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Managing a hybrid workforce: is out of office out of mind?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 11 May 2021

With working patterns likely to be permanently affected by the pandemic, many employers are facing a change in the way people value work and their expectations of how they will be managed.

In the second part of its Blueprints for the future of work series, ICAEW Insights explores the delicate balance of obligation between employers managing office-based, hybrid and remote workers.

The pandemic has revealed to many businesses that remote working can be effective, from a productivity and cost-base perspective. Employers are putting plans in place to take advantage of this, increasing levels of remote or hybrid working. According to an RSM survey published in January, across the UK three-quarters of mid-sized businesses have started, or are considering, reducing the volume of their office space.

However, this opportunity also poses a number of dilemmas for employers. A CoSo Cloud survey found 19% of remote employees reported loneliness as their biggest challenge, with a further 50% feeling disconnected from their employer. For employers looking to shift the dial towards remote working, this poses a fundamental question: how do you balance obligations to employees in the office against those working remotely?

“As an employer, you have every obligation to protect every member of staff”, Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula told ICAEW Insights. “Regardless of where you’re based contractually, be it home, in the office or hybrid, employment rights are still absolutely the same”.

Palmer continued: “When you have a mass population at home, health and safety measures are very different from being in the office because you can’t physically see them.”

Temporarily, an employer can ask employees to make their own basic assessments at home. However, as that becomes a longer-term arrangement or permanent, businesses should consider a more practical workstation checklist and intervention from the health and safety representative to do a more comprehensive check.

“Out of sight, out of mind”

For companies that take a three-pronged approach, with some workers at home, in the office, or hybrid a mixture of both of these, it is critical to adapt communications accordingly because without that businesses are going to encounter risk.

“Sometimes you get an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture emerging, and it’s key this doesn’t arrive because you’re going to get demotivation, disengagement and eventually departures”, said Palmer.

Employers can easily do things for office-based staff such as social interactions inside the workplace and forget to invite those working from home. Palmer urged businesses to be more thoughtful about ensuring equal treatment because they don’t want their homeworkers to feel left out. “Ultimately that leads to disengagement, adverse performance and attrition and it doesn’t help anyone”, added Palmer.

“Us and them culture”

Adrian Wakeling, Acas Senior Policy Adviser tells employers to be wary of an ‘us and them’ culture emerging – for example, between furloughed and non-furloughed staff or those working from home and those working in the office.

“It is worth spending a little time reflecting on the psychological contract. Many Acas advisers have noticed that the way people value work and their expectations of how they will be managed has changed a great deal during the pandemic”, said Wakeling. “This is partly about new expectations about where and when they want to work, but it is also about management style, with many employees realising they prefer a little more autonomy in the way they do their work.”

Wakeling also notes to remember that the duty of care that employers have for their staff applies to office and remote workers alike. In the current environment, looking after your people relies heavily upon developing trust – so all staff are reassured they will be kept mentally and physically safe in the weeks and months ahead.

Working overseas

“I’ve read stories about people moving to Spain to live in their Spanish villa as opposed to living in the UK and I don’t blame them. But you’ve got to be very mindful of the practicality behind that”, said Palmer.

She added that for many, social interaction at work was a key part of the bond between employer and employee, and something staff will lose out on in a remote environment.

“There are fewer opportunities to have that physical connection and I think that can impede a relationship; I really do. Over a ten-year career if you’ve never met someone in person, even just once or twice, that’s difficult. Remote working has some brilliant benefits for the individual, but it does create some complications for the employment relationship.

“I think the future of work will be determined by what business you work in, and what the people are formed of within that business,” concluded Palmer. “I truly think it’s different strokes for different folks. No one size fits all, it is going to be based contextually on what is right for that business.”

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