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The Great Workplace Return – Why Organisations Are Reducing Hybrid Working

Gillian Managing Director of Emerge Development Consultancy which she founded 28 years ago. She is a Master Executive Coach working with many CEOs and managing Directors globally.

 
Executive Contributor Gillian Jones-Williams

As the world continues to adapt to the evolving landscape of work, one concept has emerged as a defining feature of the future: hybrid working. Combining the flexibility of remote work with the benefits of in-person collaboration, hybrid working has represented a paradigm shift in how organisations operate.


Businessman and businesswoman arriving for work at office

A recent report published by CIPD highlights that 83% of organisations have a form of hybrid working in place at the moment and firms who offer hybrid working have reported that attraction and retention of talent is up 61%, plus they are able to recruit a far more diverse workforce. However, over the last nine months I have seen more and more organisations changing the hybrid model, with many asking for people to now be in the office for 3 days a week and others looking for a full-time commitment to returning to the workplace. These requests have been met with mixed emotions.


In our organisation, when Lockdown was announced we lost all of our business as we were face to face training. Our team fought so hard to save the company and 6 months later we successfully managed to get the business back on its feet. When return to the office was announced I told my team that they could work wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted and that I didn’t want them to phone and tell me that they needed to come in late or needed to leave early. The result was that in a year our sales were up by 40% and have continued to grow year on year ever since. The team wanted to come in the office as they enjoyed being together, but they worked from home whenever they wanted to. However, I recognise that we are a small business and I know it isn’t the same for all companies.


So why are companies forcing a return to the office?


Supporters of returning to the workplace argue that physical presence fosters collaboration, innovation, and nurtures company culture. They contend that face-to-face interaction is vital for building relationships, fostering creativity, and maintaining a cohesive team dynamic. Additionally, some industries require in-person work for effective operations, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality.


Another issue that has been cited is the decrease in the talent pipeline – some organisations have found that those people who joined during lockdown do not have the same level of soft skills as those starting prior to Covid would have had.


An Executive Search consulting firm stated in a report in the Guardian that one problem they are seeing is graduates unable to effectively engage with people as they don’t get the same learning by ‘exposure experience’. The Walt Disney Company’s CEO Bob Iger said that nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together”.


Others are reporting a fall in productivity levels – this is also associated with problems managers find in managing remote workers and managing by objective rather than presenteeism. Ironically, the BBC News reported that 87% or workers feel more productive at home but 80% of managers disagreed with this.


Some organisations feel that they don’t have the same level of innovation using virtual meetings as they did when people were all together in one room. An example of this is Amazon who have requested a 3-day return, as they feel it encourages more “collaboration and energy” amongst their staff. Other companies have cited that they feel that remote working is having a negative effect on organisational values and culture.


How do employees feel about forcing a return to the office?


  • Many workers have become content with their hybrid working set up and are resisting the return to work because they don’t agree with their company’s reasons for it.

  • A good proportion feel they are not trusted by their managers and are interpreting the request to return as this. This may simply be due to the way it has been communicated to them.

  • Some feel that their office environment is inferior to their work set up and that the concept of regular hot desking does not give them a sense of belonging.


Research carried out by CIPD has found that about 4 million people – 12% of employees – had changed careers due to a lack of flexible working and 2 million (6%) had left their job in the last year. A recent Forbes survey indicates that 93% of respondents believe their organisation could do more to enhance the in-office experience which would encourage workers to make a return back.


What are the consequences of reducing hybrid working?


  • Decreased employee satisfaction as flexibility decreases

  • Increased commuting costs

  • Work-life balance begins to suffer

  • Talent drains as people leave the organisation

  • Decreased productivity

  • Heightened stress levels

  • Employees with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities may feel marginalised

  • There could be a serious loss of valuable women in the workplace due to childcare issues


All of these could leave with people choosing to look for opportunities with companies who are more flexible.


But do employees have a choice, and can they refuse? The answer is perhaps


This really is a grey area as employees can ask for flexible working, but the employer can refuse if they have good reasons. If it is a reasonable management instruction it can be difficult for employees to refuse the return to the office. It also very much depends on what the contract says, and many long-standing employees will have contracts that give the office address as the workplace. If the employee refuses, the employer could complain they abandoned their job but on the other hand the employee could claim constructive dismissal. A recent Employment Tribunal judgement concluded that the employer could refuse requests to work entirely remotely, especially from employees in managerial positions where a degree of in-person time is needed to supervise people. However, if they have been working productively from home or on a hybrid basis for some time then the employer would need to consult with the employee and consult and discuss things rather than imposing a change.


So, what can organisations do to really make this work?


Cultivating a culture of inclusivity and belonging


Creating an environment where people really feel connected and belong will make them feel more inclined to want to go into the office. Currently, people often turn up to find that there is only a skeleton staff there, and it feels pointless. If organisations prioritise inclusivity, organise more team building and opportunities for informal interactions then it will feel more attractive.


Redefining performance management and evaluation


Traditional performance management practices may no longer be suitable in a hybrid working environment and managers need to truly learn how to trust employees and measure performance on objectives and outcome-based evaluation criteria rather than time spent in the office. This requires setting clear expectations, establishing measurable goals, and providing regular feedback and support to employees, regardless of their work location.


Promoting work-life balance and well-being


Hybrid working offers the opportunity for employees to achieve a better balance between their professional and personal lives. Therefore, when encouraging a return to work, organisations must prioritise employee well-being by promoting healthy work habits, encouraging breaks and leaving on time, and providing resources for managing stress and burnout. Additionally, offering flexible benefits such as wellness programmes, mental health support, and childcare assistance demonstrates a commitment to supporting employees' holistic well-being.


Striking a balance


Ultimately, whether to return to the workplace or maintain hybrid working models is a multifaceted decision and organisations need to think carefully about their reasons and how the message is communicated. The key to navigating this complex issue lies in finding a balance that meets the needs of both employees and employers. Flexibility is paramount, allowing organisations to tailor their approach based on industry, job function, and employee preferences. By prioritizing flexibility, communication, and employee well-being, companies can navigate the evolving landscape of work with confidence and resilience.



 

Gillian Jones-Williams, Consultancy

Gillian Managing Director of Emerge Development Consultancy which she founded 28 years ago. She is a Master Executive Coach working with many CEOs and managing Directors globally. She is also an international speaker and in 2020 was named by f: Entrepreneur as one of the leading UK Female Entrepreneurs in the I also campaign. I won!! So could you please change to This year she was voted Leader of the Year by the Women’s Business Club.


Gillian founded the RISE Women’s Development Programme which is delivered both in the UK and the Middle East, and Saudi and is her absolute passion.

She is also the co-author of How to Create a Coaching Culture, 50 Top Tools for Coaching, and the author of Locked Down but Not Out which is a diary of the first 3 months of the pandemic to raise money for the bereaved families of the NHS workers who died during COVID-19.

If you want to know more about our training and development solutions or our EDI or Neurodiversity programmes,, please do contact us. For more information contact us on 01329 820580 or via info@emergeuk.com.


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