fixed arrangements for both working location and time schedules. It will be challenging for organisations to strike a balance to create a regulated but adaptable environment without becoming either restrictive or disorganised.

With regards to time, a fixed arrangement would mean that the employer structures the work week and decides which hours need to be worked. The opposite is a fully flexible arrangement, whereby the employee decides when they work and is responsible for working as many hours as needed to satisfy the demands of the job.

In a semi-flexible arrangement, businesses may set core working hours to ensure a viable quorum of people is available when needed. They can also reduce the risk of chaotic fragmentation by asking that hours are worked in blocks of a certain length; the traditional 40-hour work week no longer needs to be 5 x 8-hour days but instead may become 10 x 4-hour blocks, or just any schedule of 40 hours worked within a given week. By providing a booking scheme the organisation could create significant flexibility for employees while retaining some structure and control over coverage levels and resource allocation.

To manage the location allocation, employers must consider how much flexibility they allow over the number of days worked remotely versus in the office and over which days people choose to spend in either location, so that not everyone chooses to come into the office Tuesday to Thursday which may mean the office is at capacity but empty Mondays and Fridays.

Considering the fixed-flexible continuum across the two variables of the number of days worked remotely and the choice of which days are worked remotely, we can map four types of hybrid work pattern, which can be seen in the figure below.

A sensible middle ground is a collaborative, semi-flexible arrangement in which employers set some rules and boundaries within which the employees are flexible, for instance by requesting notice as to when employees work or by introducing collective organisational tools and processes. However, a stable middle-ground semi-flexible approach is not always practical or even desirable. If a business faces a critical deadline or must respond to a crisis, a temporary shift to a more fixed approach may be necessary. On the other hand, if morale is low, a little more flexibility may help lift the mood. As organisations move around the framework, as they should, they need to be aware not just of the benefits of an adaptable system, but also the potential pitfalls and behavioural implications of too much fixity or flexibility.

Hybrid work model showing various outcome scenarios depending on flexibility/fixity of choice and number of days worked in the office/at home.
Figure 1: Hybrid Work Model

Implementing the desired arrangement brings its own challenges. It is vital to know whether a decision systematically disadvantages a certain demographic in a way that had not been considered. To mitigate these risks, communication within the organisation both vertically and horizontally is key.

When decisions are made, the impact on a wide set of stakeholders must be taken into account. Employee satisfaction and motivation are critical but so are the needs of customers and investors not to mention the societal and environmental factors. The way we work now has wide reaching consequences across every aspect of our lives.

There is a balance to be achieved between enforcement and encouraging people to adopt a new working model. The psychological impact of uncertainty and change should not be underestimated. Paradoxically, the more flexible the desired end product, the more guidance is likely needed during implementation.

The issue of planning and implementing hybrid work arrangements is a complex one that does not have a single solution. Rather, the circumstances of individuals and businesses alike need to be taken into consideration to make a decision that is not only acceptable, but sustainably optimises organisational performance.

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