Without training the hybrid honeymoon could end in tears

Hundreds of thousands of white collar workers are switching to new hybrid work patterns. But organisations who don’t prepare their employees and managers to get the best from this shift could be storing up problems in the medium term as parts of the workforce feel increasingly detached, stressed and prone to overwork. Retrospective training for people already working hybrid patterns and a belt-and-braces approach to communication will help businesses reap the benefits of the new workstyle.

The pandemic lockdowns provided a kind of forced trial of remote working for thousands of businesses, many of which had always thought that most of their white-collar jobs could not be carried out from home or that employees would too easily succumb to the temptations of Netflix without constant supervision. COVID proved them wrong. And many people found they actually liked working from home. Lockdowns showed a chunk of the white-collar workforce how easily it could do without the daily commute and the overpriced café-chain coffee.

The result has been a rapid shift to hybrid working – with employees spending part of the week on company premises and part at home – in many organisations as pandemic restrictions eased. This looks like a win-win option; the businesses see a potential saving in premises costs if occupancy levels drop significantly and it suits the workers. This February four-fifths of people working hybrid patterns told the Office for National Statistics their work-life balance had improved as a result and two-fifths said they intended to spend most of their working hours there in future. Three months before, a survey by YouGov for Microsoft found that 51% of people working hybrid patterns said they would quit their jobs if they had to go back to the office full time.

But working from home full time for weeks or months during a global emergency is not the same as an open-ended switch to a new working pattern where seeing colleagues every day is a thing of the past. Most employees stepped up to make home working a success with something like the “spirit of the Blitz”, putting up with the inconveniences because they recognised it was a case of force majeure and that the situation was time-limited. Whatever the immediate advantages of hybrid working, there are likely to be downsides.

Many people tasked with keeping employees healthy and safe immediately leap to accident hazards when they are asked to review home working risks. But the reality is that the most common risks most hybrid workers face in their new two-centre mode will be the same ones that have always accounted for the majority of office workers’ sickness absence: musculoskeletal problems and stress. Many companies are alive to their duty to ensure workers have ergonomic workstations at home that don’t leave them with back or neck problems, but fewer are dealing with the psychosocial aspects of the shift and that might come back to bite them when the hybrid honeymoon period ends.

Research by software providers EcoOnline found that 53% of companies moving their employees to hybrid patterns were providing any training for them or their managers. That leaves almost half the companies embarking on a new employment relationship without working through the issues with employees.

Managers may fear that employees will be under-productive at home – that Netflix myth again – but the experience of companies running longstanding home working programmes is the polar opposite: people overwork, taking too few breaks and continuing long after office hours, especially if they don’t have family commitments in the evenings.

Part of the training for hybrid workers, even if it has to be arranged months into the new working pattern, will have to involve what reasonable working hours look like and how to ensure they can separate themselves from work equipment at the end of the day – even just shutting a laptop in a cupboard if they don’t have a separate work room – so it doesn’t overflow too much into the domestic sphere.

Isolation is another risk. Not so much loneliness from lack of contact with other people but a sense of detachment from the organisation, that they are missing information through not being so often at the corporate centre, even if they know their colleagues are in the same position. Recognising this risk allows organisations and teams to see that too much information is better than not enough and to build in redundancy in messaging via email and intranet forums as well as services such as Yammer and WhatsApp. Scheduling regular video meetings via Teams and gathering in person, where time in the office coincides or when there is particularly critical information to pass on is also important. A belt-and-braces approach to telling people what’s going on and checking on their wellbeing is best, especially in the early days.

This all requires effort and expense, but so does the alternative. According to research for the employment agency Manpower, the first year of the pandemic coincided with the point when the Millennial and Gen Z generations, those born after 1982, made up a majority of the global workforce for the first time. That majority will inevitably grow as the baby boomers and Gen X workers retire. Study after study has shown that talented people in these younger cohorts demand more from an employer than job security or good wages. They are keen to work for businesses that have some social purpose, a corporate conscience and that care actively for their workers’ wellbeing. The post-Covid “great resignation”, which saw job mobility hit a two-decade peak last year is already a costly business for the companies coping with the high turnover. If it isn’t to remain a blip businesses need to equip their workforces, mentally as well as physically, for a whole new way of working.

Guest blog written by Louis Wustemann