Ah, the good old days when the first thing prospective candidates asked about a potential job opening was the salary on offer. The salary question has been firmly relegated to second place – with a new main driver in town these last few years. There’s no sign of the topic of office vs. home working leaving the headlines any time soon.
It’s one of the first questions that our clients ask of us too – particularly large organisations/corporates – the slightly nervy ‘what’s the competition doing’ query probably signifies that not many companies are feeling that they’ve got it right.
I’m of the opinion that there’s actually no right answer to be found, and that maybe we should approach the topic differently. I’ll explain….
We regularly hear the view that junior staff need more time spent face to face with colleagues to learn and develop both the skills to do their job technically and also the people and business skills they’ll need as they progress their career. We also hear the view from more experienced professionals that there’s no need to be in the office as they feel that they can do their job perfectly well from home. Both are true to a certain extent of course, but too simplistic. Home-working develops different skills that can benefit many more junior staff – namely self-reliance, inner drive, the ability to take personal responsibility. And office-working has its place too for the majority at all levels of experience – a shared sense of being part of something; greater scope to listen and learn from others; dynamism; accountability; developing the skills of colleagues.
We also hear that hybrid working is good for mental health matters. Yes for many, but there’s many others that have found the new ways of working come with new challenges. We’ve encountered a number of instances in the last year where people have started to look around for new jobs as they no longer feel that they know their colleagues beyond a cursory relationship developed over Teams/Zoom. They don’t feel part of a bigger picture. Such people typically used to value keeping home and work life separate and find that combining everything into one metamorphous glob has had an adverse impact, whether in relation to their productivity; social possibilities; sense of self-worth; learning potential. On the other side of the coin, a large number of the working population love the scope to spend more precious time with family; the reduction in wasted hours spent commuting; the greater scope for ‘me-time’ – in short the potential to redress work/life balance issues that might have been pressure points in their former lives. Many feel that office time results in reduced productivity – more distractions, more meetings, more questions from colleagues taking them away from their core job purpose.
In short, everyone has their own opinion about what’s best for them as an individual, and what works for one person will be anathema for another.
Employer vs. employee
And yes, it’s also true that people don’t always know what’s best for them. There are increased numbers of instances where employees don’t progress/develop as quickly as they might have done in years gone by – and it’s hard to find a different reason for this than the new working model. On the flipside, there are an equal number of people who have been able to grow better in the new working world than they would have done formerly – these have found their own rhythm; created their own space for learning and discovered or reinvigorated hidden productivity levels – and many put this down to the increase in time spent away from the office.
The problems invariably come when employer and employee have different opinions of what’s best for an individual and an individual role – and as a number of companies are starting to introduce blanket rules across their business about what’s expected about time in the office, one thing’s for sure - there’s going to be more friction points going forward. As greater scrutiny on employee performance becomes the norm in 2023 and beyond, companies are going to look to put measures in place to ensure optimum performance and hybrid working is top of the list for review.
Most companies appear to be suggesting two days a week in an office as a minimum. The vibe appears to be that employers want more, but this is all that most employees are prepared to typically commit to. Employers appear frustrated that employees hold so much sway; employees are cross that employers don’t trust them to set their own working arrangements. A most unsatisfactory stand-off is ensuing, particularly when some companies are starting to push for three days and beyond. (Let’s face it, the old days of five days a week expected in the office will never be back on the table. Even four days is highly unlikely.)
However, we think that many companies are going about this the wrong way. Consensus is being looked for and it will never be found. Any defined rules that are imposed are likely to not please everyone.
Whether or not hybrid working is effective for a person is a matter for individual consideration AND consideration of an individual, not a corporate message from on high.
Instead we need to look at each individual job circumstance and evaluate the following:
- Individual employee preference.
- Individual role requirements.
- Individual development needs.
- The impact on other individuals.
Crucially, BOTH employer and employee need to respect all four points and look to find common ground and be prepared to flex on any ingrained assumptions.
Individual employee preference doesn’t need much discussion here – most people are pretty vocal if they have set criteria!
Individual role requirements – this is simply about the contact points of the role in question. Some roles will need greater face-to-face contact with others by their very nature. For example, if one’s day-to-day contact points are in different countries or other diverse geographical locations, there seems little justification for such a person to need to be physically in an office under this criteria alone.
Individual development needs – this needs to be a two-way conversation where different opinions and recommendations can be listened to and discussed in a non-emotive fashion. Both party’s views are of equal importance and may result in different views on office vs. home time.
The impact on other individuals – employees need to recognise that you are a cog in a wheel. The physical absence of a cog in an office may impact on the workings of a specific team or a business….and in this instance, the employer will usually be the more knowledgeable about what’s for the best.
I’d suggest too that the results of any evaluations along these lines are not carved out in granite for ever more. Individual development needs change; the needs of other team members change; role content requirements change – and therefore the requirement for greater or lesser office hours can change as time rolls by. What’s true of office time vs. home time at certain points of the year may differ in certain months too.
Can tech help?
A lot to think about for sure. I never thought I would write this, but maybe the time has finally come when psychometric testing and job evaluation technology has something positive to offer. Given we can’t always rely on either a company or an employee’s perspective about what kind of working environment would be most beneficial for all concerned, then we could look to the robots to tell us. The right kind of questioning could draw out what working scenarios different personalities would thrive in; what certain roles require or would find beneficial. Anyone come across any good companies offering such a service specifically in relation to hybrid working? If not, then there’s a free business suggestion for any budding entrepreneurs out there!
Creating a sense of team
Whichever way things end up, I suspect that most employees will find themselves in an office two days a week. And invariably people want different days! Another headache. Most companies are sensibly identifying core office days a week, but anomalies remain, and therefore the social aspects of office life as a whole collective remain unfixed.
There’s less call these days (for so many reasons) for the boozy evenings out of yesteryear; quite frankly, not everyone wants or sees the value in these anymore. In our view, employers therefore have to create time to create a team. And the only way is during working hours. Here at BLT, we’re trialling a few different options to suit all parties – approximately every six weeks, we as a team go out for a portion of the day to spend some quality time together – and maintain and develop those BLT colleague bonds that are so important to our working culture. This year we’ve enjoyed fairground games, clay pigeon shooting, cheese and wine tasting, ten pin bowling, posh afternoon tea, breakfast get togethers – anything that builds personal connections beyond the day job. Oh and a lot of us went to the pub too (old habits hard to break).
Still none the wiser?
Not many people or companies are. It’s rather uncharted territory after all! But we do think that companies who pride themselves on flexibility would do well to remember that each individual and role is different, with different needs. Consequently blanket rules about office vs home time are unlikely to prove popular or indeed advisable.
- Guy Barrand