By Derek Irvine, SVP Strategy & Consulting, Workhuman
Whilst COVID-19 restrictions have mostly ended in tshe UK, with many people returning to their pre-pandemic lifestyles, there is still some uncertainty around what the future of work will look like. The most popular hypothesis is that this will be a ‘hybrid working model’ – with 85% of working UK adults saying this is the work model they want in the future. In order to succeed in this environment, employers should focus on creating a culture of belonging, so that employees continue to feel motivated and engaged – wherever they’re working.
Why hybrid working is on the horizon
The likelihood of a hybrid working future stems firstly from the fact that many UK employees have grown accustomed to working from home, and don’t yet want to give it up – Gartner reports that four out of ten employees are at risk of leaving an organisation if it insists they return to an in-person office environment. In addition, discussions around employees’ right to work from home are not new – disability advocates, for example, have long been campaigning for this, so it’s been a long time in the making. Moreover, recent research has shown that remote working does not have a negative impact on productivity, as some employers previously feared.
On the other hand, many argue that the advantages of an in-person experience, such as the comparative ease of forming close connections with colleagues, cannot be replicated with everyone working from home full-time. EY, for example, notes the many benefits of office working, such as maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Many UK companies are devising additional benefits to incentivise workers back to the office. Moreover, remote working itself is not always a viable option – those with smaller homes or children, for example, may struggle to find a private space to work uninterrupted.
Therefore, many organisations are considering a hybrid approach – a mixture of remote and in-person working – as the most realistic option. Indeed, business leaders are recognising that allowing employees the flexibility to choose where and when they work will ensure they feel respected and valued by their employer, which will in turn lead to higher levels of engagement and productivity.
Key considerations in the future of hybrid working
The main challenge in a hybrid workplace is ensuring everyone is treated fairly and equitably, so that no-one feels ignored or excluded and everyone continues to feel a sense of belonging. There’s the danger that remote workers may feel isolated or like “second-class citizens” when they are not in the office, and with 100% remote working no longer in effect, today’s hybrid work environment is complicated.
Considerations beyond a traditional workplace are therefore vital. For example, are there any times when an organisation should require full in-office attendance, such as for key meetings or collaboration projects? Should commutes be subsidised if they’re not necessary? Employers also need to be aware of the differences in employees’ attitudes towards hybrid working. For example, there may be generational differences. A recent study shows that 18-to-29-year-olds would most prefer a hybrid work set-up, whilst research by Maru Blue found that working parents are the most keen to return to the office.
Create a culture of belonging
There are several ways organisations can ensure that all their employees are treated equally in a hybrid work environment, and maintain a culture of belonging.
One way is to ensure everyday procedures are fully inclusive for all employees. For example, meetings should accommodate for both in-office and remote workers: encourage video alongside in-person meetings, and ensure everyone’s cameras are on and that remote workers can participate.
Another way employers can create a culture of belonging is by simply asking their employees what they can do to make them feel more included. When organisations actively listen to their employees, including their needs and preferences around hybrid working, they can act accordingly and create tailored solutions that will ensure successful inclusion and belonging to meet their organisation’s specific needs.
Mutual respect and understanding are key to employees’ sense of belonging. One way to achieve this is through a Social Recognition strategy that encourages employees to regularly talk with, thank, and celebrate one another. This works especially well on a digital platform that is non-hierarchical, allowing anyone to recognise anyone else within an organisation, regardless of physical location or level of seniority. Rewards can also be integrated into this platform, meaning all employees continue to feel valued – even in a hybrid environment.
It is also important for leaders to lead by example and set clear expectations. This is especially important in a hybrid working environment when confusion around expectations is more likely and can cause anxiety for many employees. Research shows that those who have a clear understanding of what is expected of them when working from home are 30% more likely to have been more productive since the switch to remote work, and 47% more likely to not be worried about losing their job. When leaders set the tone of what is expected for their organisation, employee wellbeing improves.
Finally, it may be beneficial to introduce formal learning, for example on the value of belonging and inclusion. The key is that this should be for everyone – including leaders. Again, if they set the example, the whole company will follow suit, and the success of any initiative is always greater the more people that participate – especially if organisations proactively collect feedback from these exercises, such as by using an employee pulse survey tool.
Champion employee experience
A positive employee experience leads to higher levels of employee engagement, productivity, and retention – even with all the challenges posed by a hybrid work environment. Creating a culture of belonging is one way employers can ensure success in this area as a focus on culture will naturally have a company-wide impact, and moreover puts employees at the centre of an organisation. It is, after all, the unique individuals at an organisation that ultimately influence its culture. People leaders can employ all of the methods above to ensure that the culture created is one of inclusion and belonging – with all employees treated equally and with respect, wherever they are working.