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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home was the exception, not the rule. Lockdown in March 2020 changed all that. The proportion of workers reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 5.7% of workers in January/February 2020 to 43.1% in April 2020. (Source Wiserd)
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of those who did some work from home during the pandemic, 86.0% did so as a result of COVID-19. Women were slightly more likely to do some work at home compared to men, 47.5% and 45.7% respectively.
People aged 16 to 24 years were less likely to do some work from home compared to those in older age groups. Of those who did some work from home, around one-third worked fewer hours than usual (34.4%), and around one-third worked more hours than usual (30.3%).
Occupations requiring higher qualifications and more experience were more likely to provide homeworking opportunities than elementary and manual occupations, with more than half of people living in London (57.2%) doing some work at home. Although the numbers of people working from home more than doubled in 2020, this only accounted for 25% of the workforce (ONS Survey May 2021).
Despite these findings, the workplace is not dead. As a survey by management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) found, 72% of surveyed UK employees want a mix of face-to-face and remote working going forward (source PwC Hopes and Fears Survey). This work pattern is now known as Hybrid working.
What is hybrid working?
Hybrid working is a type of flexible working where an employee splits their time between the workplace and remote working, normally in their own home. It can consist of a one-off day, an informal or set working pattern or can be a temporary and adaptable measure to suit the needs of the business and/or the employee.
The hybrid working model may be structured in different ways depending on the individual organisation’s needs.
For example, it may involve:
- Occasional workplace based such as 1 or 2 days a month.
- Set days in the workplace, such as 2 or 3 days per week.
- Workplace based preferred, with remote working allowed when appropriate.
- Remote working with visits to the workplace when face-to-face meetings are needed.
As this is such a new concept to the majority of the UK workforce, employers and their employees are trialling different structures to see what works for them.
Hybrid working is not a legal entitlement, and this is therefore offered completely at the discretion of employers. However, it has many benefits given the flexibility it can offer and is seen as helping employees achieve a better work-life balance.
Why choose hybrid working?
Hybrid working gives employers and employees the best of both worlds that homeworking during the pandemic did not necessarily do. For roles where hybrid working is an option, it gives people time in the workplace to engage with colleagues and managers, and it can offer a sense of having more control over how they work when working remotely.
This mix can in turn impact an employee’s work satisfaction, and there tends to be an improvement in the quality of work produced and productivity.
Hybrid working is predominately suitable for many office-based roles, such as:
- Customer service.
- HR / Recruitment.
- IT / Tech.
- Project management.
However, hybrid working is not an option for all jobs, particularly face-to-face roles such as care, retail or trades.
Another reason to choose hybrid working is the work-life balance it offers. Many people needing to commute 5 days a week tend to live within a manageable commuting distance of their workplace; hybrid working gives people more choice on where they live. Most don’t mind a longer commute on the reduced number of days that they need to attend the workplace.
For employers, choosing to implement a hybrid working model can have cost-saving benefits. For example, they may be able to reduce their physical office presence as fewer staff are attending the workplace on a regular basis, or they may decide to relocate to more cost-effective premises out of city centre locations.
What are the benefits of hybrid working?
Hybrid working helped to keep many workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and helped to ensure that many businesses were able to maintain some form of productivity rather than having to close and furlough their entire workforce.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, nearly 80% of white-collar employees in Europe have been forced to work remotely at some point during the pandemic.
Emerging from the pandemic, workers who have experienced this new way of working report that the benefits of remote working significantly outweigh any potential downsides. Employers too have recognised that this working model provides benefits to their business.
Employees across a range of sectors have commented that the benefits of hybrid working include:
- Better work-life balance.
- Less commuting.
- Savings on expenses, perhaps even by moving to locations with a lower cost of living.
- Greater flexibility over managing their workload.
- Improved employer/employee trust.
For employers, there have been many benefits reported, including:
- Reduced absenteeism.
- Increased productivity.
- Greater work-time flexibility.
- More agile working.
- A reduction in overhead costs.
- Access to a wider talent pool when recruiting.
- Better employee satisfaction.
There are, however, still challenges to overcome. Many employers believe remote working hampers collaboration and affects creativity and innovation. Whilst others have concerns over employee engagement and organisational culture.
Although a hybrid working model can be beneficial to mental health and wellbeing, it should be recognised that one size doesn’t fit all. A reduction in personal interactions can have a negative effect, particularly on people who live alone or those who have difficult personal circumstances.
Isolation and loneliness are key considerations for some people, whilst others may prefer a physical boundary between home and work; they may find that remote working adds additional stress and a feeling of inability to switch off.
Will hybrid working become the new normal?
Over half of workers who currently work on a hybrid model would consider quitting if the option was withdrawn, according to a poll commissioned by Microsoft.
A recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study of 2,000 UK employees revealed that 67% of those working remotely since COVID-19 want to be able to split their time between the physical workplace and homeworking in the future. So, it appears that the hybrid model will become a fixture in many UK workplaces.
Although nine out of ten executives envision a hybrid model going forward, 68% of organisations have no plan or detailed vision in place for hybrid work, according to a study by McKinsey.
It appears that a number of organisations will continue to experiment with and to monitor the hybrid working model to evaluate the benefits to their organisations, their workforces and their wider stakeholders.
Some organisations may implement the model into their ways of working because it provides advantages; others may decide that once the pandemic is over, that they will abandon the model and bring their workforce back into the workplace. Only time will tell whether hybrid working will be the new normal for most workplaces.
Hybrid working health and safety
An employer has the same health and safety responsibilities for workers whether they are working at home or in a workplace. In most cases risks to homeworkers will be low, and the actions that employers will need to take to protect them will be straightforward.
When considering any form of hybrid working, employers should carry out a risk assessment in much the same way as they would for the workplace.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states that in carrying out risk assessments employers should:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards).
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk).
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk.
In most circumstances an employer would not need to physically carry out the assessment themselves.
The employer can provide the homeworker with a health and safety checklist that they can complete, taking into account such things as:
- Electrical equipment – The homeworker would need to check the equipment that they are using for work to ensure that there is no damage to sockets, plugs or leads used in connection with their work. The employer should also give them advice on, for example, the hazards of overloaded extension cables.
- Computers and display screen equipment – Similarly to the workplace, homeworkers using display screen equipment when working at home should carry out a DSE assessment in line with the DSE regulations. These regulations are applicable to homeworking in the same way as they are in the workplace. Employers should provide homeworkers with DSE guidance.
- Slips and trips – Employers should ensure that all homeworkers are made aware of potential health and safety hazards, such as congestion or clutter around the work area.
- Emergencies – The employer should ensure that homeworkers know what to do in the event of an emergency. The employer should provide all homeworkers with emergency contact details and make arrangements for “check-ins” to ensure that the homeworker is safe.
- Lone working – Homeworkers must take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be harmed by their actions at work, and this may include other members of their household.
- Stress and mental health – Homeworking can deprive people of social contact, so they may feel isolated or disconnected. This can create pressure and stress or heighten any pre-existing mental health issues. Employers should be keeping in regular contact with homeworkers to provide sufficient support and to help maintain social links.
- Work-life balance – There is often a temptation when working from home to work longer hours and to take less time for breaks. The lines between work and home life can become blurred. Employers should encourage homeworkers to take regular breaks, wherever possible to work their contracted hours and to use their annual leave. Emailing homeworkers out of contracted hours adds to stress, as does giving people unrealistic deadlines with little support.
- Special considerations – An employer whose homeworkers are either pregnant or who have a disability, will need to ensure that they have completed risk assessments relevant to the employee’s condition. This may involve visiting the employee’s home to make an assessment of the suitability of the workspace and whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made.
Hybrid working policies
The hybrid working model provides employers with a valuable way to make their workforce more agile and can also improve employees’ work-life balance. However, employers should formalise the practice by ensuring that they put in place a clear hybrid working policy.
Having a clear policy will help to manage expectations about what is and is not possible; for example, a clear policy setting out when attendance in the workplace is required avoids any suggestion that homeworking arrangements are permanent, as this may need to be kept flexible to meet business needs.
If employers do not set clear parameters on expectations and eligibility to work a hybrid work model, the practice becomes ad hoc and unmonitored. This could give rise to an implied contractual right to permanent homeworking through custom and practice.
This may not be an issue for some roles; however, it could cause problems at a later date for those roles that do require a presence in the workplace or where additional support and supervision are required.
Employers will also need to find a way for their hybrid working model to sit alongside the traditional “right to request flexible working policy”. The simplest way of achieving this may be to point out that the organisation operates separate policies on statutory flexible working requests and hybrid working.
What should a hybrid working policy include?
Eligibility is one of the main areas to define in the policy. Employers will need to decide if the policy will be applicable to all roles or whether it is only suited to certain roles. If it will only apply to certain roles, the policy should clearly set out which roles are eligible and which are not and specify the reasons for this.
An employer should clearly set out the expectations in terms of the split between the workplace and other work locations such as the employees’ homes. For example, an employer may expect full-time employees to spend at least 3 days a week in the workplace, or they may expect employees to split their time 50/50 between the workplace and another location(s).
There should also be details of expectations for meetings or training attendance. It is essential to be clear on instances where employees must attend their workplace, such as for team meetings, all employee events, or face-to-face training.
The policy will need to define where remote working is allowed. For example, will people be allowed to work anywhere in the UK? Will the policy specify that they need to be at home? Do they need to inform or request permission if they are going to work from anywhere other than their home address?
If employees are allowed to work remotely abroad, there will be other matters that will need consideration, such as arrangements for immigration, tax and data protection issues to be aware of. Employers should take legal advice before allowing employees to work overseas.
There should also be sections to explain the organisation’s policy on, for example, but not limited to:
- The maintenance of a safe and healthy remote working environment and maintaining a work-life balance.
- Sickness absence reporting when working remotely.
- Communications, keeping in touch, reporting and performance management.
- Attending the workplace practices such as “hot-desking” etc.
- Technology and equipment provided to assist with remote working, together with data protection and other security information.
- Insurances, such as whose insurance policy covers equipment used remotely.
- Any variations to benefit packages.
As with the majority of people policies, it is best practice to highlight that this hybrid working policy is non-contractual. However, employers should also think about whether they need to make any changes to employees’ contracts of employment, such as updating place of work clauses within the contracts.
Many employers are choosing not to change the contacts on the basis that their approach to hybrid working is a flexible, informal one, and that setting clear non-contractual expectations around attendance in the workplace is preferable. Employers must follow legal guidance and consult with employees if changes are made to employee contracts.
It is also best practice to consult with employees about the hybrid working policy and to consider any feedback that they may have, prior to implementing the policy. Doing this will help to ensure that employees fully understand and support the policy and new working practices.
Managing hybrid workers
Implementing hybrid working will certainly change a manager’s role and create new challenges for them to overcome. Employers should consider offering training and guidance to help managers develop the skills needed to deliver effective communication, performance management and relationship building in teams that are working both remotely and in the workplace.
The employer’s and the managers’ ability to trust their employees will be a substantial part of the success of a hybrid working model. Managers will need to be able to trust that their homeworkers will complete their assigned work; however, homeworkers will also need to be able to trust that their managers will allow them to manage their workload in a way which suits them between the home and the workplace. Managers will need to find the fine balance between performance managing and micro managing.
It is a great help if managers and their team members agree very clear lines of engagement from the start of any hybrid working model, so that everyone knows what to expect. Managers and their teams need to be disciplined about checking in; not too few contact, but not too often either.
Setting clear and consistent workday schedules in advance for things like start and finish times, check-ins, meetings, etc. ensures everyone knows the expectations. It also reassures the team that they are not abandoned.
Managers also need to ensure that their teams have the right equipment to work remotely and that they are taking individual needs into consideration, particularly if they have pregnant or disabled team members working remotely. They will also need to have contingency plans in place if, for any reason, the equipment fails.
Whilst effective business communications are important for hybrid working, so too are the social and culture aspects that teams gain from team working in the workplace. These can so easily get overlooked in hybrid working, and an inclusive work culture can quickly become detached.
Scheduling some time for get-togethers, whether face to face or online, where the team can “socialise” and catch up with each other is an important factor to consider.
Managers will need to be especially vigilant to watch out for the first signs of stress, burnout or even loneliness in their remote teams, and have strategies for preventing this happening.
For many managers, managing hybrid working will be a steep learning curve. They will need to develop new management skills and new ways of working, but so too will their teams. Communication is the key; looking for ways to enjoy connecting with the team will help to support the remote workforce, and maintain and perhaps improve productivity
Hybrid working is undoubtedly here to stay for many people, post-pandemic. However, coronavirus support measures for homeworking are ending, so there may be implications for hybrid working for both employers and employees to consider moving forward. Household expenses are likely to have increased for those who have found themselves working from home as a result of lockdown.
Employers need to decide whether it is appropriate to contribute towards these additional costs, or whether it is reasonable to conclude that these expenses are balanced by the reduced costs of commuting. There may well be tax implications of the decision an employer makes, so employers and employees should check the latest guidance from HMRC.