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Hybrid working: can employers futureproof the home office?

It’s unlikely there will be a one size fits all for employers in the wake of the pandemic, say Debra Howcroft, Phil Taylor and Dora Scholarios.

The pandemic has dramatically shifted our working lives. While the relocation of white collar workers to the home environment was initially viewed as a temporary stopgap, this is now looking more like a watershed moment for the future of working practices, particularly with a growing roster of large firms making the switch permanent.

It’s long been a widely held belief that digitalisation will transform the way we work. However, prior to the pandemic, the take up of sustained homeworking was marginal. In 2019, just over 5% of the total UK workforce worked from home the majority of the time – a staggeringly small proportion in hindsight. This slow adoption can largely be attributed to a lack of trust-based working arrangements prior to the pandemic.

According to our recent survey of more than 3,000 office workers across the UK it’s unlikely there will be a ‘one size fits all’ blanket return to the office once restrictions have lifted. Crucially, almost 80% of employees we spoke to said they would like a working week of two days or fewer spent in the office after the pandemic. Almost a third would like to work entirely from home, with the hassle and expense of commuting a commonly cited bugbear.

How can employers make their businesses hybrid-ready?

While the growth in hybrid working brings many positives, adapting business operations to cater to this new model in the long-term will create a raft of issues for employers to navigate in the future. So, what should they prioritise for the years ahead to make the home office futureproof?

During lockdown, it was well documented that people missed socialising with their colleagues. Camaraderie in the office does more than just strengthen relationships and build teams, it helps to create a sense of collectivism which provides employees with a valuable support network and potential outlets to spread out unmanageable workloads.

The lack of face-to-face interaction is a particular problem for new starters and junior team members, with video-based meetings offering limited opportunities to get to know their fellow teammates. Finding new, innovative ways to bring people together and build a team culture will need to be a focus for employers in the years ahead.

Impact on health and wellbeing

While many of the employees we spoke to relished not having to commute to the office, some had found that their work-life balance had been negatively impacted by increased workloads over the last year. A third reported that the volume, intensity and pace of their work had noticeably increased, with 40 per cent believing their mental health had worsened as a result.

In some instances employees had found that their manager expected them to complete their usual shift ‘no matter what’, and had asked to make up their hours in the evenings and weekends. This could pose a particularly significant issue for single parents and sole carers in the future, especially given the likelihood of interruptions and distractions in a home setting. With work and home life increasingly blurred, a focus on finding ways to support employees in this respect should be a priority.

There’s also likely to be a tide of issues linked to physical health in the future. During lockdown, the ergonomic deficiencies of home offices, compounded by the lack of workstation risk assessments, meant more than a third of the workers we surveyed had found their physical health had worsened, with stiff shoulders and necks, numb arms and sore eyes frequent complaints.

Aside from physical discomfort, homeworking also increases financial costs, and the problem of workers having to buy their own equipment and pay for additional utilities will only continue if employers don’t put in place frameworks to fund equipment and overheads at home.

Keeping a lid on surveillance

One issue that will likely gather momentum in the future is the growing prominence of monitoring software and surveillance, and its impact on employee privacy. While data protection law places significant limits on employers monitoring their staff, too few employees are aware of their rights and many feel unable to challenge the use of surveillance.

Tougher regulation, along with trade union consultation, is vital for preventing employers’ excessive use of electronic monitoring and digital surveillance, both in the office and when working at home.

Perhaps the most striking take away to emerge from our survey was just how varied experiences were during lockdown. While some thrived, others ran into numerous challenges. It’s clear one size doesn’t fit all, so employers may take the time now to gather and assess the varying experiences throughout their teams when drawing up their future plans.

Debra Howcroft is a Professor of Technology and Organisation at Alliance Manchester Business School.
Phil Taylor is Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Strathclyde.
Dora Scholarios is a Professor of Work, Employment and Organisation at the University of Strathclyde.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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