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Businesses continue to navigate what will be their new normal for working arrangements post-pandemic. However, how does this work in practice in a fair, objective way?

What about those who need to be physically present in the office – how do employers create a policy that is equitable across the business?

A new way of working

In the wake of the pandemic, employees are adjusting to what the ‘new normal’ looks like for them. Whether that is how they continue to balance work and home life, returning to work with long covid or avoiding burnout, hybrid working can enable employers to accommodate the financial, physical and mental wellbeing of their staff. While greater flexibility around when and where employees work has been a natural evolution following the pandemic, some clients have noted how this requires a change of mentality up to director level and what can work for the organisation.

The heavy workload is still there for many professionals, but hybrid working has been one way of easing the pressure, particularly for those in professional services. To alleviate burnout, some firms such as PwC have extended their summer hours policy. They have told employees that they can finish work early on Fridays. 75 per cent of staff reported that shorter hours improved their general sense of wellbeing.

This approach is in stark contrast to a London law firm who recently hit the headlines for their leaked internal memo about pay cuts being given to staff who choose to continue working from home, raising questions about fairness and how to uphold a working policy that meets the needs of all employees. Stephenson Harwood’s new agile working policy mandates that full-time workers must be in the office 60 per cent of the time unless they salary sacrifice to reflect the benefit of working from home.

A four-day week trial

On 6 June, around 70 companies began a trial of a four-day week – the biggest pilot of its kind. The group 4 Day Week Global is campaigning for shorter working weeks without a loss of earnings. Their trial will be monitored by Oxford and Cambridge university academics, alongside the think tank Autonomy and Boston College in the US. This analysis of behaviours and productivity levels will monitor the impact of companies who have pledged to pay workers 100 per cent for 80 per cent of the time.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.”

Joe O’Connor, Chief Executive of 4 Day Week Global

Spain and Scotland will follow suit with similar trials later this year. A four-day week is seen as a natural next step for many companies who have opted-in to this trial, which has been instigated into something more official by the pandemic which facilitated greater levels of working from home. While others are not ready for four day weeks, others are more open to flexible arrangements such as compressed hours, varying start and finish times, and a greater appreciation that presenteeism does not automatically equate to productivity.

Driving employee engagement

With signs that the ‘Great Resignation’ is not over and many employees are rebelling over the idea of an office return, hybrid working is a key benefit for employees. According to a survey by the Office for National Statistics, eight in ten workers who had to work from home during the pandemic planned to work in a hybrid way. This is in keeping with our UK Reward Management Survey which highlighted the average return to the office will be two to three days a week.

By focusing on what employees value when designing benefits, this can drive greater employee engagement over the long-term. Employee ownership trusts are also on the rise since the start of the pandemic, with reports of a 200 per cent increase in the number of businesses transferring ownership to employees since 2020. This signals the key role played by employees in creating value in the business which is being recognised by giving them a stake in the company – ensuring they are invested in its long-term success.

Hybrid working similarly outwardly recognises the investment and trust placed by employers in employees. PwC’s hybrid working policy ‘The Deal’ allows workers to decide their own most effective working patterns, called “the empowered day”. They can start or finish earlier and spend an average of 40 to 60 per cent of their time working with colleagues in the office to collaborate. Similarly, competitors for talent EY, KPMG and Deloitte have followed suit in enabling employees to decide how and where they work.

Policies in practice

Our customers are sharing their experiences of how to manage their workforce planning post-pandemic. These include a Housing Association employer, who put in place a hybrid working trial of two days per week in the office, which went well. They are also looking at offering different options for working with different Terms and Conditions, so the employee can then choose the option that suits them. Necessarily, this is subject to job requirement, for example trade roles need to be onsite to do their job.

Another Housing Association employer is considering trialling a four-day working week and other arrangements, such as flexible public holidays. This means employees are not required to take the ‘official’ Bank Holidays and have these in lieu, in addition to trialling ‘Take what you want’ leave that Netflix offered its employees as a key benefit.

Therefore, returning to the idea of a pay cut for those who choose to work from home, the idea behind this needs to be interrogated more thoroughly. The expectations and standards will surely be the same – presenteeism has surely been overcome by the pandemic showing that working from home does not impact productivity. By empowering employees instead, performance and productivity can flourish by supporting employees with more flexible arrangements that allow them to balance work and home life.

From a fairness point of view, a 20 per cent pay cut might also be expected as a cost saving from clients themselves, expecting this saving to be passed on. It also raises the challenge of equal pay – what if it is predominantly women taking the expected pay cut to fulfil childcare responsibilities, yet they are doing the same work? Similarly, this creates potential issues of discrimination in the same scenario.

Behaviours and culture

Hybrid working necessitates digital and cultural transformation. For many of our customers, this was underway before the pandemic, which accelerated the programme and meant that employees are more equipped to work successfully in this way.

One of the main challenges to implementing new ways of working is around maintaining a culture that drives connections between employees. Line Managers are key to avoiding silo working, through regular one-to-ones and team meetings designed to align employees to the wider organisation’s vision. This is imperative when teams may be predominantly working digitally. For managers it is more important to join the dots, provide clarity and direction when there is ambiguity and competing priorities, with a focus on bringing teams together and employee wellbeing rather than solely being an ‘expert’.

Balancing the office environment and home working can be tailored to what individuals need to maintain social connection. Strong internal communications strategies are key to create a culture of belonging and sense of community. While some employees struggled with mental health issues arising from isolation during the pandemic, now there is greater opportunity to collaborate in office space and promote social interactions. One customer has reported how they increased their communication through fortnightly all-staff webinars and quarterly strategic updates from the Leadership team, while also giving employees a behaviour framework to define their culture and advise on ‘what good looks like’ in their definition of hybrid working. They have given ownership to teams to define when to use the office.

Promote agility

What is clear is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. The Leeds University Business School produced a report warning that when designing policies, employers will not be able to achieve a perfect arrangement that suits everyone. They also defined five different types of hybrid working, based on the control given to employees.

To maximise their likelihood of success, individual employee preferences should be accommodated. Researchers found that three-quarters prefer to work in the office at least once a week and 30 per cent would like access to a working space, such as a co-working office. They define the key to success as good management, with ‘clear and demonstrable objectives and outputs, active communication and feedback whether remote or in-person working’.

The report ‘Where is your office today?’ recommends the following for effective hybrid working:

  • Be clear on the purpose, value and reasons for office working
  • Define what a good outcome would be
  • Map the system and what needs to change to support hybrid working
  • Articulate the constraints and minimum expectations
  • Don’t rush to create rules and allow localised rules to develop
  • Engage with staff, as they can often help spot practical issues
  • Be prepared to lose people
  • Ensure that the office is still an “experience” and whether a minimum number of staff is needed to achieve this
  • Train people in team working, communication and hybrid working management styles
  • Be honest about the trade-offs for individuals and groups.

Get in touch

When designing how your organisation can best embed your approach to new ways of working or how hybrid working might apply to your business, we can guide you on how to navigate the best arrangements for you. Driving connection in an ultra-connected world is harder than it sounds, so the focus on employee experience in achieving the right definition of hybrid working for you is critical to for long-term success. Call us today to discuss how we can help you overcome any obstacles to implementation and chat through the options available to you.

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