Friday 19 March 2021 1:00 pm

Hybrid work: flexibility must be at the core of the future of work but not at the expense of culture

Jayne Alexander is founder and managing director of Dovetail Agency

Earlier this week, Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey predicted a “hybrid” model would come to shape the way we work, with employees splitting their time between the home and office. He doesn’t expect working practice to return to pre-Covid. 

Over the last few years, advances in technology had already made remote working a possibility, something employers and employees pondered on in theory. But it took the onslaught of the pandemic to put it into practice. Without any planning, it created a seismic shift, almost overnight. 

As the owner of an SME, that test has been both challenging and revealing. The hybrid working will be a lot more complicated than just heading into the office twice a week.

Any successful business has to focus on certain key platforms within their organisation, the obvious ones being strategy, infrastructure and revenue. But just as important is behaviour, relating to the company’s leadership style and culture. 

What a lot of businesses have been asked to do over the last year is preserve their culture and maintain energy levels while working remotely – and that’s not easy.

While virtual meetings have been invaluable, they’ve also encouraged adhesion to tight agendas. Halleujah, you might think. But with lack of time and space, there’s less room for spontaneity and off-the-cuff creativity. 

For many businesses which are part of the “ideas economy”, this is a big consideration. 

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: there is huge value in that real-life, real-time spark, whether brainstorming or just chatting informally. We share much more when we’re physically with people for an entire day than perhaps we realise, from formulating ideas to establishing closer colleague relationships, especially pertinent for new members of a team. 

Over the last year, employees’ wellbeing has come under the spotlight and been championed. Rightly so. But sometimes, it can seem like remote working has automatically been heralded as the one-size-fits-all panacea, exerting pressure on employers who want to do the right thing by their staff and their business to accept blanket adoption of last year’s new normal.

Working with others in an office can also enhance good mental health – a supportive community environment can improve motivation and offer a sense of belonging. While working from home may give people control in how they divide their day, many people also say working in isolation leaves the door open for lethargy and disconnection to creep in. 

Many struggling with mental illness can struggle with pushing through an instinct towards isolation. Having somewhere to physically show up to, responsibilities to take charge of, is an important element in nurturing employees’ wellbeing, alongside extra support. 

The real lesson businesses can learn from the pandemic is embracing flexibility. 

For me, this means my team will work together three set days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and for all of us to work from home Monday and Friday. Having the same schedule is key to keeping a cohesive culture. It gives us a good chunk of time together when we have more client meetings and evening events, bookended by Monday and Friday. 

Some businesses are really taking on board the lessons learnt from working from home. 

Mark Allvey, co-founder and CEO of Untold Story Travel, for example, is bringing his team back, but incorporating private working spaces into his office, flexible hours and a more relaxed dress code. 

To pursue a hybrid model, businesses must think long and hard about how they adapt. Simply asking staff to return to their old working lives for half the week and working remotely for the other, will create a disjointed attitude to the office. 

A certain amount of office interaction is vital to engender excitement for growth, especially for small and medium sized businesses. Now, more than ever, we all need to help restore buoyancy to the economy and I don’t believe we can build an economy solely from the kitchen table.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.