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The future of hybrid working: directors must focus on culture

By Jessica Tasman-Jones

This article is brought to you by FT Specialist’s Agenda, a publication that focuses on corporate boards.

Before 2020 the move to hybrid working had been predicted for decades, but most companies had made only baby steps. The measures put in place to restrict the spread of Covid-19 changed that – and millions of workers began to work remotely.

From April 1 the last of the lockdown restrictions in England will be lifted, including the requirement for workplaces to consider Covid-19 in health and safety assessments - (though the government notes new public health guidance will be issued). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to do likewise by summer.

The restrictions that have ruled our lives for two years might be no more but company directors now have to make decisions about the future of hybrid work.

In Europe almost a third (31 per cent) of chief executives expect that more than 40 per cent of full-time employees will work remotely for at least three days a week, according to a survey by the Conference Board, which also canvassed leaders in the US, China and Japan.

This is a significantly higher proportion than before the pandemic, when 69 per cent of European bosses said less than 10 per cent of full-time employees primarily worked remotely.

Boards will have to sharpen their focus on workplace transformation, experts say.

“Rather than rushing back to previous ways of working, employers have an opportunity to do things differently,” says Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “This will lead to benefits such as improved employee performance, wellbeing and engagement.”

It is important for boards to remember that the world is still emerging from a transformational period, says Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo professor of organisation studies at Cambridge Judge Business School. Companies should be slow and mindful of the diverse experiences of their staff during the pandemic.

“Formally and in terms of policy we have entered a new phase, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to pick up and do things differently,” she says.

Culture is about how a collective of individuals works towards common goals, despite having diverse experiences and expertise, Howard-Grenville says.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, co-written with Laura Empson, a professor at Bayes Business School, London, she compared the pandemic to a rite of passage, where an adolescent takes a break from the familiar as part of the transition to adulthood. Although challenging, the experience can prompt experimentation, reflection and reinvention.

Boards can ask how individuals and their needs have changed but the challenge will be to find a culture that works for everyone, says Howard-Grenville. “Rather than fretting about the policies – two days in the office or three, or the office configuration – [we should keep in mind] that what we’re trying to accomplish is actually a thriving human organisation,” she says.

This is on executives’ minds too. Worldwide, more than half (52 per cent) of the chief executives polled by the Conference Board feared that hybrid working would adversely affect internal relationships. Some 46 per cent also expect hybrid working to weaken the strength of their group’s culture.

Directors should examine how remote working has affected the culture and quality of work at their company, says Anna Catalano, who serves on several boards. Directors should question how recruits are onboarded, whether they feel connected to colleagues and how hybrid working affects different demographics, she says.

“These are all things that a CHRO [chief human resources officer] should be tracking and reporting to directors,” Catalano says. “In many instances, compensation committees have expanded their role into more human capital and talent development topics, and these datapoints would feed well into those updates.”

“There should be regular communication between line managers and their team, and agreements in place about how often teams will have meaningful face-to-face connection time or set time for more informal, remote catch ups,” McCartney says. Senior leaders and line managers should also model flexible and hybrid ways of working to support a culture of change, she says.

With competition for talent fierce and employee turnover high in many organisations, companies will need to find a way to embrace flexible working.

Boards will have to question how corporations can meet employees on their terms rather than force them to comply with the company’s terms.

“That one-size-fits-all mindset … it’s not on its last legs, but it is being seriously questioned and challenged,” says Ravin Jesuthasan, global leader for transformation services at Mercer, the consultancy.

This includes respecting each individual’s response to the end of pandemic restrictions, McCartney adds.

“Some employees might still be nervous about returning to offices with Covid numbers still relatively high, so line managers should be having conversations with their teams to understand any concerns as well as preferences for working.

“The pandemic isn’t over, so it may still take some months for a hybrid strategy to settle. What is important is that organisations continue to test, learn and adapt their approach over time.”

This article is based on a piece published by Agenda.

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