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HR leaders discuss the future of work


For our June 2021 HR Leaders’ Webinar, we welcomed over 30 guests to a roundtable discussion on The Future of Work.

Changing employee sentiment

Research conducted during the last 12 months has revealed that:

  • 68% of employees want to work from home 3 days per week or less, with 1 in 4 stating they wanted to be permanently home-based.
  • 33% of workers would no longer accept a new role if they were unable to work remotely at least some of the time.
  • 30% also stated that they would take a pay cut in exchange for the option to work from any location they choose.

Some companies have had a very muted response to remote working, driven by practical as well as cultural factors. Other firms will adopt a hybrid approach, whereas some businesses will offer highly flexible or even completely remote approaches to working.

Attendees at our event discussed their responses to 4 key questions:

  • How are different organisations approaching hybrid working?
  • What leadership skills are required for the future?
  • How are businesses retaining company culture with more people based at home?
  • Has increased homeworking led to any contractual changes and changes to T&Cs?
  • 1. How are different organisations approaching hybrid working?

    All companies represented at our event had implemented some degree of hybrid working during the pandemic. Though, some firms’ transition to a hybrid model was more advanced than others.

    Most companies had experienced challenges related to an “always-on” culture during the early stages of the pandemic. Several initiatives were launched to ensure staff wellbeing was paramount. These included:

    • Encouraging home-based employees to participate in “walking meetings” – utilising the Teams App on their phones – or simply calling their colleagues rather than always being on screen and at their desks (“No screen Fridays”).
    • Ensuring that all meetings are 25 or 55 minutes long. This encouraged employees to step away from their desks for 5 minutes before starting their next task.
    • Establishing a rule that no one was required to answer emails after 5 pm (or 7 pm in some cases). This included a note added to email signatures notifying people that they shouldn’t expect a response outside of normal working hours.
    • Introducing a 1-hour break in the day when no meetings took place across the whole organisation. Some firms insisted that employees never organised meetings early in the morning, over the lunch period, or on “Wednesday afternoons.”
    • Launching wellbeing programs focused on sleep, nutrition, exercise and guidance for virtual meetings. Asking senior leaders to blog about their day and share photographs, so that they become role models for desired behaviours.

    Early adopters…

    Early adopters of permanent hybrid working models spoke about surveying their employees in late 2020 or early 2021 to establish the preferences of different people in the organisation. Employees were asked to reflect on their roles and consider where they will be the most productive. In some cases, attendees said employees were keen to return to the office for at least 3 days per week, while at other firms, it became clear that staff anticipated only attending offices 1 or 2 days per week moving forward.

    If employees expressed an appetite to return to work, they were told they could choose whether they wanted to come into the office or work from home. Other companies, responding to employees’ requests for greater flexibility, decided to go as far as to downgrade office space and move into smaller premises.

    One individual highlighted it was mostly their female employees who wanted greater flexibility at work. A discussion ensued about whether a lack of visibility and presence at work would lead to people being overlooked for opportunities. It was agreed that hybrid working policies must make it clear from the outset that career progression will not be impacted if staff choose to work from home.

    Another major topic of discussion was the potential impact of a “global workforce” on recruitment. A North East based company that had implemented a hybrid working approach revealed they had hired people from Sheffield, Manchester and London in recent months who will remain based there. In one extreme example, an attendee also explained how their employee who had recently moved to Australia remained on the company payroll. They commented: “The pandemic has proven that our employees can work from anywhere.”

    Leaders highlighted a need, in these circumstances, to consider putting policy and structure in place to accommodate employee requests and manage expectations. As one individual highlighted: “Having people based overseas means there are lots of factors to consider from an employment perspective – work environment, tax, national insurance, etc.”

    Generally, flexibility is no longer seen as a powerful hiring and retention tool given the widespread adoption of hybrid working. As one attendee pointed out, statutory requests for flexible working have almost completely disappeared now because organisations have moved to hybrid working models.

    Cautious incrementalists…

    Other companies represented at our event were more cautious about making any formal changes to working practices. As one individual stated: “ Our perspective is that we’re still in a state of flux and it’s not appropriate to make any final decisions yet.” Leaders suggested they were in the process of conceiving hybrid working patterns for different roles and establishing some “key principles of how we will work in the future.”

    At one firm, staff keen to return to the office full-time are trialling hybrid working for 6 months. Generally, efforts were being made to understand people’s personal circumstances and allow flexibility where it was needed. This meant, at one business, temporarily moving staff into roles that can only be carried out at home.

    Fundamentally, some leaders were keen to stress that business needs must always come first. This meant trying to accommodate employees’ desire for flexibility as much as possible while making it clear that sometimes being onsite may be mandatory. This was especially the case in sectors such as education and manufacturing. As one individual stated: “We have decided to treat all our staff like adults and say, ‘If your role allows it, you can, but if your role doesn't allow it, you can't.’ This approach, we hope, will prevent us from tying ourselves in knots around issues of fairness.”

    2. What leadership skills will we need for the future and how are different organisations addressing this?

    A theme that emerged from this discussion was the importance of personal and authentic leadership qualities. These soft skills, attendees agreed, had proven the most effective attributes during the pandemic and will continue being desired qualities in the future. Leaders spoke of the positive impact of “expressions of genuine empathy” when communicating difficult messages as an example of these skills in action.

    Others highlighted building trust as a key attribute. For leaders, this has involved having closer personal relationships with team members to understand what their needs and concerns are. Firms have given managers the tools to enable them to have wellbeing conversations. And generally, have seen “huge improvements” in communication skills.

    As one attendee noted: “Having staff based remotely does pose additional challenges for leaders and it’s important to ensure that they are equipped to manage in these circumstances. We’ve discovered during the last 15 months that there is a very fine line between checking in and checking up on someone.”

    Leadership development programs launched during the past 15 months included programs focused on change management and coaching. Some attendees agreed these were “the two best tools leaders can have at their disposal at this time.” Other “Leadership Boosts” involved training in how to run effective remote meetings, managing performance, commitments, and working across the organisation.

    In all cases, attendees highlighted how skills development wasn’t a reaction to the challenges posed by the pandemic, but an acknowledgement that these qualities are what will most benefit the organisation in the future too: “Maintaining the visibility of the executive team and having individuals acting as role models for the types of behaviours they want to see in the organisation, is always effective.”

    3. How do we retain our company culture if more people are working from home?

    It was agreed that employee engagement surveys are helpful to understand what ‘culture’ means to different people. Companies are also reviewing Employee Value Propositions and People Strategies to ensure they are aligned with hybrid working models.

    Attendees expressed their concerns that vital office interactions and “watercooler chats” were not taking place as frequently with employees based at home. To remedy this, firms organised “VIBE Meetings” to generate ideas for how to improve virtual connectivity. Several companies have utilised Microsoft Teams or apps such as Coffee Call to facilitate informal meetings between remote employees.

    Activities such as team quizzes, virtual “cocktail making” and “cook along with…” sessions have also ensured the “buzz” and team camaraderie of office life was transferred to virtual environments.

    Interestingly, a common theme throughout the discussion was that moving forward, offices would remain important sites for embedding organisational culture. This was even the case with those companies that had moved to smaller premises, as well as firms that had adopted a “work from anywhere” approach.

    All businesses acknowledged that the days of being at the office 5 days per week were over. But when employees do attend work sites, attendees recognised that spaces should be better utilised to encourage creative and collaborative behaviours. Questions such as: ‘What is the office used for?’ ‘Where and when are our people most productive?’ and ‘Where do certain people concentrate best? are helping leaders frame decisions.

    One individual expressed how team meetings in the future would always take place in either a physical or virtual space: “Employees are either all together on Zoom or all in the office, otherwise the collaborative opportunity is diminished.”

    Lots of businesses are currently looking at redesigning office spaces. Companies want to offer employees a fresh perspective on what it means to come to work in a post-COVID-19 world. Attendees spoke of “hotdesking” as well as experimenting with the layout of offices as they prepare for full adoption of hybrid working.

    4. Has increased homeworking led to any contractual changes and changes to T&Cs?

    The overall consensus on the topic of contracts and T&Cs was that no formal changes were forthcoming. Hybrid working, attendees agrees, was different to a statutory flexible working request. Companies, rather, are framing it as an “arrangement between managers and employees,” which could change at any time to accommodate evolving business needs.As one leader stated: “Employees prefer the idea of an informal hybrid working approach because people don’t want to make permanent changes to their contracts.”

    Another individual explained that hybrid working was now a benefit included as part of the business’s Working From Home Policy. Employees are asked to sign a document which states that hybrid working can be rescinded if any performance issues emerge. Others highlighted the importance of making it clear that the office remained the primary place of work. Staff choosing to work from home, therefore, are not entitled to claim expenses when visiting the office.

    According to one HR leader: “As soon as you make someone’s home office permanent there are several changes that need to be made to contracts – it’s a complicated process."

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