The results are now in from our recent employer survey on hybrid working practices.
These reveal some interesting common ground on the impact of hybrid working, as well as some surprising conclusions in relation to its benefits.
In this first part, we analyse the survey results on this business-critical issue. We also provide our top five tips for successfully integrating hybrid working into your business over the long term.
In part two of our discussion of the survey results, available to view here, we consider whether employees are using hybrid working as an opportunity to relocate away from the office. We also analyse the tricky legal and practical issues associated with employees wanting to work remotely from abroad.
Notably, over half of respondents (54%) decided to consult the workforce to gauge their hybrid working pattern preferences before implementing a new policy.
There are various benefits to this collaborative approach. Importantly, employees will feel like their opinion matters to the business and are therefore more likely to engage with the final policy when it is eventually rolled out.
In turn, there is likely to be less risk of future complaints and grievances because there is no element of surprise involved.
When it comes to how you have implemented your hybrid policies, it seems that many of you have adopted similar working patterns. For example, 45% of our respondents expect their employees to be working in the office on three or more days per week. Only 19% of respondents permit employees to attend for two days per week, and even less (7%) operate a one day per week policy.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to hybrid working: almost 30% of respondents operate a different hybrid working pattern altogether.
The optimal flexible working pattern for any business is likely to vary according to a number of factors, including the relevant sector, requirements of the business, and client expectations.
Regulated employers, such as those in financial services or the legal sector, will be contending with stringent requirements when it comes to maintaining client service levels and ensuring appropriate employee supervision and training.
As a result, some employers may take the view that standards are best maintained through in-person employee collaboration for the majority of the working week e.g. three to five days in the office. In contrast, others will be more comfortable with a policy of working from home for longer periods of time, having concluded that there is no detrimental impact on the business.
No matter your preferred approach, we have regularly advised clients of the benefits of maintaining flexibility within their hybrid working policies and employment contracts, so that necessary adjustments to working patterns can be made if business requirements change in the future.
The potential benefits of hybrid working, such as improved employee morale, better staff retention rates and potential cost reductions, have been well documented since the beginning of the pandemic. For the most part, these benefits have been realised by the employers who responded to our survey.
However, perhaps surprisingly, the ability to save costs does not seem to be as significant a factor as might be expected: only 12% of survey respondents reported a reduction in the need for office space leading to cost savings.
This no doubt reflects the continuing need for dedicated working space during the period of the week that employees spend in the office, but it may also reflect the fact that many businesses are still at an early stage in their hybrid working journey and will therefore be reluctant to make fundamental changes too soon.
As hybrid working patterns become embedded in businesses over the long term, the scope for cost reductions is likely to become easier.
Despite the well-known positives of hybrid working, we also queried whether there is any mismatch between the expectations of employers and employees when it comes to the amount of time spent working from the office.
Almost half of you (48%) agreed that this is a relevant concern.
This accords with what we are seeing in practice. Many employees have now adapted their lives around the ability to work from home on a regular basis, and might now be reluctant to incur the time loss and financial burden that comes with more frequent commuting, despite their employer’s expectation that they will return to the office for the majority of the working week.
Almost a third of you have also experienced difficulty in coordinating different hybrid working patterns across the business. This can be a tricky area for HR to manage, with some teams more able to accommodate consistent hybrid working patterns than others.
Much will depend on the nature of the roles involved. For example, some roles may require access to particular technology which is not available when working from home. Other roles may necessitate a physical presence in the office for supervision, client interaction and/or training requirements, for example.
Either way, a disparity across different departments can potentially lead to employees becoming disgruntled if their colleagues are perceived as having more flexibility with their working pattern. That said, this does not seem to be a current issue for the majority of employers responding to our survey. 90% of respondents have not received any grievances or written complaints from employees in relation to working patterns and only 23% have received more individual flexible working requests over the last 12 months.
Hybrid working policies have therefore been well-received by employees and, in most cases, the chosen approach has accommodated staff need for flexibility over working location. Where there is a need for flexibility in relation to working hours, as opposed to location, the statutory flexible working regime remains the appropriate way to consider individual employee requests.
Gather feedback on how your hybrid working policy is operating in practice. This could be through existing channels, such as regular team meetings, or by collating anonymous feedback in the form of staff surveys. This will allow you to take on board any helpful ideas for improvement.
It will also allow you to identify any sticking points early. Issues to look out for include the risk of employee burnout from “virtual presenteeism”, where junior employees feel pressure to be available 24/7 from home and to respond immediately to correspondence. Any such unhealthy working practices should be addressed before they escalate into more serious issues.
In addition to employee feedback, the impact of your hybrid working policy on the wider business should be closely monitored to assess both positives and negatives.
Do not wait for formal performance reviews to identify any impact on employee productivity, collaboration, or supervision due to colleagues working in separate locations.
It is important to have a clear idea of how well your hybrid policy operates in practice, so that the appropriate checks and balances can be put in place and maintained. In particular, regulated employers will need to ensure that their systems and controls remain fit for purpose and effectively minimise any enhanced risk that comes with homeworking. Both the FCA and the SRA, for example, have published guidance on the issues to consider in relation to remote and hybrid working.
One of the most important elements of successful hybrid working is the ability for employees to move seamlessly between their home and the office. This relies on efficient equipment and IT support, to prevent productivity dips linked to IT problems and to ensure that confidentiality obligations continue to be met.
Stories of employees forwarding confidential business information to personal email addresses or mobiles are common and certainly more likely in the event of problems accessing employer IT equipment and technology.
Employer health and safety obligations also require you to carry out a risk assessment in respect of home working environments to ensure employees have access to a suitable working space and the necessary equipment to perform their role (such as a desk, office chair and adequate lighting).
If certain employees work predominantly, or more frequently, from home compared to their colleagues, there is a risk of a two-tier workforce emerging. Active steps should be taken to maintain a collaborative and inclusive work environment for all employees, so that homeworkers do not feel disconnected or less valued by their employer. Equally, if some teams are allowed greater flexibility than others, then this should be adequately justified. Special treatment for one team over others may breed resentment and might lead to claims of indirect discrimination. Equally, any perceived disadvantage to homeworkers can also increase the risk of discrimination claims from those with a protected characteristic. For example, female employees may be more likely to work from home due to childcare responsibilities, or disabled employees may have difficulty accessing the office.
Leaving aside the risks around discrimination, remote employees can feel isolated, which can lead to individual performance and mental health issues and damage an employer’s ability to retain staff and maintain a positive culture. Employers should consider how to mitigate this risk.
Where possible, avoid setting your hybrid working policy in stone by incorporating an express contractual right to work on a hybrid basis, whether in the policy or employment contracts.
Hybrid working policies should ideally be discretionary and subject to future review and adjustment by the business. This provides an option for employers to adapt working patterns to meet changing market practice, performance concerns and/or business needs.
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