Tuesday 1 June 2021 2:00 pm

Office politics: Hybrid working will make WFH look like a walk in the park

Rob Hornby is Chief Digital Officer and EMEA lead at AlixPartners

The pandemic has disrupted society on every level. For the world of business, the first national lockdown brought about seismic changes, as entire offices were sent home and IT systems were overhauled within the space of a week or two.

But incredibly, this rapid shift to home working was the easy part of the journey for business leaders. The real work begins now, as lockdown restrictions begin to ease and organisations face the dilemma of whether to return to the ways of old, or to advocate continued mass home working. 

Neither approach is correct, in and of itself. The answer lies instead in a bolder, more complex hybrid system that brings together both approaches.

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While several decades of office-based working have taught us that an in-person work environment can drive creativity, wellbeing, and collaboration, the past year has underlined the value that can be derived from a more flexible working culture that embraces the best of remote working and office-based working.

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen how digitally-enabled working can, despite the seemingly solitary nature of the term “remote”, enhance inclusivity within a workforce, with technology providing a flexibility that allows people to effectively juggle the often-conflicting demands of work and home lives. 

We’ve also seen geographical barriers take on less of a significance for businesses, with people seeing colleagues from different continents as much as they see colleagues from local offices. This technology-driven cultural shift carries real value, allowing businesses to truly embed people into projects, irrespective of their location, in a far more efficient way.

As always, there is a balance to be struck, with individuals’ needs differing across a workforce. Few of us relish a full day of back-to-back video calls from home, and many need both the dedicated work space and in-person contact that an office provides.

A hybrid system that balances the benefits of office- and home- based working, will ensure the right mix of productivity, creativity, inclusivity, and wellbeing that is fundamental for both employees and employers to thrive.

This system is, however, more complex than any business model that has been introduced before. In the past, employees have largely either worked en-masse or as whole teams in an office or at home. Rarely have entire workforces been part of such a hybrid system.

Those looking for a quick and tidy solution that can be driven by policies should brace for a steep learning curve and potential failure. There are a multitude of factors at play that will pull in opposite directions, with lockdown having created a wider spectrum of work preferences that did not exist before and that do not align.

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Rather than force through an immediate solution, employers should set out a starting point from which their business can learn and evolve through trial and error, while making it clear that the process of finding the right hybrid solution will take many months.

Office culture, while impossible to ‘measure’, must be preserved, and employers will need to examine and reform their relationship with their people during this process. The balance of power has shifted away from the corporate and onto the individual – both employees and customers – and they will determine the best path forward.

There will be teething problems as businesses enter this unknown territory, and it is important that businesses are bold and don’t give up at the first hurdle. Progress needs to be reviewed regularly and problems will need to be worked through to find the right solutions.

The businesses that embrace the challenges, as well as the opportunities, will reap the rewards from this new working model. They will also be those who become the employers of choice versus their peers.

Ultimately, employers must avoid falling into the trap of attempting to revert to former ways of working, understandable though it is as we all seek a return to normality. The pre-pandemic working model has been permanently broken and there is no way back, with people’s expectations of work having changed forever.

There is a risk that business leaders are so desperate to recover what they had prior to the pandemic that they let the opportunity to learn from the past year and evolve pass them by. The most successful will be those brave enough to forge a new path forwards that embraces the best of both the old and new.

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