Insight: Best of both worlds

The home office genie is out of the bottle and we must adapt, writes DeeDee Doke

When it comes to locating the future workforce, the ultimate solution is likely to be neither black nor white – but perhaps a striking grey.

Working from home, or WFH, has proved in many cases to be a successful arrangement since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and a number of banks, for instance, have announced they do not intend to bring their workforces back to the office until 2021 – and probably not all employees even then.

On the other hand, the prime minister is urging employees to return to their offices, to shore up the economies of their business neighbourhoods.

To use a now-clichéd phrase, ‘the new normal’ may well be represented in the workplace by a hybrid of the two options, with different variations.

For example, according to a company statement from workplace design and space planning specialists Steelcase: “The businesses that can support a new hybrid way of working will reap the benefits of an engaged and dynamic workforce, continuing to foster collaboration and innovation.”

Insurance giant Zurich UK found in a ‘lockdown learnings’ survey across its 4,500-strong workforce that many staff want what they consider to be the best of both worlds. The study revealed that two out of three employees – 59% – want to work from home for more than half the week. “When we move back to the pre-Covid world of the office… a third only want to come into the office one day a week”, according to a Zurich company statement.

David Storey, a partner in EY’s EMEIA Workforce Advisory Practice, predicted to Recruiter that organisations generally are going “to take a big leap forward in terms of the kinds of work models that are going to be introduced”.

However, Storey went on to say he believes there has been so much focus on the locations of where people work that other aspects are being left out of the conversation, such as scheduling. He pointed out that work responsibilities could ultimately be allocated differently because of the preferred work schedule of a particular employee.

Another consideration, Storey said, is data. “Data is going to be important. And I think companies are going to have to tread quite carefully to… collect data on a personalised level for the right reasons.

“It’s not simply a ‘big brother’, checking up on [people],” he said. “Productivity needs to be taken into account.”

Also, office space will be an issue. If the office is going to be used for collaboration, engagement, learning and innovation, Storey said: “Rather than highly active or highly intensive work, how do I make sure that everyone can use the space and will not be limited?”

He suggested: “Data will be collected on how full the office is and on me as a remote worker in terms of my habits – well, that might allow a system to get smarter over time and make recommendations to me.”

For instance, such a system may be able to give workers advance notice of when there may be space available or when other colleagues might be present for collaboration.

“That’s one example of how data could seamlessly optimise individual experience of how to best leverage the office, as well as the organisational experience of optimising limited resources,” Storey pointed out.

“Collaboration,” he said, “is absolutely essential” for a hybrid model or variant to work properly. “And, if you knew what you were looking for, you could look at levels of collaboration between teams as a metric and intervene if necessary to make sure there are right levels of interaction,” he added.

In weighing up the options for enabling a new model operation, Storey urged businesses owner to have “a good starting point for any new form of hybrid work. It’s got to be something that will be right for you as a business and your customers, and not just something that applies to the preferences of employees.”

And inclusion must not be forgotten – in this case specifically “those who are working remotely when others are working at the office”, Storey said.

Another thorny issue is the question of whether today’s managers are equipped to work with a workforce on all these different levels at one time.

“We do need to think about how we support and develop the right kinds of attributes, and also about the evolution of management, and systems and data to allow managers to become more competitive,” Storey said.

The door to widespread remote and flexible working has been opened, and it is unlikely to shut again soon.

“It's likely that businesses and teams will probably take a few wrong turns before they excise all of the bugs out of an individualised system that works for that group of people at that time.”

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