Research reveals ways to help navigate the move from home office to hybrid working while retaining your workforce

While many employers and employees may have found the move to home working painful and fraught with anxiety, it turns out that the return to the office is no less difficult.

In addition, after over 18 months of a better work/life balance for many, employees are more aware of
their options, and more confident about articulating their needs than ever before.

This combination means that all employers, but particularly large, complex corporations, need to
tread very carefully if they want to retain their best and brightest – in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that
they need to think in a completely new way if they want to prevent mass resignations.

Of course, desk-based employees had been working in the office for most of their professional lives before moving to fully remote working during the pandemic. Now, a lot of organisations are experimenting with hybrid work, which they have come to realise is neither of the two, but a new form
of work organisation. With opportunities come challenges and with little precedence to build upon, hybrid work is a steep learning curve for many organisations.

So how to get it right? Drawing on data from thousands of employees who participated in the working@home research project, as well as a research study on the University of Edinburgh members of staff, I’ve identified three key areas that merit attention when planning a hybrid work future.

First, get your goals right: what is it that the organisation wishes to achieve from hybrid work? Do
you want to reduce costs, boost staff productivity, offer improved customer service? Perhaps your goals are more employee-centric and you’d like to enhance staff wellbeing and work life balance, attract talent or promote the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda.

Ideally attach numbers to the priorities to guide you through the different priorities. When these turn out as competing priorities, ranking them will prove useful to move forward. It may also be that one is a condition to the other, for example the priority of an organisation may be to reduce costs under the condition that current EDI achievements are not compromised, or the priority may be to enhance the EDI agenda under the condition that customer service is not compromised.

No matter the priorities, it is important to acknowledge that tensions may arise and that creative solutions may be required to handle tensions. Second, get your hybrid work budget right. No matter the savings, there is also a cost with hybrid work, so it is important to think through what the organisation is ready and able to allocate a budget for.

This could include investing in hybrid meetings’ infrastructure, re-designing the working space to reflect the changes in office occupancy, providing financial support to staff to adjust their home work station to support mental and physical wellbeing, or perhaps providing staff with a working from home allowance to cover utility bills.

Considering the short-term cost vs long-term savings of such investments is equally important. Some organisations are making savings from reduced office space and associated costs and are reinvesting
in hybrid work technology or staff allowances.

As such, assuming that increased working from home will lead to savings may conceal the investment
needed to support hybrid work appropriately. Third, communicating clear principles to guide manager-staff negotiations as well as decentralising hybrid-work budgets are key, as competing priorities may be a cause of contestation.

What happens when managers reject hybrid work requests on the basis of business needs that staff
consider unreasonable? Dozens of staff I spoke to are disillusioned with their managers’ return-to-office requests, and expect sensible reasoning behind such requests. Lack of agreement may lead to anything from resentment to resignation: there is little doubt that manager-staff disagreement partly accounts for the “great resignation” we have been witnessing.

So, how can organisations best support manager-staff hybrid work negotiations? First, acknowledging the possibility of managerial bias in negotiations is significant. A study among the University of Edinburgh staff has shown that managers tend to favour relatively more office days than non-managerial
staff. Simultaneously, depriving managerial discretion through centralised decision making may undermine the chances of making the most out of hybrid work, which may allow more flexibility
than formal “flexible work” policies.

So what is the answer to managing such tensions? The answer lies in organisational transparency and support: communicating the organisational goals when promoting hybrid work (the first step discussed
above), as well as allocating a hybrid work budget for managers to tap into when making decisions.

When organisational guiding principles and available resources to manage the change are clear and communicated to both managers and staff, the chances of disagreement or resentment are reduced: both parties will be able to benchmark their expectations against the guiding principles and available resources.

It will also make the success of the hybrid work policy easier to assess (are the principles promoted
within the budget?), with further interventions more likely to be successful (if goals are not achieved, how far from achieving them are we?). Our workplaces have undergone spectacular change in a very short amount of time and it is clear that we are never going to return to pre-pandemic work practices.

Thoughtful employers will see this as an opportunity to build a newly engaged and satisfied workforce
with reinvigorated loyalty – a real hybrid.

Partner Content in association with University of Edinburgh