The pandemic initiated a shift in employer-employee relationships. Job seekers and employees expect greater flexibility from employers and one area where this is especially true is remote and hybrid working.
However, many organisations are advocating for a return to traditional ways of working together. Results from the KPMG global CEO survey revealed that 64% expect staff to be back in the office full-time within 3 years, and 87% said they would give those in the office pay rises and favourable assignments over those staying remote.
This is in stark contrast to survey findings where many workers said they would consider quitting if they had to go back to the office full-time. Indeed our own experience, from conversations with candidates, is that people want their job to fit with their life, rather than the other way around and Gartner reports 75% of knowledge workers say their expectations for working flexibly have increased.
This dichotomy has significant ramifications for employers and organisational culture.
A positive company culture can propel a business forward, with employees who feel valued and happy in their work more likely to perform well, be productive and have a strong impact on profitability.
If employees are requesting flexibility in their work patterns, and this request is listened to, and then put in place, the employees feel heard and valued. Allowing flexibility in the work schedule gives employees a greater sense of autonomy because they have more control over how and when they do their work.
Essentially, enabling flexibility sets the scene for employees to succeed on their own terms and potentially increases their commitment to the business. There are health benefits too. The Report Gateway reports widespread feelings of disconnection in today’s workforce, 66% of employees don’t feel a sense of connection and belonging at work and, 1 in 4 experience loneliness frequently or very frequently at work. You may be surprised to learn that the highest rates of loneliness were recorded for office only workers and remote workers, while hybrid workers fared better, probably drawing on the benefits of both working styles.
Conversely, while employees may only see the upside of flexible working, it could be damaging to company culture. Consider it from the perspective of someone joining a company.
At a basic level it can be harder to learn the ins and outs of a new role, never mind the intricacies of getting to grips with how a business operates. And that’s before you consider the impact on settling into a new team and developing the camaraderie that comes from working closely with people.
For new employees, some learning occurs almost by osmosis in the office. Think of the conversations that take place as work is carried out. Consider as well that there won’t necessarily be the same crossover of people in the office at the same time, and therefore incidental learning doesn’t occur in the same way as in a traditional work environment.
While many will argue that connectivity within teams will often be good, and in some cases improved by flexible working, let’s consider the impact across teams. What has happened to the conversations that take place because you happen to be in the same place at the same time, perhaps collecting something from the printer or making a coffee? While of course it’s possible to connect with people via technology, I believe there is no substitute for in-person interactions.
In the office, the regular rhythm of the day provides opportunities to collaborate with colleagues you don’t directly work with. These moments of connection are valuable and can help to avoid work being siloed because of a lack of interaction between different teams.
Flexible working can make collaborating even trickier. An extra challenge is added to the mix if flexible working means that members of the same team are in the office on different days, I’m sure many people will have experienced hybrid meetings which are challenging for all concerned.
There’s an additional consequence for managers. Quite simply, it is harder to manage people when you can’t see them.
Consider the “support by walking around” style of people management. This relies on engaging with your team, actively listening, observing, recognition and appraisal. While elements of this can be carried out remotely, or while flexible working occurs, it relies on planned engagement and is less spontaneous than interactions and observations that might occur more naturally in the office environment.
So, how do you perpetuate your company culture in a hybrid working world?
Communication is key. Employees are not only workers, they are people who want to be listened to. Engage with employees to figure out what in-person interactions will look like – how often people will be in the office; what type of interaction will be best served by being in-person rather than remote; determine the innovative approaches your organisation could adopt to ensure a smooth transition and communicate the compelling reasons why working in the office is a good thing.
For flexible working to, well, work, policies and procedures need to be clearly set out and accessible. Employees need to know what is expected of them, what any limitations to flexible working are, and, importantly, how to request flexible working in the first place. The Employee Relations (Flexible Working) bill received Royal Assent in August 2023; the ratification of the Act is likely to lead to an increase in requests for flexible working.
Management style is another important element to successfully implementing, and running, a flexible working environment. Leaders need to lead by example, model the behaviour they want to see and in doing so help perpetuate the company culture. Achieving this is not necessarily straightforward and involves leaders communicating not just where they spend their time but why - what is it about a certain task that means it’s best accomplished in the office?
Introduce regular individual and team touchpoints that reinforce the employee senses of wellbeing, appreciation, purpose, success, and opportunity if you hope to retain corporate camaraderie and nurture a sense of community. These will help employees feel connected to one another, regardless of the team they are working within and, because these elements are talent magnets your recruitment and retention will benefit too.