The Hybrid Workplace: The First Step in Greater Employee Flexibility

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December 8, 2021


Of all the changes to the way we live and work brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most significant — and likely enduring — is the hybrid workplace.

A sizable percentage of the employees who were able to work from home during the pandemic have come to value the flexibility remote working provides. A recent Gallup survey found that 91 percent of U.S. workers who are working remotely want to continue to do so for at least a part of their weekly hours.

And it appears that some workers are willing to sacrifice some of the benefits of going to the office to maintain a remote way of working. Some employees are willing to accept pay cuts to continue working remotely while a large number say they’ll quit rather than return to the office , a factor contributing to the current “Great Resignation.”

Even many businesses committed to bringing their entire workforces back to the office on a full-time basis might find such plans to be impractical in a competitive labor market. Maintaining a mix of employees in the office and working remotely appears here to stay.

“Once employees have experienced flexibility, if you stop offering it, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage,” says John McLaughlin, chief commercial officer for Aon’s human capital practice. “So, if you’re not offering flexibility, then you need to make up for it elsewhere in your employer value proposition. Perhaps you’ll have to pay more than your more flexible competitors.”

In Depth

Much has been learned about remote work during the pandemic. Many organizations that were initially inclined to offer no workplace flexibility are now easing their stance.

“Employers have learned the core lesson that we can trust employees to get the job done,” says McLaughlin. “That will translate into a certain degree of flexibility for every organization.”

However, the move to hybrid work does come with some sector and regional limitations, cautions Ishita Goel, senior consultant in Human Capital Solutions, Southeast Asia at Aon. For example, she says, space limitations in many employees’ homes, like in cities such as Hong Kong, might make workers more inclined to return to the office than work from home.

Recognizing the Challenges of Hybrid Working Models

The hybrid working model presents challenges for managers as well as human resources issues for organizations.
Businesses’ approaches to hybrid work fall across a spectrum, with some offering no flexibility and others allowing employees to work remotely for part of the work week. Still others allow absolute flexibility, allowing workers to work remotely as much as they’d like from any location they choose.

Having some workers in the office and others working remotely will change the course of some career paths. It will also force managers to develop new skills as they interact with some workers face-to-face and others virtually.

“How do managers lead their people in those different working models?” asks Goel. “There is a tendency to regress to having everyone in front of you. So how do you maintain flexibility while treating everyone fairly and successfully driving work across those different environments?”

Managers will also need to be increasingly flexible when it comes to dealing with their teams, says McLaughlin.
“Managers will have to be more aware of what’s going on in employees’ lives and show a higher degree of empathy to their problems, because ultimately that’s how workers will remain productive,” he says. “Managers need to be empowered by the organization to think through managing their teams and allowing for flexibility when employees need it.”

And, as they deal with remote workers, the best managers will be able to serve as “cultural beacons” for their organization, McLaughlin says. These managers will play a vital role in promoting employee engagement and fill the void of cultural attachment to the business.

Some organizations are also considering how they might need to redesign human resources, compensation and benefits structures to address a hybrid workforce.

“One global company that I know has started using remote or hybrid working as a benefit to be given to employees,” says Goel. “Essentially one month a year, you go and work from anywhere.”

Employers also are beginning to look at compensation issues around differences in cost of living or taxation of employees who choose to work remotely in locales other than the office location.

Dealing Fairly with All Employees

Some employees’ tasks will make it impossible for them to do much of their work from home. Organizations must create equitable policies that apply to those workers as well their colleagues whose roles do lend themselves to remote work.

“We need to account for the realities of different roles and build that in from the get-go,” says McLaughlin. “To ensure that someone who works in a lab, for example, gets a degree of flexibility around how they do their work and potentially where they do their work will be a challenge. At the end of the day, you have to take the realities of the role into account.”

To ensure equity with working arrangements, organizations may need to make up for less flexibility with other arrangements and benefits.

Opening the Door to Greater Flexibility

With the pandemic and the move to remote work having opened the door to “where” we work with hybrid workplaces, the next issue around worker flexibility might be one of “when” we work, according to McLaughlin.

“Can we rethink the working week as a whole,” he asks. “Can we offer employees greater flexibility around, say, four-day working weeks or paying employees for the output they produce rather than the hours they spend working?”
In a tight labor market and with a growing emphasis among many employers on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, flexibility might be an important tool as employers look to meet their human capital goals.