Wednesday 16 June 2021 6:00 am ICAS Talk

Hybrid working: Agile office, agile mind

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Anne Melville-James writes about issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and women in business for national papers and magazines. She also hosts the monthly everywoman podcast series.

Hybrid working – formalising the relationship between company and home office – is the latest ‘new normal’ for professionals. Here’s how we can make sure mental health remain a priority across these two worlds.

This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.

The ways that we work have changed rapidly since the beginning of the pandemic. Remote working was either introduced for the first time or increased dramatically as business premises closed down and employees were ushered into makeshift home offices. But while resources to support mental health and wellbeing for remote working have become commonplace, the introduction of hybrid working poses a new challenge.

As offices reopened, many with reduced hours or rotating shift patterns, we saw a new imperative to support professionals across the blended environment of home and office working. Merging two fundamentally different experiences into the latest “new normal” presents challenges to work culture, expectations and boundaries that will require communication and constant calibration between employers and employees in the months to come.

“The coronavirus pandemic has caused large and sudden changes to our lives, including the way we work. Businesses and employees needed to adapt quickly, and adjustments can present challenges to our mental health and wellbeing,” says Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. “When lockdown measures are fully lifted, we’ll again need to adjust to a new normal, and staff will be looking to their employers to provide. Organisations need to put staff wellbeing at the heart of this transition so that those coming back to the workplace are reassured that their safety and wellbeing are a priority, with updated policies and procedures to underpin that.”

Of course, there are also some positives. During lockdown, many of us missed the social interaction and collaboration of the physical space and will welcome working around others again — and the possibility of a better work-life balance revealed by home working has inspired new ways of thinking about productivity. But getting to the “future of work” requires purposeful engagement and an acknowledgement that transitions like this can be stressful – our psychology being hardwired to prefer certainty to change.

A successful hybrid workforce requires both a practical and a cultural shift. Organisations must adapt or redesign the systems and processes of office and home-based models – and employees must stay agile and take ownership of their experience. Reflecting on those measures put in place for remote working that had benefits in terms of morale or productivity can be a good place to start for both.

Culture shock

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the mental health of the workforce, as each member of staff is different,” notes Mamo. “It’s important to get regular feedback from staff to identify trends on what is and isn’t working and, where possible, to make changes.”

Inclusion becomes even more important for the hybrid worker too, as they bridge their two worlds. Combining face-to-face meetings with video conferencing requires both suitable remote tech and somewhere to operate in the office that allows the worker to feel part of the company. Hot desking, allowing employees to take one seat for the day, can solve empty desk problems, while tools such as interactive maps allow “hybrids” to find resources and people easily in the office and create a feeling of continuity.

But in this new phase, we’re really talking more about how we’re working than where. For Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology at the University of Derby, research into new ways of working points to real potential for hybrid work to improve the UK’s workforce’s wellbeing and productivity.

“Autonomy and engagement are really important in the psychology of workers. Engagement means you are positive and passionate about your work and, unsurprisingly, people who are well engaged produce more wealth and have better mental health,” says Kotera. “Many people have enjoyed working remotely recently because they have autonomy and can control their work environment. It’s human nature that when you have control, you are more engaged and want to take responsibility for your choices.”

Kotera notes that changes can initially cause us to experience stress, though, due to the insecurity that comes with a lack of routine. But finding a new one in the ashes of a rigid nine-to-five or months of home working may actually elevate hybrid working from crisis adaptation to critical advantage. Breaking work into component tasks that suit the natural flow of both environments – such as scheduling meetings and collaborative discussions for your office days, and reserving work that requires a lack of distraction for home-working – can maximise productivity and reduce stress.

Border guards

Boundaries are crucial to maintaining wellbeing in hybrid working and may require negotiation. Much was made of work seeping into all corners of life during lockdown, with many working longer hours without any natural modulation externally – but also from concern at the perception that working from home meant an easy life.

At its core, the relationship between employer and employee will be crucial to reducing stress, and supporting wellbeing in the workforce as it moves into a blended working solution, in particular acknowledging the need for trust and clear expectations for the hybrid worker. Equating presenteeism with performance will have to give way to new understandings of productivity and output, such as focusing on achieved results.

A Harvard Business School study found the attitudes of managers to be a big influence on the wellbeing of their team members. As Kotera notes: “Workers may experience stress in the first couple of months with the shift in their workplace and trying to plan their week accordingly. They might make mistakes, but that is a necessary step. New ways of working can really increase engagement and positive feelings overall, but companies need to be careful about people’s stress and also supporting them through any anxiety or uncertainty around how to adjust to a new working life.”