Flexible working: the good, the bad and the ugly 

by Shoosmiths LLP

Published: November, 2021

As we begin to move beyond the pandemic, flexible work looks set to remain the norm. We consider how employers can successfully navigate long-term hybrid working models and ensure that they minimise any associated disadvantages.


We recently commented in a previous post on the detrimental effect that a ‘day one’ right to flexible work could have - in particular, highlighting the potential impact on junior employees. Despite these concerns, a recent study called ‘The Evolution of the Workplace’ has since reported that 71% of UK workers surveyed believe that flexible working is now a permanent feature of the labour market. Notably, the report states that “business leaders that attempt to snap back into pre-pandemic working patterns will be swimming against the current” as flexibility will be essential to attract and retain talent. This long-lasting change will be welcomed by many, but employers should be careful to implement new practices in a considered way to get the best out of their workforce.


Hybrid working

Since the beginning of the pandemic, discussions surrounding flexible work have focused on ‘working from home’ and ‘hybrid working’. A hybrid working model involves employees splitting their time between the traditional office setting and another location, which in most cases is the employee’s home. The study results have demonstrated that this blended approach has both advantages and disadvantages for organisations.


The ‘good’ – the benefits of hybrid working

In the report, employees stated that the benefits of hybrid working include:


  • Work-life balance - Survey respondents expressed that having an improved work-life balance is one of the key advantages of hybrid working. This is unsurprising given that a separate survey found that individuals who continue to work remotely for 2 days each week could save, on average, 102 hours per year that would otherwise be spent commuting. Gaining these additional hours allows more time for hobbies and commitments that exist outside of our working lives.
  • Greater autonomy - Hybrid working also gives employees greater autonomy over their day as they are no longer bound by conventional office hours. This gives individuals the freedom to exercise flexibility and work at the time of day when they feel able to deliver optimum levels of efficiency.
  • Increased productivity - Happier employees with greater autonomy are generally far more productive. The results also found that 64% of UK respondents said they got more work done whilst working from home and 60% were concerned about background noise in the office hindering their concentration levels, having become used to their surroundings at home. The pandemic has demonstrated that home working no longer needs to be treated with suspicion and that the number of hours spent physically in the office is not a suitable measurement of performance.

The ‘bad and the ugly’ – the disadvantages of hybrid working

Whilst there are clear advantages, there are also several drawbacks to hybrid working. In particular, respondents made reference to the following:


  • Inability to switch off - 60% of UK respondents stated that they felt unable to relax or switch off from work. The hours saved avoiding the daily commute are not always used to enjoy a greater work-life balance and, instead, many find that they simply work longer hours. Increased use of technology has also resulted in employees becoming contactable at all times of the day. Due to this, it is much harder to gain separation between work and homelife which has the potential to cause burnout amongst staff.
  • Career development - 43% of respondents raised concerns about career progression, with this percentage rising to 52% for those between the ages of 16 to 24 years old. Specifically, it was reported that they felt less confident in their communication abilities. They may also face difficulties such as building their personal brand. We look at this issue in more detail in ‘‘Generation Work from Home’ – the impact of default flexible working’.
  • Difficulty collaborating - The report also states that 48% of UK respondents find hybrid working detrimental to communication. This has the potential to stifle innovation and lessen engagement within the workplace. Reduced visibility of staff and a decrease in networking may also diminish collaboration between different teams.
  • Lack of social engagement - Increased working from home can be isolating and may cause employees to feel disconnected from their employer’s culture. Many employees have expressed that they miss the camaraderie of the office environment and, if staff do not have the opportunity to build a rapport with one another, this could lead to fragmentation within teams. Any relationships that do form between colleagues over video calls or email might be too formal compared to interactions in person.

What can employers do to manage the drawbacks of hybrid working?

Employers should be cautious not to let the ‘bad and the ugly’ by-products of hybrid working outweigh the value that it can bring. As the focus shifts from preserving business continuity to creating successful and long-term hybrid working models, employers should:


  • implement a clear hybrid working policy which manages employees’ expectations and sets procedures for any potential concerns i.e. surrounding performance and the equal treatment of staff;
  • make sure that resources, meetings and team briefs are accessible to all - irrespective of an employee’s working location – in order to ensure inclusivity;
  • reimagine the office environment so that it caters for the varying requirements of individual workers – some spaces could be made appropriate for socialising and collaboration, whilst other areas could be designated ‘quiet zones’ to allow for concentration;
  • promote healthy working habits and attempt to foster a culture that actively encourages a work-life balance, as opposed to an “always on” culture;
  • offer training to help staff and supervisors develop their communication skills and adapt to hybrid working practices; and
  • ensure that employees are provided with the appropriate technology and IT support so that they can carry out their roles from any location.

The introduction of permanent hybrid working models is inevitable for many organisations and this will undoubtedly come with its challenges. However, employers who fail to adapt will likely face much greater difficulties than those who take a proactive approach and embrace the opportunity to move beyond the traditional parameters of office working.


 



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