Since the start of the pandemic, it’s been clear that “office working” will change for good. As we cautiously emerge from the turmoil, businesses are starting to consider what these changes look like – and take action. We’ve now seen a number of leaders broadcast their decision to shut up shop completely, or hastily call employees back to the workplace.
While debate rages as to which is the right approach, most conversations fail to interrogate an important point; how these decisions are made. If leaders want to resist knee-jerk reactions and make truly strategic choices, they need to put personal preferences aside and turn to data.
Balancing employee preferences
According to one recent survey, 73% of workers want to work from home following the pandemic. It’s imperative HR leaders listen to these calls and consider how they can provide more flexible working arrangements.
This will become a key part of the employee value proposition and as such impact their companies’ ability to compete for talent.
However, there is a balance to be struck. Some tasks will be entirely doable remotely, but some will not. Client-facing positions will need a certain amount of in-person interaction, while many product innovation teams will need to host in-person user groups and development workshops.
The only way for HR to acknowledge employee preferences and meet the needs of the business is through data collection and analysis. Once they have a real, data-based understanding of which activities are more successfully performed in-person, they can align employees and managers around a shared charter for future ways of working.
This information will also be critical to making an informed decision on the future of the workspace itself. With more people working flexibly, many business leaders will be looking to reduce their office footprint.
However, any change needs to line up with their hybrid working strategy. HR needs to lead the way in guiding how and when office workspace should be used based on agreed new ways of working and requirements for in-person activities.
Hybrid working: culture and skills
Whilst hybrid working will benefit certain groups, it may be detrimental to others — or have negative repercussions for the organization as a whole.
There’s a real possibility that having some office-based cohorts, or teams repeatedly in the office together, could exacerbate silos.
This would erode workplace culture, hamper information and sharing – and eventually damage business performance. To prevent this, business and HR leaders need to be hyper-aware of the organic or intangible bonds that can be built in a workplace, and work to replicate these in the virtual environment. Using a rotation system, for example, could help ensure that the same groups of teams are not always in together.
Leaders also need to consider how adopting a certain approach could impact employee learning and development (L&D) and progression. Research by PwC found that employees with the least amount of professional experience (0-5 years) wanted to be in the office more. 30% of this group would prefer to work remotely no more than one day a week versus just 20% of all respondents. This suggests that adopting a fully flexible approach could significantly affect the demographic make-up of the workplace.
This in turn would impact L&D. To date, much workplace learning has taken place by osmosis. Junior employees absorb important interpersonal skills and guidance on how to conduct themselves professionally simply by watching more senior colleagues. However, if these colleagues are out of sight, it’s difficult for these skills to be imparted.
To mitigate this risk, HR leaders need to consider employee preferences (collected via surveys, focus groups, etc) and project the organizational and cultural impact of building a model based on these.
They also need to gain a real understanding of how skills are shared and built within their organization. This the first step to developing a plan for L&D which is fit for purpose in their new working structure.
Presenteeism and the office as the seat of power
Another possible scenario is that the physical workplace becomes the seat of power. If senior leaders choose to work predominantly from the office, it can send a clear message that the office is where decisions are made. This can be hugely isolating, disheartening, and disengaging for employees that need — or choose — to work remotely.
We see the real danger of this when we consider that women typically take on more childcare responsibilities than men. Last year, one ONS survey found that women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown. While the pandemic presented unique circumstances, there’s still a very real possibility that women will choose to work remotely more often going forward.
This could lead to women missing out on growth opportunities and promotions. Research indicates that showing face at work leads to career advancement because it is a strong signal of an individuals’ commitment to their job, their team, and their organization. If women choose not to be present, it could damage their progression — and fundamentally reverse years of progress towards gender equality in the workplace.
To avoid these types of scenarios, HR leaders need to draw on internal and external data to understand how remote working can impact individual and company success.
They can then pre-empt barriers to remote workers’ progression to support them to access the same or equivalent opportunities to shine as those in the physical workplace.
HR leaders need to take on a clear role in agreeing on joint principles for future ways of working and hold leaders to account to ensure the desired working practices are achieved in reality.
Having the right data is the first step to creating an informed return to workplace strategy. However, it is not the last.
HR and business leaders must consistently analyze workforce data after a decision has been made, so they can identify any unforeseen, adverse effects before they become an issue.
This will allow executives to move from reactive to proactive decision-making and demonstrate to employees that their needs are being listened to.
Chief People Officer
Neda leads Concentra’s People and Culture teams encompassing People Operations, Talent, Learning, and Culture. With almost 20 years of UK and international experience in HR and management consulting, Scrini has a proven track record of leading teams to deliver business transformation and building strong working relationships with executive-level leaders in complex global businesses. A trained Executive Coach, Neda has developed deep expertise in people and organizational change across a variety of sectors ranging from telecoms to technology and financial services. Her main passions lie in Organisation Effectiveness and People Analytics.